By John Collins
Kofi Ayivor’s career spans a vast range of African and African American music: from traditional African drumming to old time Ghanaian big-band Highlife of the 1950’s, from the Afro-rock fusions of the 1970’s to Black funk, reggae and jazz.
Kofi Ayivor has also become an Ambassador for Ghanaian music worldwide. Over the years he has played in Europe, the Americas, the Middle and Far East. He has worked with British rock groups, with Alexis Korner’s blues band, with Turkish musicians and dancers and with European classical symphonies and ballet schools. He also worked on film scores such as one by Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman and the American Superfly movie. In recent years he has settled and worked in Holland.
Kofi belongs to the Ewe ethnic group of Ghana and was born in Nigeria where his father worked. In 1949 when Kofi was ten years old he and his family returned to Denu – and it was here in the Ewe area of south-eastern Ghana that is so famous for its poly rhythmic drumming that Kofi began to learn percussion. His uncle who was a master drummer of the town taught him, but Kofi’s father wanted him to become a doctor. However, Kofi was so eager to play that in spite of his father’s opposition he would walk a twenty mile round trip to Lomé, the capital of neighboring Togo to watch top Ghanaian highlife dance-bands like King Bruce’s Black Beats and E.T. Mensah’s Tempos, who sometimes would allow him to play maracas with them.
When he finished school in 1959 Kofi went to Accra and got a job as a lift operator and went to see E.T. Mensah at his pharmacy shop at Zion Street. Fortunately, E.T.’s wife was a Nigerian from Calabar who knee Kofi’s father and so convinced her husband to take Kofi into the Tempos band. And the first thing E.T. had to do was buy Kofi some suitable clothes, for as Kofi told me – “in those days musicians had to wear trousers, white shirt and bow-ties”. Kofi, in fact, became the youngest member of the Tempos and played the bongos drum. Kofi’s first recordings were with them in 1959 and many his first efforts can be heard on two CD’s re-released on London’s Retroafric label in the 1990’s which includes what Kofi told me was the first song on which he ‘graduated’ to congas, ie. Gbaa Anokwale, a highlife sung in Ga.
After two years of playing with The Tempos he joined trombonist Tommy Grippman’s Red Spots highlife band as a conga drum player and also played with the Gagarin Dance Band of the Ghana Trade Union Congress, named after the famous Russian cosmonaut.
Then Kofi teamed up with four Italians in Accra who belonged to the Silvio Cambert cabaret group that played Cuban and Latin American music. In 1963 the Italians asked Kofi to pick three other Ghanaian musicians to accompany them to Italy. They stayed there for three months and then the eight of them drove in a Fiat car through Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey heading for Bagdad and its Ali Baba Club there where Afro-Cuban music was popular. At one point they got lost in the desert and had to follow some camel drivers.
In Bagdad they also had to play Turkish music and accompany the belly dancer Princess Amina. However, the Italians could not play this style of music for as Kofi explains – “Turkish music was in 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 time and the Italians couldn’t play it as their syncopations were never there, but we Ghanaians were playing it within three minutes – which led to friction and the band scattered.”
Kofi stayed with Princess Amina for four years and toured the Far East, Europe and West Africa with her, finally parting company with her in Sweden.
In Sweden Kofi played music and rhythms at the National Ballet School and also put together a band with some West Indian friends called Modern Sounds (that included steel drums) that toured all over Scandinavia. One of the songs that Kofi composed for the band called Otinku was recorded by EMI in 1969. Between gigs the ever-dynamic Kofi played with the Swedish Symphony orchestra and with visiting jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughn.
In 1973 and after a performance in Oslo, Kofi was invited to join the London based Ghanaian Afro-rock band Osibisa whose leaders, Teddy Osei, Mac Tontoh and Sol Amarfio he knew well from Ghana, where they had all been dance-band highlife musicians.
The first record he made with them was Superfly TNT which was the soundtrack of a film about an African American in East Africa. Then Osibisa signed with Warner Brothers and did the Happy Child and Osibirock albums. In 1975 they signed up with Bronze Records and released Welcome Home. Three of Osibisa’s successful songs were written by Kofi: Happy Children, Somaja, and Kilele.
In 1977 Osibisa played at the FESTAC Black Arts Festival in Nigeria and in Ghana (where I first met Kofi) – and then went on tour of the West Indies. However, Kofi became tired of touring and left Osibisa and stayed in London as he had become married to a lady from Surinam. The first thing he did in London was release a disco album on the Bronze label with the recently deceased Ghanaian keyboard player Kiki Gyan (24 Hours in the Disco) who had also left Osibisa at the same time. Kofi also played on the Che Che Kule album of the Ghanaian trumpeter Eddie Quansah recorded in the newly opened 24-track Island Records studio in London. While living in London he did lots of session work with such diverse bands as Thin Lizzy and Glencoe and Eddy Grant from Guyana. And at that time he and the Osibisa crew also regularly jammed with the likes of Steve Winwood and Traffic.
Then Kofi moved into producing himself and helped Hi Tension, a funk band made up of young West Indians that Kofi knew. Kofi got them a deal with Island Records as its manager Chris Blackwell was a friend of his. Kofi and Alex Sadkin, Bob Marley’s engineer, co-produced two albums for this Black British funk band and two songs called Hi Tension and British Hustle went to thirteen and eight respectively in the British music charts. Then in 1979 and with the help of Eddie Grant (on guitar and trap-drums) and his Coach.Studio he recorded his first very own EP “Kofi” that included top Ghanaian and Nigerian musicians such as Kiki Gyan, Jake Solo, Mike Odumosu, Ray Allen and Dora Ifudu. (see Notes on Songs). Just before moving to the Netherlands·with his Surinamese wife, in 1980 Kofi went on tour of the Caribbean and the States with Jimmy Cliff and recorded some tracks for him.
After the move he first settled in the north of the Netherlands in the town of Stadskanaal where he did a number of gigs with his own band called KofiCo. It was at this time he also played congas in the band Pili Pili lead by Dutch pianist Jasper van’t Hof at the time when Angelique Kidjo was its featured vocalist. After this Kofi and his family moved to the Amsterdam in 1987 where he taught African percussion at the Royal Tropical Museum as well as to numerous Dutch school children and musicians.
In the mid-nineties Kofi was asked by his old buddies at Osibisa to record on their 1995 Monsore album which led to them reuniting for a long series of occasional live gigs that continues to this day. Yet another old musical friend, Eddy Grant asked Kofi to play drums and congas in a band he set up to play a set of Eddy’s hits at the live concert to mark the ringing in of the new millennium called the Ringbang 2000 celebrations which were held on Tobago and which has subsequently been released on Ice Records. Since the late nineties and the first years of the new century Kofi has been gigging with Osibisa, and a recent memorable event was their performance at the Capetown South Africa edition of the North Sea Jazz festival, interspersed with his own annual summer gigs in Poland performing his own material with fellow Ghanaian Gilbert Amar (Chi-Kin-Chi) and backed by the well known local formation – the Maleo Reggae Rockers. Kofi’s very latest musical collaboration is in a project led by Zambian born drummer Michael Baird, called African Abstractions.