His name is Ebo Taylor

He sits before me in his black hat, slanted awkwardly in a typical showman fashion to accompany the sunglasses he dons.

The combination of patched blue and white that makes the bulk of the colours on his shirt and the black trousers held up by the black belt with a gold buckle, though modest, screams class.

Nothing, however, beats the air of confidence and achievement that surrounds this man known by the world as composer, guitarist, arranger, bandleader, and producer.

Before collaborations with world renowned musicians such as Fela Kuti and tours in countries such as Malaysia and a dozen countries, he says of his beginnings, “Entering the sixth form, I decided to become a musician so I learnt much more about the guitar instead of the piano; I was originally playing piano.”

Born in Cape Coast in 1936, he tells me he had a teacher for a father and a trader for mother both of whom according to him, “were a great influence on who I am today”. Education stared at Jubilee school and was continued at attended St. Augustine’s College where he immersed himself into the world of music.

“How did you learn how to play the guitar?” I ask.

“There were some students who played guitar and I begged them to teach me”, he says simply. However when born talent meets opportunity, “along the line, I became very conversant with the guitar and I could play it better than those people who taught me and I found myself on the stage every Saturday for school entertainment”.

Surprisingly he tells me, smiling, “I strayed into professional music” when he was invited to Accra to join the Havana Dance Band as a guitarist at the age of 19. Whether it was for the fame or money, he did not say but after tours to Ivory Coast and Monrovia he migrated from both band and location when he joined the Stargazers Band in Kumasi. When I pushed he only said they were “more popular with highlife”.

You might consider it divine intervention because it was with this same band he got his first studio recording experience. “I played some of the outstanding solos that became ‘household whistling’ (gesturing) and I became popular”, he hinted. He was soon on another journey of discovery and joined the Broadway Dance Band where he started out as one of the composers and ending up its music director.

After a year, he was off again but this time because he had been sacked. My raised eyebrows prompted some explanation, “I was sacked from the band for smoking; it’s not legal but they wouldn’t permit me to smoke in the band so they sacked me. I was the only culprit”.

With assistance from his parents and the Ghana government, he enrolled at the Eric Gilder School of Music where he enjoyed the comradeship of schoolmates like Teddy Osei, Saul Amafio and Eddie Quansah for three years. He formed the Black Star Highlife band in 1963 and recorded several great hits with musicians like George Akins whom he described as the “the most outstanding vocalist of his time”.

The lure and love for his home country (plus the fact that he had completed his studies) brought him back where he reformed the Broadway Dance Band with greats like Pat Thomas and the late Tommy King. The band eventually became the genesis of the Uhuru Band. The magnet of the city life pulled him to play for the Blue Monks Band at Tiptoe after which and became a recording artiste for Esi Bons and Polygram.

When he was not recording his own work, he was working as an Artiste and Repertoire Manager for Essiebons which led him to produce “the maiden albums” of artistes like Gyedu Blay Ambulley, CK Mann, Paapa Yankson, Jewel Ackah. “While this went on, the country was hit by continuous military rule and night club life entirely banned by curfew so a lot of musicians went away to England and America.”

What did he do?

He tells me he stayed on and played with Bands like African Revolution. However when contracts in Abidjan and Lagos came calling some years after, he was also forced to leave. He however returned shortly after and dedicated the next nine years of his life to teaching music at the University of Ghana.

A “jam session” with a Berlin based group known as the Afrobeat Academy at the Du Bois Center led to an invitation to into the studio for what was to be a journey of album production, tours and a rejuvenation of what was becoming a forgotten passion.

With a combination of traditional Ghanaian material with Afro-beat, jazz, and funk rhythms to create his own recognizable sound, he released Love and Death on Strut Records in 2010, his first internationally distributed album. Its success prompted the release of Life Stories: Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980, in 2011. He is currently promoting his third Strut album, Appia Kwa Bridge at the age of 76.

“I played in Holland, I played in Sicily, I played in Portugal, I played in Spain, I played in Italy, I played in Sweden, I played in Denmark, I played in Norway, I even played in faraway Japan and I also came to play in Brazil and in Morocco”. All this he said he did in two years.

