A Chat with Osibisa (26.04.21)

Known as the Godfathers of Afrorock, Osibisa has put its stamp on the music world since the 1970s. After decades of nothing, the band returns with a refreshing sound in their album, New Dawn. We speak with Gregg Kofi Brown and Robert Bailey about New Dawn, musical achievements, finding new music and future plans.

OSR: What drew you to music?

Gregg Kofi Brown: My mother was a dancer and singer in her youth. She encouraged me when it was obvious I had a passion for music. My stepfather was a jazz musician who played with organist Jimmy McGriff. I used to sing street corner harmony with my cousins. I played cello and bass violin in an orchestra and sang in church and school choirs.

Robert Bailey: I was attracted to music from an early age and remember being fascinated by the sound of the piano from a very early age. Winifred Atwell left her piano in my Nan’s Holborn flat, and whenever my father would play it I insisted on making my contribution continually banging on the keys, much to his annoyance.  I saw the great Jackie Wilson and Johnny Mathis in concert in the then called British Guiana. I would also love listening to the big-bands of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie on my parents’ records.

Aged 10-13yrs. I was back in England attending school. The first instrument I learnt to play was the recorder, and I particularly loved the look of the music notation. During this period the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Cliff Richard and the Shadows were all making waves, and I started feeling the urge to be part of this scene. My Nan then bought me an acoustic guitar and started me off paying for me to have a few lessons. From that moment on I continued teaching myself and many years later also the piano.

OSR: New Dawn is the first album in two decades, why the delay in a new studio album release?

Gregg Kofi Brown: When our founder Teddy Osei retired duo to ill health it too some time for the band to settle and get focused.

Robert Bailey: After the initial success of Osibisa’s first five albums, I think the band had lost its way. Four of the original members had left and the original music that had inspired the band was lost. I eventually left to pursue some studies in orchestration and arranging. I had always kept in touch with Teddy, Sol Amarfio and Mac Tontoh, even doing the occasional gig with the band. However, I felt that they had not progressed musically to any degree. The band had released a number of recordings, but I felt that most of the material during this period was a rehash of all the earlier music.

When Teddy asked me to participate in making the new album, I suggested Gregg join the project. Gregg is a very proactive musician and had already worked with the band previously. Teddy then left the rest to us. He did oversee the gradual progress we were making and did contribute his ideas wherever he felt the need to do so.

OSR: What can you tell us about the new album New Dawn?

Gregg Kofi Brown: New Dawn represents a new impetus for Osibisa. We have taken the essence of the sound of our first three albums, which was a fusion of traditional African and Caribbean music, rock, jazz, calypso, highlife, soul and blues, to combine it with the sounds of youthful afrobeat swing with a touch of RnB.

Robert Bailey: New Dawn is an attempt to retain the original ethos of Osibisa and at the same time explore some more contemporary styles and rhythms. Some of the musicians that played on the album made an invaluable contribution.

OSR: Did you face any challenges when writing and recording New Dawn?

Gregg Kofi Brown: We recorded the album during July 2020 amid the Covid restrictions. Robert Bailey and I did the basic arrangements for the songs remotely so when we got to the studio we knew exactly what we wanted sonically. We had to maintain social distance and strict hygiene which meant we could not have the full band in the studio at the same time. We recorded separately the rhythm section, the vocals, the percussion, the horns, keyboards and overdubs.

Robert Bailey: Due to the pandemic restrictions, it was quite a challenge putting the album together. Osibisa, in particular, is a live performing band and for the most part, it was not possible to record that way on this occasion. It was started by programming the rough sketches of the music on computer and then replacing the parts bit by bit in the studio. Not an ideal way to work.

OSR: What is your greatest musical achievement to date?

Gregg Kofi Brown: Playing for 20,000 people in Central Park in New York City for the Summer Stage event. Baaba Maal were the headliners supported by Osibisa and Femi Kuti in 1995.

