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‘Happiness was our vibe’

Angela Cobbinah talks to Teddy Osei, founder and leader of legendary ‘sunshine’ band Osibisa, which has just released a new studio album

I’M sitting in the London front room of acclaimed saxophonist Teddy Osei as he guides me through his glory days with Osibisa, the band he founded some 50 years ago to take Britain and the rest of the world by storm.

In place of the usual family photographs, his walls and shelves are adorned with the many gongs Osibisa have earned with their infectious Afro-rock sound, alongside reproductions of their trademark ‘flying elephant’ album covers.

There’s plenty to talk about and every so often Eric Carboo, aka Lord Eric Sugumugu, long-time musical collaborator and good friend who has come to visit, jumps into a conversation that begins with Teddy’s youth in  Ghana as a member of  a chart-topping highlife band before arriving in London in 1962 as an unknown 25-year-old.

Felled by a stroke more than a decade ago and more or less confined to barracks, Teddy no longer has the puff to play the sax let alone fill a stage with his imposing vocals. But he is still very much in the driving seat, overseeing the production of New Dawn, Osibisa’s first studio album in 12 years, whose recent release marks the 45th anniversary of their first UK singles chart hit, Sunshine Day.

“It was time to get the Osibisa drums banging again,” says Teddy, who made his last appearance with the band at London’s Barbican concert hall in 2015. “Recording the album during lockdown was not easy as the musicians could not be in the same studio together. But we were determined to create a collection of melodic happiness and we are immensely proud of it.”

It is a polished affair but don’t expect the jazzy ‘criss cross rhythms’ that made Osibisa famous. This has an altogether softer feel, more funk than Afro-rock and featuring female vocalists for the first time. The personnel also includes highlife guitarist Kari Bannerman from a previous iteration of the band as well as keyboardist Robert Bailey and drummer Sol Amarfio, two members of Osibisa’s original line-up that Teddy put together in 1969.

Born in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city, Teddy’s musical pedigree goes back a long way. “I had wanted to be a musician ever since my father took me to the Asantehene’s palace to listen to the drummers,” he recalls.  Having taught himself to play the saxophone, Teddy joined the Stargazers Dance Band alongside Amarfio before launching the Comets with his brother, the trumpeter Mac Tontoh, going on to have a huge hit with Pete Pete in 1958.

Teddy Osei today

“In Ghana I was a name but not in England,”  he says of his arrival here. Having studied draughtsmanship and worked as a building inspector back home, he had intended to follow a conventional path and study architecture. But he found himself in the midst of ‘Swinging London’ where a lively club and dance hall scene dominated by West African and Caribbean musicians had emerged, among them Lord Eric, who played with Ginger Johnson and his African Drummers. With the help of a Ghana government scholarship, he enrolled instead at the Eric Gilder School of Music in Oxford Street.

“I already knew how to sing and play the sax, flute and drums, but I needed to develop my skills,” he tells me. “And I did. It was a very good school for the three years I attended. Fela, Labbi Siffre and Ebo Taylor [a Ghanaian guitar virtuoso and arranger] all went there, and it was very handy for being close to all the Soho clubs.” He breaks into a smile. “My aim was to play professionally so I began to look for other Ghanaians who could join me.” It was not that difficult because London was full of Ghanaian students, many of them earning money on the side as session musicians.

The result was Cat’s Paw, which eventually included Tontoh, brought over from Germany at Teddy’s request, and his old mate Amarfio. The band started out playing mostly soul and pop covers in clubs and Town Hall dances before touring Europe and doing a three-month stint at a tourist hotel in Tunis. “We played a little bit of highlife, jazz, and James Brown, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett – at the time American soul music was being played everywhere.”

As they sharpened up their act, they began writing their own material, which, though they didn’t know it at the time, would one day form the basis of their first two albums. “We started to write new songs for a new sound, a unique mix of highlife, rock, blues and jazz – ‘Afro-rock’, though we didn’t call it that then. We made a good living but by the time we got back to London people had forgotten all about us and there was nothing happening.”

