Doing Afrobeats live

Meet The Compozers: The backbone to Afrobeats

By Jide Taiwo

Posted on April 21, 2023 15:16

 © British Afrobeats band (photo: facebook)
British Afrobeats band (photo: facebook)

When Nigeria’s newly minted superstar Asake appeared on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jimmy Fallon in the US this past March, the biggest takeaway was the performance of the backing band who elevated the singer’s own craft that night.

It was the same as when Davido first held a show at London’s O2 Arena in 2019: In addition to the sense of pride and fulfilment in selling out such an iconic venue, the band’s performance was just as important in how the Afrobeat sound was delivered to the world.

Both these performers had one thing in common at the respective monumental moments – the backing band of musicians fittingly named The Compozers.

As Afrobeats continues its conquest of the world, The Compozers is strumming along, becoming the unofficial source for live instrumentation of the genre and its global takeover.

It’s a dream that they could scarcely have dreamt of while getting together for jam sessions in their African church in North London where the four boys discovered a common affinity for playing musical instruments and the realisation that they had a gift for it.

That gift has taken them to headline concerts with Africa’s biggest acts, including Wizkid, Burna Boy, Sarkodie, Tiwa Savage, Ed Sheeran and easily a hundred other musicians.

Comprising Charles “Biggz” Mensah-Bonsu and David “Melodee” Ohene-Akrasi (keyboards), Nana “Pokes” Ntorinkansa (bass guitar) and Steven Asamoah-Duah (drums), the Compozers’ rise has been more pre-destined than fortuitous, having come of age when Afrobeats was breaking into the mainstream.

Their friendship, which started in 2008, evolved into a musical band shortly after discovering they all shared a love for playing music before coming out as a collective five years later.

The band went from local boys to hotshots in London and soon became known for their energetic performances which often included popular R&B hits and crowd interaction. However, it wasn’t until they started working with Afrobeats musicians that they truly found their unique sound.

Afrobeats live

In the early years of Nigerian and African popular urban music that eventually evolved into the current Afrobeats, the music wasn’t created by live instruments. Similar to hip-hop from which Afrobeats takes a healthy dose of influence, the pioneers of the sounds created newer sounds from older samples.

249366598_4296621877103667_7461590176535213800_n © The Compozers during a performance (photo: facebook)

Tunde Aluko, a Nigerian events producer based in the UK, recollects how upcoming musicians sourced their instrumentals from local DJs.

“In the mid to late 1990s, it was the norm for DJs to strip the beats of popular hip-hop songs and work with budding acts to launch their musical careers. If you remember on the 2007 song ‘Stylee’, 2face sang that it was Jimmy Jatt (legendary Nigerian DJ) who used to give them beats when he started out,” he says. Interestingly, that classic record sampled the Jay Z track ‘Public Service Announcement’.

By the time the industry gained some structure and record labels, such as Kennis Music, it began to focus on creating original music from Lagos to Accra, producers had discovered digital beat-making tools such as the widely influential Fruity Loops. That single software raised at least two generations of producers – think Davido’s break-out hit ‘Dami Duro’ produced by Shizzi using Fruity Loop, for example.

On the other hand, the genre also had the genius influence of a producer like Don Jazzy, a church-trained bassist and drummer who also had a masterful knowledge of digital beat-making.

The result is seen in his long list of music stars, including the one from whom it all started, D’banj. Poetically, ‘Oliver Twist’ which proved to be their final project together, is the first Afrobeats song to break into the UK mainstream and land on the UK singles chart.

Not only was Afrobeats growing, but its performances were also getting an upgrade: lip-syncing was going out of fashion and live performances with backing instrumentalists was in.

Making the band pop

All this while The Compozers as a group was having fun interpreting these digitally created instrumentals on keyboards, guitars and drums.

“Prior to becoming an official group, we were doing renditions of church music,” says keyboardist Charles in an interview while visiting Ghana recently.

“At the time that we started, it was very odd and unique and people were intrigued.” That intrigue served them well: their now annual show A Night With The Compozers took off in 2013 with 300 people.

A year later, the number of attendees exceeded 2,000. Not satisfied with covering popular songs, they began creating theirs as well as producing for other musicians. ‘Common Sense’, their 2017 record with British rapper J Hus went platinum.

The band credits Davido, with whom they’ve had a nine-year relationship, for a great deal of their baptism into Afrobeats.

“The first time we played with Davido was in 2014,” remembers drummer Steven. “We’ve been to shows at the O2 Arena before but it was our first time playing there and it was such a big moment in the UK.”

Being an integral part of that moment means the musicians themselves are important to the Afrobeats culture, as we’ve seen thus far. They’ve had Europe and American tours, played at Glastonbury and SXSW, and are the house band of The Latiesh Show with Mo Gilligan on UK’s Channel 4.

The band insists though that what makes them tick is more than the music. For one, concerts and shows have seasons, especially in Europe. In the spring and summer, the group goes on tours and works the festival circuit with other artistes.

That scheduling is essentially what determines the outline of their work from year to year. “Beyond that, it really isn’t just about the music,” Charles tells The Africa Report. “It’s all about the experience. Everyone can play [musical instruments]. What we create is an experience that people leave concerts with.”

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