African brothers @ Accra Airport circa 1976 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
I´m scanning the negatives I received from Modern Photo, a laboratory in Accra that had built its reputation by taking pictures of political figures and musical events some 40 years ago. Those musical events are what I am interested in.
Until that point I hadn't really been able to picture the magnitude of what had been going on musically in Ghana during those days. All I had were tales and legends of what seemed to be forgotten times, but now, each developed frame feels like an additional piece to the puzzle. That musical scene I admired so much is taking shape, revealing itself in the form of pictures taken by one of the pioneers of modern photography in Ghana, Samuel Kobian Pobee (S.K. Pobee for short).
While working on the first instalment of Afrobeat Airways, I had found photographs with the stamp of the modern photo company and started asking around. It might well have been producer Max Boateng, now manager of Nana Ampedu of the African Brothers, who directed me there. In response to my question, he exclaimed "Modern Photo? Of course I know the place; it is just in front of what use to be the legendary Tip Toe night club - we can go tomorrow morning."
Max couldn’t make it the next morning but told me to call him as soon as I found a cab, so I did. "Let me speak to the driver,” he said. The cellphone that I handed over disappeared between the ear and the shoulder of the cab driver who, while speeding through Accra´s busy traffic, was trying to understand Max´s instruction while the radio was blasting the latest cheesy hiplife hit.
Once we got there, I knew I had arrived at the right place; photos of K.Gyasi, Papa Yankson, Pat Thomas and many more, all nicely framed, had been neatly hung around the main entrance of the store. I entered and asked if I could speak to the manager, not forgetting to say that it was Max who had sent me. I was taken to the offices of Sam Pobee, son of S.K. Pobee, the founder of the company.
I sat down and after handing him the first volume of Afrobeat Airways, explained that I had come to continue working on the series and was now looking for liner notes material to document the second volume. Sam, slightly unimpressed by "my labour of love", nonchalantly looked at me and said “Follow me.” I was taken to the store room where the negatives where stored. The place didn't have air conditioning and a part of the room had been exposed to dust and heat so I was wondering about the condition of these treasures. “Here is a box with pictures of K.Frimpong,” said Sam. That box was stored with others of the same kind, all written on with a thick black marker: ‘Fela Kuti at Napoleon Club’, ‘Uhuru Dance Band 1970’, ‘African Brothers at Accra Airport 1976’ and a few hundred more. "We had serious flooding few years ago and a good part of the our archive was destroyed", he lamented.
Uhuru Dance Band, circa 1970 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
With two of Sam´s employees we started selecting photos of interest, and while doing so, I started to think that the pictures in good condition might become the basis of a beautiful book documenting what has to be described as one of Africa´s most vibrant musical scenes, something equal or beyond anything found in a major European or North American city. That’s a personal opinion, based on my taste perhaps, but even so, I can’t think of many places in the northern hemisphere that could be compared to, nor compete with, what was happening musically in cities like Accra, Cotonou, Kinshasa or Luanda in the ‘70s. After about three hours, some 400 negatives had been selected.
Only now did I start to understand the cultural legacy that the synergy between one of the best photo studios and one of the most important venues in the country had produced. I was curious and wanted to understand what had happened in this place. Here’s what Sam had to say:
"When Modern Photo was created in 1955, the Tip Toe night club just opposite of our offices was already operating. The manager was Mr Page, an American. My father S.K. Pobee, the founder of Modern Photo, wasn't too much into music then; he was mainly taking pictures of political figures. It wasn't until 1966, when he leased the Tip Toe, that his interest in all cultural things began to grow.
At the Tip Toe night club (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
The first thing he did when he took over was to modernise and renovate the whole place. He bought new furniture, and ordered a new set of modern musical equipment. At that time every club had a residential band. For example The Lido night club, a few blocks away, had Broadway Dance Band, Napoleon club had Basa-Basa and Bunzu Soundz. Tip Toe had the Uhuru Dance Band and the Blue Monks, a group my father had formed and sponsored.
Gyedu Blay Ambolley circa 1975 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
To keep up with the demand, every club had to invite bands from other parts of Ghana and also from abroad to stand a chance of surviving the fierce competition. One of the first groups my dad invited to Ghana was Fela's Koola Lobitos. They were followed by Victor Uwaifo, who had a big following here in Ghana, and then Ignace de Souza, a fantastic musician from Benin, just to name a few, but there were many. However, he was most impressed by a powerful band from Congo Brazzaville, Les Bantous de la Capitale, who stayed here for 6 months - by the time they left they were playing and singing Twi highlife perfectly. One of my dad´s main qualities was his sense of innovation; he started organising boogaloo competitions influenced by James Brown´s ‘mashed potato’ dance style. The people were dancing while the band were playing soul tunes, and we had bands who played that style incredibly well - especially P.P Dynamite and also the Hougas (with Gyedu-Blay Ambolley on bass). We also organised ‘Miss Tip Toe’, contests and the girls really looked nice in their mini skirts and their Afro hair. Today it’s all artificial.
