Fri, 02 February 24
Released 06 October 2023
‘It began in Africa.’
That much-loved Jim Ingram vocal sample might just sum up the entire worldview of Onipa. To witness the incendiary live shows of this Anglo-Ghanaian quartet is to take a journey not just across the continent’s myriad musical styles, but deep into its history — and even its future. Watching the band skate effortlessly from highlife to kwaito to afrobeat to soukous at a late-night party in Tottenham, it’s impossible to tell where the virtuoso musicianship ends and the digital magic begins. But who cares, when frontman Kweku Sackey — a shaman from Accra by way of Sheffield — has compelled a room of 200 strangers to jump two feet in the air?
So yes, it began in Africa. But also, it began in Oxford. It was there in 2014 that Kweku, living in Sheffield to do a master’s degree, arrived to voice a reggae track in a recording studio built by Onipa’s MD and co-founder Tom Excell. When Tom revealed that he had been raised on a diet of African vinyl lovingly collected by his father, the two men established the first of many connections. Tom played Kweku a track from his afro-jazzy Nubiyan Twist project, and the singer was amazed to find that it shimmered with the music of West Africa. ‘We both clicked immediately,’ says Tom. ‘And for me it was amazing to learn more about his culture and explore the sound I had been brought up loving.’
So began their partnership in celebration of pan-African music, to which they gave the name Onipa. ‘The word means “human” in Akan, the ancient language of the Ashanti people of Ghana,’ says Kweku. ‘It’s a message of connection through collaboration: from Ghana to London, our ancestors to our children, Onipa brings energy, groove, electronics, afro-futurism, dance and fire!’ Eventually adding Dwayne Kilvington (aka Wonky Logic) on synths/MPC, and Finn Booth from Nubiyan Twist on drums, the band released their debut EP Open My Eyes in 2018 on Wormfood x Mawimbi Records, and their debut album We Be No Machine on Strut Records in March 2020.
Combining deep afro grooves, electronics and an energy of cultural celebration, the first records created a buzz that led to the band being chosen as part of the Young African Commonwealth. With that came invitations to play first at a Nelson Mandela 100th birthday event in Australia, followed by collaborative trips to Zanzibar and the island of Réunion. Here they were exposed to a whole new side of their foundation music, this time the sounds of East Africa.
‘All these different styles are part of a language that we’ve chosen to immerse ourselves in,’ says Tom of the exceptional range of African genres that inform Onipa’s musical vision. ‘Using the amazing breadth of music in Africa feels natural to us. I love people to hear the pan-African traditional styles we mix in, to understand how they connect — and see the connections back to Western music, which has all progressed from that African origin. Because all of jazz, and everything that subsequently came from there — all the Western music we listen to except classical — has its roots in Africa.’
It’s not lost on the pair that the release of Onipa’s new album Off The Grid comes at a time when modern African pop styles like afrobeats and amapiano are attaining an unprecedented global popularity. ‘Now it has come full circle,’ says Tom, ‘with dance music from the West influencing Africa. And that cyclical thing is where we are at with this album.’ Kweku takes it further: ‘We use some of these genres when we play out, but we like to go deeper, into more traditional sounds. If you like afrobeats, then this is where it actually comes from. It’s highlife, without the over-treated vocals. We play the roots version.’
As Onipa has developed, both artists have worked simultaneously on other projects, with Kweku pursuing a solo career as K.O.G (Kweku of Ghana) and as part of K.O.G. and the Zongo Brigade. Tom is composer and musical director for Nubiyan Twist, as well as producing, composing and remixing for many other artists. Having worked with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen when he played on Onipa’s single ‘Chicken No Dey Fly’, Tom was also MD for Allen’s retrospective show at the Festival Hall, orchestrating a collective of 30 musicians including Damon Albarn, Dele Sosimi, Ezra Collective, Kokoroko, Joan as Police Woman, and Nitin Sawhney.
Touring and collaboration have brought together a group of artists who Tom and Kweku describe as ‘family’ to feature on the record. They include another ex-Fela Kuti band member, the London afrobeat don Dele Sosimi, whose gravelly vocal lends instant authority to the pumping call-and-response of ‘Marching Over’, one of the album’s stand-outs. French singer and guitarist David Walters lends his Kréyol stylings to the wild thumb-piano distortion of ‘No Commando’, the first track to be unveiled from Off the Grid, complete with video shot in Ghana. The rumbling thunder of tuba maestro Theon Cross brings the flavour of the London jazz underground to the dizzying ‘Fine Tho’. And the helium vocals of Xhosa punk princess Moonchild Sanelly, who they met through the Africa Express project, light up the live favourite ‘Danger’ – a track that always destroys the dancefloor when Onipa play it out.
‘We have been blessed to play this music around the world,’ says Tom, ‘and meet people with whom we have a strong connection, who are doing similar things, who understand the same vision. They’ve brought their story and their influence. Their collaboration is a development for us. Things have come together in a powerful way.’
Both artists see Off The Grid as a leap forward for Onipa. ‘This record is our coming-of-age,’ says Kweku. ‘We have found a sound and a connection that allows us to talk to our audience. One of the hardest things for bands to do is have an audience that understands your sound.’ And it was at his birthplace in the Ghanaian capital Accra that they shot the image for the cover artwork, with local artist Roasted Kweku (no relation — in Ghana any male born on a Wednesday is called Kweku). ‘It’s on a beach where I played as a child,’ he says. ‘The small boy in the photo is from a tribe living by the sea, as off the grid as you can be — although not by choice. The rising sea level has devastated his community. All their homes have been taken by the sea. That photo is a shot from the front line of climate change.’
Kweku, Tom, and Wonky Logic are all fathers of young children and Off The Grid has an eye on their futures and the way we live now. ‘Onipa means human,’ Tom reiterates. ‘The album is not a call to cut all ties with technology, but we’re looking at people as human, not data, not networks. It’s about protection against systems and grids that have negative impacts on people like that boy. Being able to use technology, but not let it use you. And the artwork feels like it has a nice connection for us because we were both born by the seaside. Kweku in Accra. And me in Lowestoft!’
Despite coming from such different places, the twin creative forces behind Onipa have used their similarities and common ground to build a life-affirming and highly original world of sound. In conversation, their connection is palpable. On stage it verges on the telepathic. Much of what they do is improvised: a look, a nod, a gesture, and Tom sends the music flying in a new direction. In turn, Kweku’s connection with the audience never seems to waver. ‘I’m just a vessel for the spirit and the energy,’ he says. ‘I didn’t come from a showmanship background, I came from church. I’m not relaxed, but the nerves are my vulnerability. And the vulnerability is what makes us human.’
Released 23 April 2021
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