Robert Bailey: My greatest achievements to date, apart from being an original member of Osibisa, must be doing the string arrangement on Maxine Nightengale’s No.1 U.S. hit ‘Right back Where We Started From’, the arrangement of Eric Clapton’s ‘Knocking On Heavens Door’, and finally working with Randy Crawford and Ronnie Laws on European tours and doing the Montreal Jazz Festival.

OSR: What do you hope people take from New Dawn and your music in general?

Gregg Kofi Brown: We recorded New Dawn during the worldwide Covid pandemic. We wanted to give the people something to celebrate and dance to as we are coming out of over a year of lockdown restrictions. Our music is about positivity, coming together singing, moving as one people in jubilation of the human spirit.

Robert Bailey: It’s a very subjective point to say what people would take from New Dawn. The few people I have played it to have all said they like different tracks in particular. It always surprises me, their choices.

Osibisa playing live.
Image courtesy of Osibisa

OSR: How do you feel your music has changed over the years and why are you embracing a new sound?

Gregg Kofi Brown: The digital and technology-driven sound of music has been a blessing and a curse. The ability to create and produce music through computer programs has drastically reduced production costs and placed music back into the hands of the people.  With the advent of social media, an artist can theoretically get a fan base to enable a career in music with little financial investment. However, streaming services seriously restricts the amount of income that songwriters can make. With the popularity of afrobeats in America and Europe, Osibisa being the godfathers of afrobeat, we feel the time is right for a resurgence in our updated sound.

Robert Bailey: I am influenced by and appreciate all types of music. I now believe that most of the music and instruments originated in Africa. It moved in a circular motion to Europe, America, the Caribbean and South America. Over time it has evolved and now all the influences reach back to Africa; nothing stands still. This is the beauty of music for me and I am always open to new styles and new rhythms.

OSR: Who or what inspires you to make music?

Gregg Kofi Brown: Love for humanity, the need for social change, the diversity of the people of the world and the wealth of conscious music that artists have given us to have hope and faith in the human spirit.

Robert Bailey: Again, I am inspired by any music that’s good – classical, jazz, Latin American, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, etc.

OSR: I know Osibisa has been around since the 70s, but what career do you think you would have pursued if you hadn’t gone into music?

Gregg Kofi Brown: I have a Masters degree and an Education degree. I have had a career as a music teacher and I have had the honour to work as an actor in London’s West End theatres. However, I’d like to think I could have turned to science in another life.

Robert Bailey: I love woodwork and, in particular, the smell of freshly sawn wood. So, possibly a carpenter. Also, I love cooking so perhaps a chef.

OSR: What is your favourite smell?

Gregg Kofi Brown: Cinnamon and vanilla. It reminds me of when Osibisa played at a film festival on the East African Island of Zanzibar.

Robert Bailey: I love the smell of good quality incense.

OSR: What do you do to relax (other than play music)?

Gregg Kofi Bailey: I do yoga everyday.

Robert Bailey: I am a big fan of crosswords and Sudoku. To relax, I do yoga and meditate whenever possible.

OSR: If you were reincarnated into an animal, what would you be?

Gregg Kofi Brown: An octopus or an eagle.

Robert Bailey: A cat.

OSR: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

Gregg Kofi Brown: Study different genres of music besides what you are already into. Study a different language, it gives you perspective as a creative. Establish a regular routine like shower, exercise, breakfast, study, practice, business, practice, dinner, read practice/gig.

Robert Bailey: An artist must be true to them self and believe in what they do and feel.

OSR: What do you think is the best way to discover new artists nowadays?

Gregg Kofi Brown: Social media, live gigs and concerts.

Robert Bailey: It’s so hard to know how to answer this question as music is around us everywhere these days. Dive into the internet and swim around the music until you find what you life, and when you can get out to live gigs again – relish them.

OSR: Can we expect more music from Osibisa in upcoming years?

Gregg Kofi Brown: Already working on the next album so that’s a big yes.

Robert Bailey: We have already started coming up with some new material and hope that in any new recordings we are able to rehearse and record it live in the studio.

Many thanks to Gregg Kofi Brown and Robert Bailey for speaking with us. For more from Osibisa check out their official website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.

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