Band Osibisa is old, but not their brand of perky music. How else do you explain the audience dancing and singing along spiritedly?
“Are you happy?” Teddy Osei, the front man of Osibisa asked that question at regular intervals during their recent concert at Music Academy, and there was only one possible answer from the houseful audience each time — Yes!
Osibisa returned to Chennai after almost three decades with their particular brand of lively, life-affirming, and just plain happy music for the grand finale of the November Fest 2009, and it was obvious that none of their magic had waned.
The Afro-rock band credited with creating the genre of World Music might be celebrating its fortieth anniversary (it was formed in 1969), half its founding members may no longer be part of the line-up, and its main man, Teddy, may need to be helped on and off stage because of infirmity. But nothing about their music felt dated or jaded, and its universal appeal was still clearly intact. Kids who had probably never heard of Osibisa before jumped and danced in time to the thumping beats of the drums (one little boy was so excited he could barely stand still), and adults of all ages clapped, hooted and sang along.
The concert opened with the eight members of the band chanting and humming as they set up, their clothes as colourful and eclectic as their music. The opening number, ‘The Gong' was surprisingly mellow and low-key, Teddy's flute backed up by smooth, jazz-inspired guitars and keyboards.
But the energy levels rose rapidly as they warmed up, with Teddy's lively touches — throaty laughs and shouts that signalled his unalloyed enjoyment of the music — and the incredibly infectious beats of ace drummer (and founding member) Sol Amarfio a.k.a. ‘Rhythm Man' and Nii Tagoe, the energetic youngster on African percussion, who was, by the end of the evening, a clear crowd favourite.
They already had the crowd going with lesser-known numbers such as ‘Don't play with fire', their unique mix of Ghanian Highlife, Latin rhythms, jazz trumpet (Colin Graham) and sax (the multi-talented Teddy again), rock solos, and vocal harmonies quite irresistible. But understandably, the evening reached its peak once the band began revisiting its biggest hits from the 1970s — the irresistible ‘Ojah Awake', the iconic instrumental ‘Music for Gong Gong', the melodic, almost spiritual ‘Woyaya', the traditional, joyous ‘Kelele' and their foot-tapping yet oddly-authentic version of ‘Raghupati Raghava'.
“Just enjoy yourselves — if you wanna dance, dance; if you wanna shout, shout; it's all part of the show,” Teddy urged the audience. It wasn't hard at all, as the familiar tunes and refrains flowed into one another, the solos (by founder-member and lead guitarist Dell Richardson and keyboardist Emmanuel Rentzos) got livelier and more creative, and the beats got faster and faster in an unrestrained celebration of music and rhythm.
Surprisingly early in the show, the band gave in to popular demand and played the numbers everyone had been waiting for — the irresistibly upbeat ‘Sunshine Day' and ‘Dance the Body Music'.
The crowd didn't need much urging to get on its feet and sing its heart out along with them — “Dance the body music, music makes you happy” — truer words were never spoken, especially at an Osibisa concert.
Unfortunately, hitting that high relatively early on in the evening meant that the last half-an-hour or so felt like a bit of a letdown. The band proceeded to play some of their more recent music (they're still recording, and released a new album earlier this year) such as the catchy ‘Pata pata' and ‘Watusi'. These songs, while foot-tappingly good and quite polished in sound, lacked the distinctive earthiness of Osibisa's early music, and audience attention started waning, a few even beginning to trickle out.
Still, the crowd gave Osibisa a fitting and prolonged send-off, getting on its feet in appreciation of the remarkable Teddy Osei, and calling the band back for more and more, prompting Teddy to say laughingly at the end “Go home! We'll be back again, and sooner this time.” Chennai certainly hopes so — we can all do with frequent doses of Osibisa's brand of happy music.