By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published September 12, 2010
Accra, Ghana, is set to host a tribute concert to Mac Tontoh, the Ghaniain trumpeter, composer, arranger and producer and founding member of the world-famous Osibisa Band who passed away on August 16, 2010 on September 30, 2010; burial and funeral celebration follows thereafter in Kumasi, Ghana, on October 2, 2010. ArtMatters.Info’s BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI pays tribute to this pioneer of Afrorock music.
Teddy Osei, the late Tontoh’s elder bother and leader of Osibisa,says his younger brother’s “passion and strength helped drive Osibisa to the success it is. His love for everybody shone through.”
Saying Osibisa would not be the same without Tontoh’s influence, Osei describes Tontoh’s death as a great blow to modern live African music. “Mac was a founder member and his passion and strength helped drive Osibisa to the success it is today. His love for everybody shone through,” Osei told ArtMatters.Info.
“Besides organising young musicians and helping them to achieve great goals, Mac was a mentor to many young up-and-coming musicians. He contributed heavily to fusion music and particularly in traditional Ghana and African Music.”
Tontoh co-composed and arranged most of Osibisa Band’s memorable hits: Sunshine Day, Music For Gong Gong, and Welcome Home; he arranged Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika, Dance the Body Music, Celebration, Cherry Field, Kilele, Uhuru (the BBC Network Africa signature tune), Fire, Home Town, Akwaaba, Ayioko, Life Time, and Too Much Going On.
Besa Simons, a former Keyboardist in the Osibisa band and a close ally of the late Tontoh, says Ghana has lost a great hero.
“Tontoh was a symbol of Ghanaian and African cultural heritage who always portrayed the sense of Africanism in everything he did, including stage performances. Tontoh was a motivator and an inspiration to more young musicians,” he says.
Born “Kwaku Bronya” meaning Kwaku Christmas on December 25, 1940 in Kumasi, Tontoh tuned into jazz broadcasts on VOA and the BBC World Service from an early age. His local church trumpet-playing father encouraged him to pursue a career in music at a time when playing a horn in a band was not considered a serious occupation in Ashanti society.
Tontoh started playing the trumpet at the age of 17 with “The Comets,” based in Kumasi and led by his elder brother Osei. The Comets became very popular in Ghana and Nigeria during the early 1960s for highlife and jazz, and Tontoh soon emerged as one of the leading and most progressive Ghanaian hornsmen, fusing the modern jazz styles of trumpeters such as Miles Davis and Clifford Brown with West African highlife.
Following his move to Accra, Tontoh spent a stint with the Brigade Band of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, which played mainly at state functions, before joining the now legendary Uhuru Band. Uhuru, the first big band of its king in Africa was a big band which played its own brand of highlife as well as hits from American composers such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller.
Uhuru were very popular all over West Africa, and their fame spread when they played at Malawi’s independence celebrations in 1964 and toured Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1965. During his time with Uhuru, Tontoh also ran a smaller jazz combo, the Bogart Sounds Sextet, made up of the pick of Uhuru’s sidesmen.
Still searching for new horizons, Tontoh left Ghana for Europe in 1968. At first he stayed in Hamburg, Germany, playing in various jazz clubs in the St. Pauli area. Then, after a rendezvous with his brother Osei and drummer Sol Amarfio in Tunisia, the trio traveled to London in 1969 to form the band which was to set the world alight with its ground-breaking fusion of African music and western pop and rock; Osibisa.
“During the 1970s and 1980s Osibisa toured virtually every corner of the globe, and Mac became a complete performer, playing not only his trumpet but also marimba, percussion and digeridoo, and he established a rapport with audiences which few could equal,” btinternet.com notes. The band’s music sold in millions the world over.
Apart from his activities with Osibisa, Tontoh also became part of the London “scene” of the 1970s, playing horn sessions for rock luminaries the Rolling Stones, Peter Green and Elton John.
Osibisa played before 25,000 people in Harare during Zimbabwe’s independence party in 1980. In 1983 Osei and Tontoh collaborated with an all-star Ghana line-up on the highly acclaimed album Highlife Stars 1.
After more than twenty years of living in London or on the road, Tontoh returned to his African roots for fresh inspiration, moving back to Ghana in 1992 to set up his own recording studio in Accra with the help of producer/engineer Mike Swai.
According to btinternet.com, Tontoh and Swai then set about searching for and collaborating with some of the most dynamic and talented young Ghanaian musicians. The first product of this new phase was Tontoh’s first solo album, Rhythms and Sounds (1994), which featured a jazz-tinged contemporary take on some classic Ghanaian highlife styles together with some hard-hitting African funk whose energy and punch recalled Tontoh’s early days with Osibisa.
Rhythms and Sounds re-established Tontoh as a musical force to be reckoned with in Ghana, and several tracks from the album have become national institutions through their frequent use by Ghana Broadcasting Corporation Television (GBCTV).
Following the release and successful promotion of this first solo album, Tontoh decided to look deeper into the musical traditions of his own people, the Ashanti.
Tontoh decided to form a new band, “Kete Warriors” and went to his home town, Kumasi, to look for drummers and singers who were well versed in the Kete and Adowa styles of the region. He brought his new group to Accra.
“The new fusion of jazz and traditional Ashanti rhythms which emerged from this group confirmed Mac’s status at home as a truly vital force in contemporary Ghanaian music,” btinternet.com notes. They performed at various national events in Ghana including the funeral of the recently deceased Asantehene (King of Ashanti), Otumfuo Opoku Ware II.
Tontoh toured the UK with the Kete Warriors in 2000 and 2001 to a rapturous reception from British audiences. Since returning to Ghana after the group’s successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2001, Tontoh had taken a break from making music and concentrated on his work with the Ghana National Commission on Culture. The Kete Warriors are now forging ahead in their own right with the blessing of their master.
Tontoh performed for the 2008 CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Award finalists and judges in Accra in July 2008 with the Kete Warriors, at the residence of the group executive chairman of Safebond Africa Limited, Krobo Edusei Jnr.
“I am bringing up these young musicians and they are the best coming out of Ghana now,” Tontoh told ArtMatters.Info then.