Miss Tip Toe (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
Additionally to the highlife and big band concerts, my father introduced another event called ‘Jazz Night’, on which he would have two drummers competing against each other. The most memorable one was between Kofi Ghanaba (a.k.a. Guy Warren) and Uhuru´s percussionist, Max Amah. Oh, you would have loved it, I tell you. That day Kofi took a beating.
Tip Toe dance competition circa 1971 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
You know my father was also someone who was into advertising and promotion and he knew how to convince the musicians to be loyal to the Tip Toe night club. He would tell them "after the sound check come to the studio, I will make a picture of you and place an advert in the daily graphic to promote your next show". This is what made Tip Toe stand above the other clubs, the fact that we had Modern Photo. The promotion tools we used worked so well that on Saturday afternoon, when we had what we called the ‘Afternoon Bump,’ starting at 6pm. If by 1pm you were not inside Tip Toe you wouldn't come in - sold out. That’s the reason why so many bands and musicians wanted to work with my father and that’s what made our success.
Hedzolleh Soundz (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
My father left to the United States between 1973 and 1977 to improve his skills. When he returned, he found the place was going strong; I had perpetuated his work. But unfortunately my efforts would not be rewarded because in 1979 we were hit by a second curfew. It was serious. The first one, which took place in 1966, didn't last too long. It didn't hit us too hard, but it was the third that knocked us out. It killed social life and the music industry in this country. Everybody had to be home by 10pm: no parties, no concerts, no boogaloo, no Miss Tip Toe. When after two years that crazy curfew was over most of our musicians had already left the country and DJs had replaced the bands. Live music was dead."
Name unknown (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
I left Modern Photo and crossed the street to see what was left of the legendary venue. I wasn't too surprised to find that the place that had once hosted legends such as E.T. Mensah and The Black Santiago had now been bought by one of the many churches that had mushroomed all over the country. I entered the place and was shown around by a kind gentlemen who was trying to convince me that there were an infinite number of paths to accept Jesus as my personal saviour. Little did he know that my "saviours" had left the stage many years ago.
I walked back to the meeting point with my cab driver, 5pm sharp in front of the Lido Night Club, as I was told. Since the word “sharp” takes on a less uptight meaning in this part of the globe, I decided to take a walk through the nearby market. Crowds of people thronged the food stands, wandered past music and clothes stores, vegetable and fruit stands and breathed in the scents of tomato and spicy chilli sauce. Music was blasting from all corners and unlike the delicious gravy that was to be consumed with fufu and banku, the music I was hearing was all but hot. The frequencies reaching my ears were sterile and artificial - cleansed of sweat, breath and passion. Where had that “sweeter than honey” sound of Highlife gone?
Although everyone would like to blame the curfews, piracy and political mishaps - certainly a big part of the issue - producers and musicians might have been partly responsible for using technologies that did not do justice to the nature of West African music. In the early 80s, some instruments, especially horns and percussions, were sacrificed and replaced by the drum machines and synthesizers that were in vogue at the time. In turn those were replaced, a decade later, by midi and computers. If curfews were a bludgeoning darkness on the local music scene, the light at the end of the tunnel was stuffed with a big fat digital keyboard. The harvest of this dispassion is three decades of sonic mediocrity.
The 60s & 70s generation of Ghanian musicians had birthed unique sounds based upon principles of excellent musicianship and recording techniques, with deep respect for traditional music. They had excelled to such an extent that the new hybrids of music they created still command respect all over the globe 40 years later. They provided an example to follow. The music created in “the old days” is not, as I was so often told, “grandma and grandpa” music but world class music.
As Ambolley liked to say: “It doesn't surprise me that our music is finally travelling because, you know, if you do something good, it will be remembered forever. That's right, brother."
With the support of Eleonore Sylla and Robert Sobotta of the Goethe Institute in Accra, the Analog Africa team, comprised of Paula Adank Montanez (Label Manager), Vikram Sohonie (Analog Africa’s editor) and myself, we made our way to Ghana to interview some of the legendary artists and producers of what has to be described as “the golden age” of Ghanaian popular music.
Their memories on paper, their music saved, our hopes are to be part of a movement - created by dedicated labels and music collectors - that will make sure this music is be remembered for generations to come. Amen!
My hope with this essay is to generate interest for the pictures of SK Pobee and to find people that might be interested in exposing them in galleries. If you’re interested in exhibiting these photographs, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.