Ghana's Highlife Music Collection
Peter Legrand Mensah
Interview with Peter Legrand Mensah (2004)
Kwame Sarpong © 2004 rev. 2014 FDL
Peter Legrand Mensah, alias Elgrand Koffie, was born on February 3rd 1940 at Saltpond in the Mfantsiman District of the Central Region of Ghana. His maternal grandmother came from Ofoase in the Ashanti Region. She migrated to Kromantse near Saltpond in her teens. This is why they came to live in Saltpond. He had seven brothers and sisters, and have five children. Legrand speaks Fante, Asante Twi, English and a little French.
Kwame Sarpong: Elgrand, how did you first become interested in music?
Peter Legrand: I got into music from one Mr. Gardner who hailed from Ogoekrom near Saltpond in the Mfantsiman District of the Central Region. Mr. Samuel Gardner was very proficient in the composition and singing of Twi/Fanti hymnals and dirges known in the Fanti language as “Abibinnwom”. He had a gravel voice and sang in the methodist church and at funerals. This man was a very “good friend” of my mother. As a result of this relationship my mother changed my name from Ebenezer to Samuel because she wanted me to become a priest and sing like Mr. Gardner. She followed her wish and therefore made me to go and stay with the methodist superintendent minister, the Reverend Francis Chapman Ferguson Grant in 1953 when I was only thirteen years. As my formal education was disrupted along the way, Reverend Grant privately taught me algebra, geometry and other subjects so I could attend Freeman College in Kumasi, which was where the local methodist ministers were trained. This was not to be and in 1955, I was employed as a teacher at Enyan Maim near Mankesim. In 1956, I was transferred to Kuntu.
In 1957, during Ghana’s independence celebrations, I visited my elder brother, Joseph Ackon Mensah who was working at the Prempeh Cinema Company in Takoradi owned by the late Mr. J.K. Agyapong. It was during this time that I was with my brother that the Broadway Dance Band was being formed. I got so fascinated with the sound of the guitar that I approached the guitarist, the late Rebop Aggrey who agreed to train me. This was not easy as he tried to find so many excuses to put me off but I persisted and with the intervention of his wife Sister Ekuah he eventually opened up to give me the needed instructions.
Sarpong: Elgrand, what form did this tutorial take?
Legrand: Initially he gave me “Guitar Tuitor” written by Bill Tringham. As he taught me the practicals, Sammy Obbott who was the band leader also taught me the rudiments of music and also how to read music. These two gentlemen were so influential in my formative years as a musician and I am forever grateful to them.
Sarpong: This is very interesting. Now can you tell me your life as a professional musician, the first band you played with, when you made your first recording, why you left the various bands, and what happened after all these?
Legrand: In 1961 when the Brigade Band was formed I was employed as a second guitarist. In 1962, when Broadway No. 2 (later to be known as the Revellers Dance Band) was formed, the band leader, the late Sammy Lartey took me in as his guitarist. I had to leave the band out of respect for my mentor Rebob Aggrey. It happened that Mr. Agyapong the owner of both the Broadway No. 1 and Revellers wanted me to be the leader of Broadway which was then led by Rebob. If I took it it would be a sort of “demotion” to Rebob and this did not go too well with my conscience so I resigned.
Later in 1962, I travelled to Liberia. Here the Mofort Band was formed. Mofort was the name after Madam Comfort Moore, who was the wife of Mr. Walter Moore, the executive president to the late president Tubman. In this band there were stars like Bobby Peterson formerly of the Broadway Dance Band, Primo, Kwesi Chrys Sackey (aka Crentsil), Biney, Alongway and Nana Asare on trumpet. Chrys Sackey has studied in Germany and is now having a doctorate degree in Music. Nana Asare is also with the National Orchestra.
In 1964, I left Liberia for Dakar, Senegal. Here we formed a group known as The Jazz Disciples with Oyeah Mackenzie and Vivce Arthur (now in Germany).
In late 1965, I again moved to Daloa in Western Côte d’Ivoire when a Municipal Orchestra was being formed. This group came to be known as La Renaissance Jazz. We came to Ghana to represent la Côte d’Ivoire at Ghana’s First International Trade Fair in 1967.
