Osibisa’s Indian tour marks the country’s entry into international rock music circuit

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The Osibisa’s eight-performance Indian tour marked the country’s entry into the international rock music circuit.

“Osibisa Unleashed”: Read the advertisement in newspapers, cinema slides, television spots and hoardings, for three weeks at a stretch. The Rs 30-lakh media blitz, massaged in by the makers of Campa-Cola, culminated in the biggest musical razzle-dazzle that Delhi had ever witnessed. But, after being unleashed in the capital, the London-based Afro-rock band seemed to have lost most of its fizz.

Floundering at the bottom of the charts for five years since their salad days in the mid-’70s, and not heard of in the recent issues of the standard journals of the pop-music industry such as Rolling Stone, the group was hardly ever likely to set the Yamuna on fire. But, for the pop-music-starved Indian audience, it was the best buy across the bargain counter.

However, last fortnight, the Osibisa’s eight-performance Indian tour marked the country’s entry into the international rock music circuit. By a sudden and stern fiat in 1962, the Reserve Bank of India had banned “commercial performance” by all foreign artistes and musicians. Last year, persistent efforts by an Indian hotel chain to bring in the famed ‘Abba’ group foundered on the rock of this fiat.

Social Occasion: All the same, the “unleashing” of Osibisa was more a social occasion than musical. Never before were price-tags on tickets so high-Rs 1,000 for the highest and Rs 500 for the lowest – as at the opening concert in the glittering Convention Hall of Hotel Ashok in New Delhi. This stood out starkly when compared with the going rates in the mecca of the international ham moiide – the Madison Square gardens of New York – where a single ticket for a Donna Summer concert costs Rs 150 at the most.

Predictably, holders of complimentary passes and friends and relatives of the organisers outnumbered ticket-holders at the Hotel Ashok performance. However, a day later, at a pavilion erected on the India Gate lawns, where students were admitted for Rs 25 apiece, music-lovers had a chance to swing to the beat of Osibisa.

Osibisa’s roots stretch back to Ghana in Africa where Teddy Osei, the prime mover and leader of the band, played the saxophone for his group, the Comets. He moved to London in 1962 and later teamed up with his brother, Mac Tontoh, who plays the trumpet, and Sol Amarfio, the drummer. Tired of playing in flea-bag hotels, the trio began writing and composing songs – “our own music, gut music, yeh” – with which they cut their first disc, Osibisa, in 1971. It was a chart-buster that catapulted them to the dizzy but transient heights of pop-music.

Osibisa on stage: ‘Turning a new chapter of an old book’Anticipating Disco

: Glowing in the twilight of Beatle-mania the group unrolled a cornucopia of surprises with bush sounds and animal calls, tribal melody and exotic harmonisation – all pulsating with the liquid roll of their African drums. The important bench-marks in their career-Heads and Ojah Awake-blended seamlessly with the oncoming disco-boom. The rough-hewn ‘Osibisound’ unobtrusively gave way to the infinitely richer music of ‘Abba’ and, later, to the rhythmic intensity of hard core disco.

Osibisa has been trying to bounce back into the limelight for quite some time now. Experimenting with various non-African sounds, but not quite hitting the target. However, their 1980 disc Mystic Energy, which makes use of a few stray Indian sounds, fell flat on the market. But they almost made a come-back in September this year when their latest album, Hottest Hits, basically a rehash of their old hits, turned “gold’ with a million sales in just two weeks. Said a music industry executive: “It proves the group’s potential appeal. They only need to create a new, and that’s how they can come back.”

The Indian tour, hope Osibisa fans, is the beginning of the group’s come-back. Their performances, two in New Delhi, three in Bombay and one each in Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta, are being recorded live by EMI, the recording giants, which will cut a disc early next year to be named Osibisa Unleashed. “It will be like turning a new chapter of an old book,” beamed an EMI executive.

Elaborate Equipment: The stress on live recording was obvious from the ponderous display of sound gadgets at the Hotel Ashok performance. The eight musicians of the group (apart from the Osei-Tontoh-Amarfio trio, lead guitarist Karib Banierman, bass guitarist Abia Moore, pianist Emmanuel Rentzos, Indian tabla player Dinesh Pandit and a shaven-headed gigantic percussionist named Daku Potato were accompanied by 19 white ‘roadies’ and a road manager.

In three separate flights, they flew in 28 tonnes of sound and musical equipment hired from Colac, a London firm, at a cost of 20,000 (Rs 3.60 lakh).

For a couple of hours, the Convention Hall of Hotel Ashok took on the appearance of a glittering Hollywood set. Strobes, spotlights and coloured disco lights blinked rhythmically along a massive aluminium scaffolding that was custom-built in India two months in advance.

