Though there were Africans living in Manchester in the 18th century, it was not until perhaps the 1950s that there were significant numbers of African-born residents. The city was attractive to immigrant Africans not just because of job opportunities and inexpensive housing, but perhaps also because of its modern history of tolerance towards African nationalism; the city fathers endorsed the famous 1945 Fifth Pan-African Congress, held at Chorlton Town Hall and attended by numerous delegates, including future leaders of Ghana (Kwame Nkrumah), Kenya (Jomo Kenyatta) and Malawi (Dr Hastings Banda).
Much of African history is retained and communicated through music, an integral part of the cultures of many African countries. Though documentation is scarce, it is likely that there were enclaves of African music in Manchester going back many years. The Manchester Evening News reported in 1958 on the efforts of a Nigerian resident to open a “club for coloured people;”1 and by 1960, The Nile club*, Moss Side, had a resident band that included African musicians.2 The great Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti is reputed to have been a member of a Manchester-based band in the early1960s. (BOTW interview with Victor Brox, 26 November 2012)
But concerts in Manchester by African bands were most infrequent — until Band on the Wall launched its new programme in 1982. The Northern Jazz Centre Society had already broken new ground in the 1970s presenting groups of South African musicians, then resident in the UK: Jabula — in the opening month of the NJCS promotions; and in 1977 Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes and Harry Miller’s Isipingo. Now, with the NJCS takeover of Band on the Wall, there would be more performances by African bands. In the first week of the new programme in February 1982 there were sell-out performances by Julian Bahula’s Jazz Afrika and Oduduwa.
Oduduwa was a pioneering Manchester-based band, led by Nigerian percussionist Tafa Onigbanjo*** and included Stanley Sackey,** saxophone & percussion, a former member of the London-based Afro-pop band Osibisa. Stanley was elected a Band on the Wall Board member in the 1980s. Oduduwa would play several times at Band on the Wall in the 1980s and Tafa would lead the African percussion course and open workshops at the venue, until his premature death in the early 1990s. Two other African master percussionists were resident in Manchester in the 80s, Ghanaian Kwasi Asari and Nigerian ‘Uncle Tommy’ Odueso; both performed at Band on the Wall, Asari leading his percussion band Kantamanto, and Odueso with one of the African drumming groups that he tutored. Asari also led workshops for Minorities Arts Advisory Service (North West) before returning home to Ghana. Tommy Odueso had a long career in music before settling in Manchester. He travelled to many countries with jazz big bands, Latin American and African groups. His own dance band, Tommy Odueso’s Akesan Highlifers, recorded for the Melodisc label in London in the 1950s.3 Many African bands, mainly from Nigeria and Ghana, were active in London in the 50s and 60s,. These bands, often including musicians from different countries, created a new and distinctive style of highlife.
Stanley Sackey led the band Kukurudu in Manchester in the early 80s and went on to lead the band, Waduku (Swahili for brotherhood). Both bands performed several times at Band on the Wall. Like Oduduwa, these bands brought together local African-born musicians but also attracted other musicians, such as jazz guitarist Mike Walker, from Salford, and Abina Likoya, Barbados-born vocalist and percussionist, who founded the Abasindi charity for the advancement of African and Caribbean culture in Manchester and led the Abasindi Drummers and Dancers who also performed at Band on the Wall.
Waduku also included vocalist Debbie Mensah, a Manchester resident and daughter of the famous Ghanaian saxophonist, trumpeter and bandleader E.T.Mensah,*** acknowledged King of dance band highlife. Fela Kuti regarded Mensah as a mentor and visited him in his home in Accra before leaving for England in 1958.
With the involvement in the first few years of Minorites Arts Advisory Service (NW), many African bands played Band on the Wall in the 80s, mainly those choosing to live in the UK rather than their own countries or in Paris that has the biggest African music scene in Europe. These included Dade Krama, performing deeply felt ancestral music, and Taxi Pata Pata, who would return to The Band on several occasions. Formed by vocalist Nsimba Foggis Bitendi shortly after he moved to England in the mid-80s, Taxi Pata Pata perform soukous, the dance music of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and were described by BBC DJ Andy Kershaw as Britain’s best African band ever. Other popular African bands at Band on the Wall were Somo Somo, Orchestre Jazira, Super Combo, Abdul Tee Jay’s African Culture, from Sierra Leone, and Devera Ngwena, from Zimbabwe, who play mbira-influenced rhumba,**** known as rhumbira.
The 1980s was the decade when African music became established at Band on the Wall, through performances, percussion courses and open workshops, and continues to this day. Though no longer with us, the hugely-talented and committed musicians, Tafa Onigbanjo, Stanley Sackey and Tommy Odueso, were founders of that legacy.
*The Nile on Princess Road was demolished in 1986, along with The Reno club in the basement of the same building.
** Stanley Sackey died in 1993
*** E.T. Mensah performed at Band the Wall on 8 July 1987. He returned to Ghana in 1988 and died in July 1996. .
****The Mbira, African thumb piano with an ancient heritage and particularly important in the music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
1 Manchester Evening News, 24.6.1958)
2 Hughie Flint, The Beat Goes on … Manchester, website.
3 Melodisc, No 1466 Ibadan Ni Pade/Kyo Mano Me, by Tommy Odueso’s Highlifers