In 1968, as a result of the performance of the Renaissance Band at the Trade Fair, I was invite by Mr. Eric Arhin of Takoradi Harbour View Hotel to organize a group at the Hotel. This group came to be known as the Herikos. Herikos was the names of the two partners, Eric and Kofi. We recorded a couple of songs for the group. This band lasted for only a year due to a misunderstanding between Mr. Arhin and Kofi. I moved with the entire membership of the band and with the help of Kwadwo Donkor a veteran composer/arranger and the late Mr. Rexford Darko, the executive director of Mechanical Lloyd to form Houghas Extraordinaire which in Fanti is “Houghas Soronko”. We rendered this song “Onyame Otiase Daa” literally translated from Fanti as “God is always alive”. This band became so popular that we won the first prize in the Soul Brother No. 1 Competition for that year. Our vocalists were P.P. Dynamite, Bob Boogaloo and Osei.
A successful tour of Upper Volta, later to be known as Burkina Faso, in late 1970 and early 1971. We played at a night club known as Cabanne Bambou that was owned by one Mrs. Campoare whose husband was the resident director of Shell Company. The tour was climaxed with a concert at the National Theatre. The Agriculture Minister who represented the president organized a party for us before we left back to Ghana. It was at this time that relationships between Ghana and other West African Countries was very strained as a result of the Alien Compliance Order was passed by the then Government of Ghana. Our show was so good that it erased these bad felings between our two countries.
On the day for the Agriculture Minister’s Party for the band, a section of the members of the band complained of homesickness so we left. We were however arrested at the border to go back to eat the food prepared for us by the Agriculture Minister. We were put in police cells. Funny isn’t it for refusing to attend a party. The band disbanded on our return as most of the men had sufficient money and decided to travel overseas. Chris Sackey is presently in Germany as said earlier, with a doctorate degree in music. He recently lost his German wife.
In late 1971, Le Roy Ebo Taylor left the Railway Dance Band and I was invited to re-organize this. I changed the name to “Railports” as Railways had merged with the Ports Authority. Again after the separation of the two in 1976 it was re-named the “Silver Tracks Band”. In 1981, I managed the Trans Afrika Dance Band based in Takoradi until a tour to Wa in 1981. We were still at Wa in the Northern Region (now the capital of Upper West Region). The following were members of the band: Mills (bass guitar), Wallas Tay (lead guitar), Paa Kwesi (organ), Azah Mensah (drums), W.A. Quarshie (lead singer, percurssionist). Presently W.A. Quarshie is landscape designer based in Cape Coast. The group performed at most state functions in Ghana and other West African countries. As a result of long time curfew imposed on the country, night life was killed completely. In 1983 I quit playing in the band and entered into business.
Sarpong: Elgrand, you have such a wide experiences with various groups. Could you please tell me about certain highlights of events with these bands, for example Houghas and Herikos?
Legrand: Ok, one of the highlights of Herikos was on our visit to Nigeria during the Biafra War in that country. This was at the invitation of Fela who was having the Koola Lobitos in Lagos in 1969. One peculiarity of Herikos was that we deployed two jazz ensembles on stage, and during performances we stopped so they can sort of “speak “ with each other. We were the first to introduce Gospel Music into dance halls with our song “Onyame Tie Masem” which literally translates as “God listen to me”. At the opening of the Americana Hotel in Kumasi that was owned by Mr. Boaitey, we played side by side with the famous Dr. K. Gyasi’s Noble Kings led by Yaw Barimah. This was in 1968.
On Houghas, one of the highlights in the life of the band was when we played for the American Marines and the Zonta Club International in Abidjan at the Hotel d’Ivoire. We were the first Ghanaian Band to have performed at this prestigious 5-star hotel. During this time we had Gyedu Blay-Ambulley on bass guitar and Tommy King on lead trumpet.
[Legrand never took part in the concert party performance. He was highly influenced by the Voice Of America Jazz hour programme that was hosted by Willis Conova.]
Sarpong: Elgrand, now we are nearly getting to the tail of this interesting chat with you. We have seen that you travelled with your various bands to other countries to perform. Could you please tell me whether you were influenced by the music you heard in these countries and also what were the most popular bands in those countries?
Legrand: Definitely there were some influences with the number of interactions in the countries visited and we sometimes deployed some lyrics in our repertoires. On the popular bands in the various countries I will take them one by one.
1. Oldman Mills Dance Band
2. Thomas Bernard Dance Band
Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast):
1. Fax Clark Band
2. Amédée Pierre
3. Buake Municipal Dance Band
4. François Lougah Singers
1. Fela Ransome Kuti and His Koola Lobitos
2. Bobby Benson’s Band
3. Rex Lawson
In 1983 I worked at the Tabasi Studios in Onitsha (Nigeria).