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Talking tapes with Onipa

PAM spoke to Onipa about cassette tapes, family, and higher purpose upon the release of their Tapes of Utopia remix album with guest appearances from the extended Onipa family.

Led from the front by serial collaborators Kweku Sackey & Tom Excell – Onipa take their name from the Akan word for Human and are “a family with music behind it.” London based Afro-Futurists who dial a sense of fun into their Pan-African vision of a continental utopia, the band’s well received long player We no be machine was released during last year’s long lockdown with it’s follow up Tapes of Utopia released September 17th via Boomerang Records.    

“We’re referencing a more analogue time when machines didn’t control as many aspects of life and that’s the through-narrative of all of our records,” explains Tom who is sat next to Kweku backstage in Oxford while we speak (ironically but necessarily via Zoom). He goes on to describe the new album as a `time capsule’ evoking the days when cassette tapes were the dominant format of music distribution in every West African street market. 

Much like the symbolic Sankofa bird of Akan cosmology that cranes it’s neck back to retrieve an egg symbolising taking the best of the past to build a better future, the band believe in going backwards to go forwards and in this spirit we begin at the beginning with how Kweku and Tom first connected.  

Onipa – Chicken No Dey Fly feat. Franz Von (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)

“I was doing a reggae project called chief rockers,” remembers Tom: “and a friend found a video of Kweku singing with some groups in Sheffield and we were like, “Wow! this guy has an amazing voice!” So we invited him down to Henwood studios in Oxfordshire which is the headquarters of Nubiyan Twist (the acclaimed nine strong collective led by Tom) and we quickly got chatting about African music and for me it was the first time I’d had a chance to collaborate with an African musician living in the UK.” 

“Growing up I always loved the music but never had those opportunities and K.O.G (Kweku leads his own group The Zongo Brigade under the persona of `Kweku of Ghana’ or K.O.G)  was one of the first people I’d met who was interested in playing that kind of music. We’ve continued to have a close musical friendship, and a few years ago, decided that we wanted to start this project.”

So what was your manifesto for this project?

“We wanted to bring the music a higher purpose,” begins Kweku. “Often people play African music just to have entertainment but we wanted to go beyond entertainment and bring the futuristic, the spiritual, the cultural element of where the music is from and how it is related to the rest of the world and the diaspora. So it was more the artistic side of the music. We wanted to point out things like rhythms and distorting sounds and go deep into sound and lyricism.” 

What’s the significance of cassettes in Tapes of Utopia?

“It was written over lockdown and we’d both had a really hard time with the impact of lockdown for creatives –  it was extremely hard on our mental health and our finances,” muses Tom. “ The thing that got us through was listening to loads of music and dancing in our studio.  We listened to music from all over the continent of Africa, plus dance music and jazz from this side. We were just digging through our collections and this was the thing which really gave us the most therapy and hope to carry on with writing. It was like a mixtape but a kind of healing process for us to compile these different flavors and sounds without thinking too much. And the vision of utopia that came out is of imagining being in a freer place and time and using music to find our way.”

Onipa – Play feat. Wiyaala (OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO)

You are releasing the album on cassette as well as other formats. What memories do you have of analogue format music? 

“It’s really crazy this question you just asked me as I just moved and one of my housemates gave me a vinyl of Paul Simon’s Graceland. This is one of my references of fusion and lyricism and multicultural music because I was about 12 when it came out,” enthuses Kweku.  “I’ve never been trained as a musician but listening to that record was one way of understanding harmonies. I was never into CDs, I don’t think I ever bought one! I think I jumped straight from tape to whatever it is now!”

“We spent hours bro! We spent hours trying to decide what kind of costume and stuff we should wear. It’s part of the whole process of Futurism and imagination,” laughs Kweku.

“We’re trying to channel just being creative. As an open ended art form,” Tom adds. “It’s like a lifestyle so it’s not just like we’re musicians making music, it’s trying to stimulate more senses. The music isn’t the whole picture, it provides the backdrop for something spiritual and about culture.”

Finally how did the many guest features on the album come about?

“These are people we’ve known over a period of years. Tony Allen (whose drums we hear on Chicken no dey fly) we met via Africa Express with Damon Albarn and he was just the most graceful, the most amazing person.  We’ve been listening to his records since before we were born!” explains Kweku. Whilst Tom adds: 
“We did some recording together for Nubiyan Twist and he played a load of grooves and I realised it was the exact tune that we’ve been wanting to ride on and reworked some, taking his drums as building blocks to write from” 

“We’ve also been working with M3NSA from Fokn Bois,” adds Kweku. “He’s on the tune Mokole and we feel it is one of the highlight tunes. He has the complete flow, and the style and it’s bringing in the hip hop with triplet African rhythms and that was a really fun one to explore. And then we have our brothers and friends we’ve known for years. There’s Franz Zon from the Zongo Brigade and Wiyaala who is on Play. It was really a family album!”

With UK tour dates to look forward to in 2020, Tom and Kweku promise some of these guests will be making an appearance on stage with Onipa before signing off to get ready for that night’s gig with their other musical family Nubiyan Twist.

Tales of Utopia by Onipa, available on all platforms.