Osibisa, pioneers of afro-rock in the UK

It was the summer of 1969 and aspiring musician Eric Carboo found himself at the heart of an event that quickly became part of rock history. It was the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park attended by an estimated crowd of half a million. But Carboo hadn’t gone along to watch – he was part of the band, writes Adwoa Korkoh

“It was an incredible experience,” he recalls. “I had never played before so many people. Some had even climbed trees to get a better view.”

Lord Eric played alongside Mick Jagger at historic Hyde Park concert

Carboo, the future Lord Eric, was one of a number of African percussionists who had been brought on stage for the Stones’ final number, the samba-inflected Sympathy for the Devil.  Led by Ginger Johnson, a member of TV cabaret favourite the Edmundo Ros Orchestra, their appearance signalled rock music’s thirst for something fresh.

“Jagger was experimenting with a new vibe and it was our presence at Hyde Park that really brought African rhythms into the mainstream,” says Carboo, originally from Ghana.

Dudu Pukwana, part of South African cultural exodus to the UK

The event is highlighted in Black Sound, an exhibition at London’s Black Cultural Archives examining 100 years of black music in the UK, starting with the arrival of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra from the US in 1919 and ending with singer Ray BLK winning the BBC’s Sound of 2017 award.

As much a reflection of empire and Commonwealth immigration, the bulk of black musicians in Britain in the inter- and post-war years came directly from the Caribbean, at first mostly from Trinidad, which had a well-developed music scene centred on calypso, and later, as immigration accelerated with the demand for Commonwealth labour, from Jamaica.

The African music contingent, though smaller, had a lively sideshow going on. In 1945 a troupe of Nigerian musicians in traditional dress were the talk of the town following their sensational appearance at the 1945 end-of-war celebrations in Trafalgar Square. They were led by Ambrose Campbell, who would go on to form the West African Rhythm brothers, house band of one of Soho’s most popular night spots, the Abalabai Club.

Osibisa, pioneers of afro-rock in the UK

Unlike Campbell, a former seaman who had jumped ship, most Africans in Britain had come to further their studies. They included one Fela Ransome-Kuti, a student of  the Trinity College of Music who would soon cut his first single, Fela’s Special, in 1959, and future Osibisa frontman Teddy Osei, who arrived in 1961 to study music and drama.

There was also a significant number of musicians who were part of the cultural exodus from apartheid South Africa, among them jazzers Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo-Moholo and Mongezi Feza, who would go on to form the core of the Blue Notes and, later, Assagai.

The young Fela had worked with London-based independent label Melodisc, which was attempting to diversify from its main business of calypso, at the time hugely popular in the UK’s ballrooms and jazz clubs. Owner Emil Shallit saw big money in West African highlife thanks to a ready-made market of Ghanaian, Sierra Leone and Nigerian students in London. Up until then, the only highlife that was available was recorded in Africa by the likes of EMI and Decca.

Among the artists to sign with Melodic were the aforementioned Campbell, Ebo Taylor’s Black Star Highlife Band,  Ginger Johnson and his Afro Band, Tunji Sowandei, Victor Coker and his All Stars and Enoch and Christy Mensah. The music was a jazzified version of highlife, which though criticised for diluting regional styles, proved hugely popular.

Africans were also in demand as session musicians for the emerging rock and blues bands of the 1960s like the Stones, Traffic, the Animals and the Small Faces, all eager to explore music of other cultures and give an edge to their sound.

Teddy Osei in later years

That’s how Ginger Johnson and his African Drummers, later known as the Messengers, got the Hyde Park gig.  The line-up also included Nigerian drummer Jimmy Scott-Emuakpor, who was good friends with Paul McCartney. Scott-Emuakpor had a catchphrase ‘ob la di, ob la da’ –  ‘such is life’ in Yoruba – which became the title of one McCartney’s future songs. Carboo, in the meantime, went on to work with McCartney and Wings on the Live and Let Die film soundtrack.

Some musicians became permanent fixtures, like  percussionist Speedy Acquaye, who always played with jazz and blues outfit Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames dressed in traditional Ghanaian attire.

By the 1970s the UK’s black community had evolved and now included a second generation for whom Britain was home rather than the Caribbean or Africa. In 1971 a band appeared on TV’s Top of the Pops, which encapsulated this in their mash up of African, Caribbean, jazz and rock music. They were called Osibisa and the track they performed was Music for the Gong Gong.

Made up of three Ghanaians, a Nigerian, a Trinidadian, an Antiguan and a Grenadan, they had come together in 1969 and were swiftly signed by MCA International after the company boss flew over from the US to see them live at a LSE gig.

Osibisa capitalised on the afro-rock scene sparked in by Ginger Johnson and co and enjoyed two best selling albums, Osibisa and Woyoya before fading from view. Assagai, which also included London-based Nigerians Fred Coker and Bizo Muggikana and singer and pianist Terri Quaye, became one of the best known groups that followed in Osibisa’s wake.

In 1975, the weekly Limpopo Club started out at the Africa Centre in London’s Covent Garden to become one of the most important venues for live African bands. With Limpopo regular and  juju music sensation Sunny Ade signed to Island Records in 1981, African music looked like becoming the ‘next big thing’ and record companies were falling over themselves to sign up the likes of Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour.

However as Black Sound co-curator Lloyd Bradley points out in his best selling book Sounds Like London, African music became absorbed into what became known as ‘world music’ and found itself diminished as a result.

As for homegrown bands like Osibisa and Assagai, they were unable to maintain their pioneering thrust.  “The biggest barrier was that there was no London African controlled scene to incubate such a style, or exclusive enough or young enough to get properly going,” explains Bradley, adding that the children of African immigrants were more likely to follow the soul and reggae scenes beloved of black British youth than afro-rock

Today though some of the biggest names in popular music  are third generation Africans – Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempeh, Skepta and Stormzy among them. As representatives of multicultural Britain in full swing, they have helped open up an entirely new chapter in the history of black music.

Black Sound is at the Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Sq, London SW2 1EF, until February 17. Tel 0203 757 8500 for more details