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Celebrating Osibisa On Ghana’s Independence Day

Known for introducing African Music to European and North American audiences, The British-Ghanaian-Caribbean Afro-Rock band has been a beacon of light in the mission to make Afro-rock a marketable genre. This mission was successfully executed thanks to the band’s relentless effort, an effort that propelled them into national treasures and one of the greats to grace the band scene. For Imullar, on Ghana’s Independence Day, we celebrate the band’s story, From the ground up with four expatriates to innovative recording techniques and embracing other sounds, here’s how Osibisa morphed into one the most successful and longest-lived of the African-heritage bands.

The 70’s saw the emergence of new genres and artists which changed the music scene permanently. The days of Rock ‘n’ Roll, blues, and R&B dominating were temporarily over, replaced with a wide and interesting spectrum of genres, with disco, funk, and soul becoming arguably the most popular genres of the decade. However, Rock was far from dead. Glam rock, progressive rock, hard rock, punk, and early metal took to the stage. On the other side of the globe, specifically in West Africa, African psychedelic rock had already taken shape, with names like The Psychedelic Aliens, The Hykkers, and The Lijadu Sisters already on the rise, their emergence was a testament to how Africa’s Afro-Rock scene was shaping and how effective their style met fierce politics.

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By then, Ghana’s political agendas, practical challenges, and aspirations informed different forms of transnational student mobility in the ’50s, sparking a series of scholarships by the Ghana government, one of the variety of initiatives that involved Ghana during the period of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule (1957–1966), an initiative that benefited one of it’s founding members and leader, Teddy Osei, who was flown to London to study music. Teddy had a heavy music background, his semi-professional band “The Comets” along with his brother enjoyed popularity before he traveled to London in 1962, a band that it’s creation equipped him to become a saxophonist, a self-learned process due to the actual saxophonist missing practices for the band. His travel to London left the band behind, but his scholarship allowed him to study music for 3 years, till Nkrumah’s regime was disposed of in 1966. He teamed up with other students to form “Cat Paw” with members including Sol Amarfio(drums) and his brother MacTontoh, both future members of Osibisa.

Formation Of The Band

By 1969, Osei,(lead vocals, saxophone, flutes, percussion), Amarfio(drums, percussion), and MacTontoh’s(trumpet, horns, percussion) musical journey for a band had yielded results in the most natural form. Robert Bailey(keyboards, percussion), Wendell (Dell) Richardson(guitars, lead vocals, percussion), Abdul Loughty Lasisi Amao(flute, vocals, percussion), and Spartacus(bass, percussion, vocals) morphed into Osibisa, which in their album notes and interviews, meant “criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness”, but it comes from “osibisaba” the Fante word for highlife. Rooted in the core of highlife and progressive rock, their style harnessed elements of acid rock, jazz, Afro-funk, reggae, soul, calypso, and pop.

Musical Journey

Their self-titled debut album was released in 1971 under the American record label MCA, which later became part of the Universal Music Group. Osibisa debuted at number 55 on the US Billboard 200, and opened up their unique blend of African and Western-styled music to a wider audience, charting in Europe. Produced by Grammy-award-winning American producer, Tony Visconti, Osibisa’s extraordinary merger of colorful rhythms, rich African drum beats, and rock-inspired flair shone brightly over seven songs, making it an undisputed masterpiece with some of their most folky records, reflecting the influences of their culture. By 1980, the band had released their 8th studio album, “Mystic Energy”. It is their most important artistic leap, signaling a shift away from their trademark sound and leaning more towards the heavy demands of R&B. The band was at their best when playing Live, spending most of their time touring the world, their energetic output was met with positive feelings and new fans, urging them to create more Live albums, a feat that would become one of their strongholds. With 6 live albums to their name, “The Black Magic Night: Live at the Royal Festival Hall“, a double album recorded with live versions of songs from their previous albums. Throughout their 18 albums, their image and visual appearance helped mold their personality as a Ghanaian-British band. Their adoption of all African clothes -became a central strand in establishing the group’s particular public image. 

The “Flying Elephant”, which was a visual theme that spanned across most of their album covers, was first created by English artist and designer Roger Dean, an image that stuck with the band’s style and became like a “band Totem”. In an era where Psychedelia was a movement across various art forms that drew inspiration from a varied mix of sources like non-Western culture from places such as India and Tibet, fin de cycle Art Nouveau, Victoriana, and circus imagery, they stuck to their roots, making them one of the few bands with true identity.

Decline In Fame

Despite performing at a special concert for Zimbabwe’s independence in the 80s, there was a bit of a decline in their stardom, and this was due to multiple changes in record labels and an unstable British business strategy, labels demanding an adaptation to disco-style music which was growing into a more popular genre at that time. Osibisa were too deeply rooted in their origins to change their whole approach towards music. By the mid-80s, the group directed their attention to home, Ghana, where the music business was on a good trajectory. They set up a recording studio and theatre complex to help younger highlife musicians, a motive that brewed the next gen of highlife artists. 

Though the band lost some of its members to aging and illness, they are still regarded as one of the first African groups known worldwide, representing the early roots of the World Music movement. Osibisa continues to perform today despite their decilne in popularity, talking about a timeless band.

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The iMullar is the voice of emerging African music and the lifestyle that surrounds it, showcasing exceptional talent from all around the globe focused on promoting the most distinctive new artists and original sounds, we are the authority on who is next.