Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


Native Spirit

TORONTO—The group’s musical genealogy is impressive. King Bruce, Basa Basa, Osibisa and Boombaya are all in the bloodline. So, through the power of radio and records, are Carlos Santana, James Brown and the Beatles. The product of this august lineage, a world beat scion of Ghana’s multicultural urban mix, is the London-based band Native Spirit.

The players are part of a growing exodus of African musicians who, despairing of economic instability and lack of support, abandon their homelands for the elusive promise of better times in Europe or North America. For the members of Native Spirit, London and perhaps Toronto are places for promise to become reality. Their music, as diverse as its highlife, Latin, soul, rock, and traditional African roots, reflects their desire for acceptance and success in the lucrative western market.

At the heart of the band are three veterans of Ghanaian music: Herman Asafo-Agyei, bassist and lead singer; guitarist, Alfred “Kari” Bannerman; and keyboard player Mac Bessa-Simons. Asafo-Agyei picked up the bass as a teenager and began to play seriously in college. In the mid-seventies he worked with influential Ghanaian producer Faisal Helwani, as a member of Basa Basa, successor to Hedzoleh Soundz as house band at Helwani’s Napolean Club in Ghana’s capital Accra. Following the demise of Basa Basa, he took time out to earn a law degree in England and then resumed his musical career, first with the London-based group Highlife International and later as a touring performer with Osibisa.

Bannerman learned piano as a youth and picked up the guitar from an elder brother. The brothers played together in a schoolboy band called Circuit Five, filling in during breaks for King Bruce’s highlife band. Circuit Five evolved into Cosmic Boom—“We were playing something like psychedelic African music, some strange concoction," says Bannerman—and later Boombaya, whose sound was more deeply rooted in African music. Eventually Boombaya’s bid for a recording contract in London dissolved in failure, and Bannerman also wound up touring with Osibisa.

Mac Bessa-Simons learned keyboard basics from his church organist father. He switched to piano in college, which he attended with Bannerman, and began working with one of King Bruce’s pop bands, the Barbecues, then moved over to Tommy Darling’s group, Wantu Wazuri. In the early eighties he joined the migration to London.

Bannerman and Asafo-Agyei “were fairly jobless in 1986,” Asafo-Agyei explains. “At that time, Native Spirit had been formed with sort of different musicians who hadn’t given any commitment yet. But the name and the concept had been dreamt of. We only needed a vehicle to start operating.” The vehicle came in the person of highlife singer Pat Thomas, who was preparing a North American tour and needed a backing band. Thomas liked the Native Spirit concept, so the group came together for a fall 1986 tour of the U.S. and Canada. The tour’s promoters, Sam Mensah and Thaddeus Ulzen of Toronto’s Highlife World, liked the band’s music so much they signed Native Spirit to a contract for their avant-garde AfroNova label.

Musically, Native Spirit’s sound runs the gamut from Osibisa-style horn intros, to flirtations with guitar- and dance-band highlife, to highly percussive passages reminiscent of Hedzoleh Soundz. Asafo-Agyei’s energetic presence and thumping bass powers the band through traditional grooves into a funkified ozone and back. In live performance he often takes center stage for an extended solo jam. Bannerman’s bluesy guitar runs often call to mind Donald Kinsey’s work with Peter Tosh. Bessa-Simons’s keyboard fills and flourishes blend nicely into the groove of the moment. Trumpet solos on the Native Spirit LP, echoes of dance-band highlife, are replaced in performance by the saxophone work of classically trained Scotsman John Matthews. Ghanaians Koli Adu, on drums, and Sam Ashalley, on percussion, round out the group’s current lineup.

There is a logical explanation for the hybrid sound they produce, says Asafo-Agyei: “I don’t think the issue is too explain. It’s just simply that we have had so many different musical influences that it’s going to be very difficult to pin ourselves down to a certain rhythmic pattern.” The music “always has the African rhythm at the bottom,” adds Bannerman.

Does being away from home and their roots disorient the music? Not according to Mac Bessa-Simons: “We will always have our African identity, because that is the basis of the group and its message. But if along the line you should hear some heavy metal guitar, then it’s only because of a little influence and how we feel that the message should be listened to.”

This article first appeared in The Beat, vol. 8, no.4, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Gary Stewart



Copyright © 2016 by Gary Stewart

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