Shirtless, covered in sweat, energetically urging audiences to join in the music and playing high-pitched trumpet solos that sometimes ended with prolonged kisses on the instrument’s mouthpiece.
Mac Tontoh was a huge bundle of energy on stage but he quietly kissed goodbye to this world at the Korle Teaching Hospital in Accra last Monday, August 17 after battling with sickness for about one year that made it impossible for him to do what he loved most: playing music.
His life was made up of 69 years, a great deal of which was spent travelling the world and making people happy with the ground-breaking Osibisa band and later with his own Osibisa Kete group which he formed after coming back to settle in Ghana at No. 2 Osibisa Close, West Airport in Accra.
Many who knew him well fell silent with grief when they heard of his death but they are likely to always remember those stiffened, bulging cheeks as he hammered away on the trumpet and flugelhorn and doubled on kabasa and xylophones on Osibisa classics like Sunshine Day, Welcome Home, The Warrior and Dance the Body Music.
The Kumasi boy who loved the music of great jazz trumpeters like Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis and Don Cherry while growing up as Kweku Bronya (he was born on December, 25 1940) himself became an icon for some of the younger players he nurtured in his home which was for several years an open house for young folks eager to learn to play an instrument or improve on their skills.
After big brother Teddy Osei left for London in 1962 and other colleagues departed for Accra in search of greener pastures, Mac always remembered that it was his late mother who urged him on to also go to Accra and display the trumpet skills he had learnt and honed with the Kumasi-based Comets band which included Teddy.
In Accra he played with one of the Brigade bands and Uhuru before travelling to Hamburg in Germany in 1968, with the hope of moving on to join Teddy in London. Mac once explained how he got to London and how Osibisa came about.
“It was in 1969 and I had a call from Teddy that his Cat’s Paw band was going to Tunisia to do holiday gigs. So I flew there from Hamburg and met them and we started playing in a hotel. I had not seen Teddy for seven years so it was a happy re-union.
“Our guitarist then was Ebo Ansah. The bassist was a West Indian called Bubbles and the pianist was a Ghanaian called Tony. Teddy was on sax and Sol Amarfio played drums. I joined in on trumpet and we played mostly cover versions of popular songs.
“The other guys left when we went back to London, leaving Teddy, Sol and l to start something new. That new thing was Osibisa.”
After signing a deal with MCA Records, Osibisa took the world by storm with their exciting fusion of African music and Western pop and rock. The band rode high in the 1970s and 1980s in the charts of Europe, United States, Japan, India, Australia and other places.
In 1992, after being based in London for over two decades, Mac decided to move back home to Ghana in search of new inspiration. He set up his own studio in his home where he did most of the work on two albums he recorded under his name with a collection of local musicians he called The African Machine. The albums were Rhythms & Sounds and Rhythms, Sounds & Jazz.
He later moved on to the Osibisa Kete project which was an outcome of his constant search for new musical experiences.
Mac was always passionate about traditional African music and saw the Osibisa Kete, which he later called the Kete Warriors, as a crusade to take his trademark of African rhythms fused with jazz and rock to new frontiers.
The Kete Warriors toured the United Kingdom in 1999 and 2001 and played at the famous Edinburgh arts festival in Scotland.
Apart from playing actively here, Mac decided to devote some attention to serving the music and cultural community. He became a member of the National Commission on Culture and was also for a while the chairman of the Greater Accra branch of the Musicians Union of Ghana (MUSIGA).
He later had his differences with the general leadership of the union but he stayed commited to musicians getting due recognition and remuneration for their work.
In 2002 when the then new 20,000 cedi note came out bearing an image of the late music teacher and musicologist, Dr Ephraim Amu, Mac issued a press statement commending the government for having Amu’s image on the note. He said he saw the action as acknowledgement of the contribution of musicians and other creative persons to overall national development in this country.
He cared deeply about young musicians making progress in their chosen careers and the great British sax player, Courtney Pine, credits Mac for stimulating his interest in music as a teenager and introducing him to the rudiments of the business.
He took a special interest in children growing to appreciate music and was always ready to play with children or encourage them to learn music. He was the main pillar behind the youthful Warriors band that participated in the first edition of the Bands Alive contest on TV3.
He produced a single for the group and sometimes appeared at live shows with them.
Perhaps the best example of Mac’s effort to groom young talents is his son Frank, a world-class drummer and music director. Frank has worked with big-time acts like George Michael, Craig David and Amy Winehouse and praises his father for inspiring him to such high level in music. Apart from Frank, Mac has a daughter called Lily who lives in the United States.
Something else Mac loved to high heavens apart from music, was solving crossword puzzles and he had many books on it. He once said that though he started doing crosswords in Ghana, he got hooked to it in London.
“We travelled a lot and I always did two things on the plane: reading detective novels and doing crosswords. Let’s say we are going to Australia . I would be doing crosswords all the way. I don’t talk to the rest of the band at all. Maybe I play a bit of cards with them then I turn to my crosswords till we get to where we are going.
“Sometimes after a big show which had gone down well and all the guys want to go to a night club, I just enter my room, shower and just do crosswords.”
There were several things Mac wanted to do but they are all not possible now. He used to talk a lot about doing a concert to be called ‘Sketches of Mac Tontoh’ where he would play with different bands to illustrate the various types of music he had imbibed over the years.
He also had it in mind to do Afro-rock versions of some of Prof Kobena Nketia’s compositions for piano and flute.
Moreover, he, Teddy Osei, Sol Amarfio and other original members of Osibisa were looking forward to a last big romp of the band on another world tour. That, obviously, cannot be.
With Mac’s demise, he joins other former Osibisa members who have now passed on. They are keyboardist Kiki Gyan, percussionist Darku Potato, guitarist Paul Golly and saxist/percussionist, Loughty Lasisi Amao.
Mac’s trumpet and flugelhorn are muted forever and the world of music is the big loser.
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