Along the two sides of the stage, two long rows of speakers churned out the music with a mind-boggling power output of 20,000 watts. At another end of the auditorium, in the faint glow of a digital panel, a 24-channel computerised Midas monitor mixer blended each bar sounded on-stage into a knot of three-dimensional sound.

During one of the practice sessions, as the thumping beats of Daku Potato’s drums set some of the stately chandeliers in the hall atinkle, one of the housekeeping staff of the hotel hesitantly asked his boss if they needed to be removed. “You may have to carry them off anyway next morning, from the floor,” came the cynical reply.

Stale Fare: The performance itself, however, did not rise above the mediocre because Osibisa had hardly any new fare to offer. The only “Indian” element came in their adaptation of the

Ramdhun – Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram – with its body-swaying lilt set to a much faster beat and sung almost plaintively by Osei in his deep bass voice. However, the sombre note was interrupted when Osei sweetly mispronounced the word ‘tere’ in the line Ishwar Allah tere nam as “tero”. Though there was hardly any new number in the repertoire (other than Raghupati Raghava and an outrageous number, Campa Cola Campa Cola, sung for the Indian promoters of the group), the rendering of even the old songs showed the difference between listening to records and listening to live music.

Kilele (which is Swahili for togetherness), the oft-heard Osibisa number, throbbed with life as hundreds of listeners joined their voices at Osei’s and Tontoh’s call.

It was quite a social occasion both at the Hotel Ashok recital and the one at India Gate pavilion the next day. The latter evening was made even more glamorous by a glittering array of dignitaries. Seated in the front row were Rajiv Gandhi, flanked by his two political alter egos, Arun Nehru and Arun Singh.

Vivek Bharat Ram of the Delhi Cloth Mills group, who is a Doon School friend of the trio, sat with them. At the Hotel Ashok function, prominent guests included Congress (I) MPs like Kamal Nath, J.K. Jain and Dharam Das Shastri. The top brass of the Delhi Administration and bureaucrats in the Central Government turned out in large numbers. Guests, undoubtedly, outnumbered ticket-holders on the first evening.

Brief Address: Towards the end of the show, Charanjit Singh, a Delhi Congress(I) MP and managing director of Pure Drinks Limited, the makers of Campa Cola, strutted on the stage, delivering a brief address while his white turban shimmered in the glare of the flickering strobes. He was accompanied by yet another dignitary, S.L. Khurana, the suave Lt-governor of Delhi, who presented bouquets to the musicians.

Campa Cola’s Charanjit Singh: unleashed

Earlier, talking to India Today, Singh, for whom the press is usually anathema, admitted that the entire Osibisa tour was financed by a London-based business house with which “we’ve some kind of an arrangement”. “Which business house is that?” “I won’t tell you, sorry.” He announced that the entire profits would go into the Sanjay Memorial Trust – which would naturally enable him to claim exemption from income tax under section 80 G of the Income Tax Act. Even the 25 per cent entertainment tax on ticket sales was paid weeks in advance.

Some organisers hinted that the overall cost of hosting the group and freight charges on the equipment might work out to about Rs 13 lakh. The cost of the high-pressure advertising included, Singh must have spent about Rs 45 lakh on the project. This, however, does not include the fees that the group must have charged. Singh maintains that he did not pay “a copper” to the group by way of fees. “Somebody else must have paid them abroad,” quipped the music industry executive. He estimated that the group, even with their present low popularity rating, might charge about US $12,000 (Rs 1.08 lakh) a day on foreign tours.

Though Singh is cagey about his current involvement in the entertainment business, the word soon spread around the town that he had entered into arrangement with a British entertainment firm owned by Colin Brown, the proprietor of Palm Beach Casino in London. Brown, who accompanied the group into New Delhi, was put up at the lavishly upholstered Pure Drink guest house in the Greater Kailash area.

Restive Indians: Singh hopes to soon start a company in India which will begin to handle promotional tours of foreign artistes. “Next year I’m planning to bring either Boney M or Donna Summer,” he said confidently. It is no doubt an exercise meant to tie up with the five-star hotel he is building for the 1982 Asiad in New Delhi.

The Indian bands at the 5-star hotels were restive at the prospect of being sidelined by Singh’s novel plan of “importing” musicians. Last fortnight, some of them were trying to get unionised in an effort to stop further entry of foreign bands. But Singh could hardly be perturbed. The visit of Osibisa – as Singh never failed to emphasise- was “after all not paid for in foreign exchange”.

It was still clear that Singh could not hope to rake in much profit from the Osibisa shows. As the music industry executive said: “Marketing of musical events needs a certain kind of expertise which does not come naturally. But it’s a good start.”

What he meant was that at lower rates of tickets and with more economically advertised programmes, the international rock bands could be viable in India. “But at Rs 1,000 per ticket”, he quipped, “only black money can buy black music.”

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