Broke but not wanting to lose momentum, Teddy and co began rehearsing the songs in his basement flat in Gillespie Road, Finsbury Park, just within earshot of the roar of the crowds at Arsenal football stadium. “My landlady was Greek and didn’t mind us playing our music,” he chuckles. Several other musicians joined them, three of them originally from the Caribbean.

“The foundation had been laid but they made the music more exciting and more unique. I called the group Osibisa to reflect where the music came from, Fante New Town in Kumasi, where all different kinds of music were developed. ‘Osibi’ means highlife and ‘sa’ means to dance.”

Once they went out on the road, Osibisa quickly developed a following, especially among a young white crowd who were looking for something different. They loved the band’s African get-up, the twisted dreadlocks of bass guitarist Spartacus R, and the rock guitar licks of Wendell Richardson. For black youngsters, seemingly cast adrift in a hostile Britain, Osibisa would become a source of cultural pride.

During one gig in 1970, Stevie Wonder was so impressed he asked if he could jam with them on stage. “After that, Stevie and I became very tight friends and he jammed with us again during our appearance at Festac in 1977 in Lagos stadium in front of 80,000 people,” says Teddy.

The band started getting more and more noticed, just by word of mouth even though they mostly played in pubs and small clubs. “Everybody was talking about this new sound. Then Bronze Records, who had Uriah Heap, Manfred Mann and Marianne Faithful on their books, came to listen to us play at the Tollington Arms pub [in north London]. They liked what they saw and signed us there and then. For a black band to have a white management was quite a thing then.”

But there was to be an even bigger breakthrough when Mike Maitland, head of MCA International, flew in from the US to watch them perform at the London School of Economics. “After the gig he came to our dressing room and announced ‘Now you are my babies’. It was an amazing moment. After that, we just exploded.”

Within months Osibisa had released their eponymous debut album on both sides of the Atlantic and were embarking on a tour of the US. Woyaya followed soon afterwards. Both reached No.11 in the 1971 UK album charts with a collection of wonderfully warm and exuberant tracks. When I ask Teddy about the hyperactive ’Oranges’, a favourite of mine, he tells me it is one of the numbers he wrote. “It is the band’s ’Strawberry Fields’ song, as in the Beatles,” Lord Eric adds on a cryptic note. Teddy’s own favourite and released a few years later is Sunshine Day from the album Welcome Home, which reached No 17 in the UK singles charts in 1976 and epitomises the band’s feel-good vibe.

New Dawn, Osibisa’s latest release

Osibisa proved prolific, recording one album after another, and spending the rest of the time touring internationally, taking in rammed concerts in Africa, in addition to making appearances on the BBC’s flagship music show, Top of the Pops and enjoying their second UK singles chart hit with Dance the Body Music. “The reception was always wilder than wild and we were the talk of the town for a long time. It was phenomenal,” remarks Teddy, going on to wax lyrical about a sell-out tour of India, leading to the 1982 the album Unleashed – Live in India, which received a gold disc.  “They loved us in Australia, Japan and the US but India was a place we conquered without expecting to,” he says with evident pride.

Didn’t you find touring gruelling, I ask, recalling all those stories of tour burnout from other musicians? Teddy looks momentarily bemused as if it is an odd question, then responds, grinning, “No, after doing the hard work in the studio, the time to enjoy is when you are on stage.”

At my mention of Afro-beat king Fela, he says, “I met Fela several times and he was a real fan of ours.”

“Fela got all his rhythm side from Ghana,” Lord Eric chips in, with Teddy nodding in agreement, adding, “Fela was calling on people to take action I just wanted to make them smile.”

Despite the passage of time and several changes in the line-up occasioned by age, death and just moving on, Osibisa remains a key part of contemporary musical history, an ‘African’ band that was nevertheless British and went mainstream, musically innovative and with an unusually wide appeal. And it is still going strong.

What was the secret of their success?  Teddy relaxes into another smile. “Our music was exciting and inspired bands all over the world. We brought people together and made them happy. That is Osibisa’s legacy. ”

New Dawn is out now on Marquee Records

This article is published in the September-October edition of Africa Briefing Magazine


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