He says he is back home for four months. He represents highlife music in Ghana. He typifies the phrase “the best comes from the West”.

His name is Ebo Taylor.

Welcome Home

When you get that feeling in your tummy and hear a voice announce you are descending into the town and the movie you are watching in the plane has 30 more minutes to go, then, I guess, you know it’s not really a dream.

At least that’s how I felt when the plane descended into OR Tambo airport.

I am not sure if I was to expect anything different though. Maybe the look of organization about the lives of the people I could see through the windows, or the feeling I was no longer in my home country, Ghana, or something! Whatever It was that I felt, I knew this was for real.

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I speak to Bisi Olaleye of ‘The Sun’ newspaper in Nigeria. She does not talk much but then when she does (and lays on you the full arsenal of her Nigerian accent), you realize it does pay to know people from other cultures.

How they speak of their mother continent, the corruption, the roads, their children (I know I also realize she was getting personal) and so many others; makes you realize just how much we as Africans have in common.

BUT, there is always one thing that captures my imagination above all else as i arrive in this country called South Africa (and no, it’s not the flag).

There is a warm breeze of ‘welcome home’ that fills the air I suck into my body. There is a ‘welcome home’ smile that greets me when I hand over my passport to the man at the immigration who usually says something along the lines of “Black Stars!”

There is a ‘welcome home’ atmosphere in the arrival lounge where despite the diversity of the cultures staring at you and hoping you will be the one they have to meet, there is a feeling of safety in the knowledge that all is well.

From an advantaged position in in the plane as the descent begins, I see a country well organised, well thought through, mostly green and ready to accommodate. With an impressive edifice of an airport to boast of as the first point of contact with South Africa, it is not rocket science why ‘Madiba land’ fills the hearts of the Africans with pride.

I am not sure which comes first for South Africans when making a choice on what to consume but if my first meal at the airport is anything to go by, then survival in this beautiful country for a West African 27 year old man is very limited.

Either too much spice (as with the hotdog at the airport), or as I found out at a dinner on Monday night, plain rice without gravy; maybe, just maybe, the food in the town could be different but with the places I have been exposed to, it will be a struggle.

However the spice that the scenery offers, as I discovered on our drive from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, completely changes the favour.

It was the most difficult duty keeping up with the landscape, the wildlife and the diversity. At every turn, the team in the bus I was travelling in had to adjust to take pictures. The experience bordered on limits of childhood fantasy and unreserved admiration.

In Ghana, the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ would most likely be interrupted by an occasional bump in the road or a wild swerve and maneuvering by the driver. Our journey to Grahamstown however had more and more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ than the backing vocals from a ballad by Nat King Cole.

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The Telkom Highway Africa Conference, for which reason I find myself in South Africa was a true opener. A humbling experience like none I had felt before. The passion of broadcasters from across the world, the urgency with which journalists want to transform a continent rising, the inspiration I gather from the youth of the Rhodes University and the hospitality of the people of Grahamstown. In life I believe there is little that compares to such a cornucopia of emotion.

From issues of corruption, covering conflict situations, ethics in the internet era to the revelations into how much of our information we ‘share’ unknowingly with the world and on the future on journalism on the African continent, humbling is the best way to describe it.

For three days I network, talk, adjust, shiver, over sleep, eat, drink, party, cry, and feel virtually every human emotion there is to be felt in this country of contrasts. The diversity and contracts however blend and adjust to accommodate my shocks and surprises as I move through the town of Grahamstown.

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Though it feels strange that the world outside the walls of the 9th best school in Africa is in sharp contrasts with the life on the campus, one gets a sense things could be changing for the people of Grahamstown.

And maybe it is because of the conference that the people I interact with seem so nice, or maybe it’s because of Rand I paid for the conference that I am offered assistance everywhere I go, or better still maybe it is because I am a nice guy; whichever! But nothing beats the warmth I feel inside when I hear the words of Nicky Hlanze saying, ‘welcome home’.

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