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Lord Eric bangs drum for education

From playing with the Rolling Stones in the Swinging Sixties to taking African folk culture into schools across the country, percussionist Lord Eric Sugumugu is a man on a mission

05 October, 2017 — By Angela Cobbinah

Lord Eric Carboo

BACK in July 1969, aspiring musician Eric Carboo found himself at the heart of an event that became part of rock history. It was the Rolling Stones’ concert in Hyde Park, attended by an estimated crowd of half a million. But Eric hadn’t gone along to watch – he was part of the band.

“It was an incredible experience,” he recalls, with a characteristic broad smile. “I had never played before so many people. Some had even climbed trees to get a better view.”

Eric was one of a number of African percussionists who had been brought on stage for the Stones’ final number, the samba-inflected Sympathy for the Devil.

“The crowds really went wild as we took up the beat. Jagger was experimenting with a new vibe and it was our presence at Hyde Park that really brought African rhythms into the mainstream.

“I was soon getting a lot of session work. One day [former Beatles producer] George Martin got in touch and I ended up playing with Paul McCartney and Wings on the Live and Let Die soundtrack.”

For Eric, it was confirmation that his ambition to pioneer a new type of sound was on the right track.

Better known today as Lord Eric Sugumugu, he would go on to found his own band, Agor Mmba, which combined touring with spreading the cultural message that underpinned it in schools up and down the country.

His musical career began informally while growing up alongside a neighbourhood theatre group in Winneba, a town in southern Ghana.

“They incorporated music and dance into their shows and children were encouraged to take part. I ended up being able to play a number of instruments and could make quite a few too.”

But his parents had other things in mind for him and after leaving school he was sent to study electronics in the Netherlands before arriving in London to work in the early 1960s.

Talking to Eric with his laid-back manner and flamboyant attire, it is hard to picture him working his way up the career ladder as an electronics engineer. Of course, that never happened.

“I used to hang out with a lot of musicians and one day I was playing around with a marimba and decided to amplify it. Wow! The sound was incredible. I tried it with the talking drum. Wow again! Amplifying traditional instruments was completely new and I knew I had to develop it.”

Thanks to his musical versatility, he joined the band of one of the most famous African musicians of the day, Nigerian percussionist and one-time member of the Edmundo Ros Orchestra, Ginger Johnson.

“It was Swinging London and we made it swing even more,” he laughs. “We were also regarded as a pool of musicians who could be regularly called upon to provide the rhythm section for other people. That’s how we got the Stones’ gig.”

Almost inevitably, Ginger Johnson and his African Drummers got to play at what had become the de facto base of the new counterculture, the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, where Eric’s trick of making the drums acoustic was tried.

“That sound became afro rock,” he says proudly. “It was the first crossover of African rhythms and rock andit received an incredible reception. After that, we just got bigger and bigger.”

In the early 1970s, the band had enough cash to take over the Hampstead Tennis and Country Club in Belsize Park, renaming it the Iroko.

“It became a real scene and people came from all over to play, including Fela and Osibisa. Prince Charles even turned up to one event. It was all so beautiful.”

Eric performing at Theatro Technis

A few years after Johnson’s premature death in 1975, the Iroko was forced to close when the building was taken back for redevelopment.

Eric’s normally cheerful features cloud over as he explains how plans for him and a consortium of other groups to move into the Roundhouse in its reincarnation as Camden Council’s Black Arts Centre spectacularly fell through in 1986.

“We were betrayed,” he accuses. “A lot of money was squandered and the Roundhouse was left empty for years. Then Camden sold it off – now we can’t even play there.”

In the meantime, Eric was running a successful community programme from the Winchester Project in Swiss Cottage, where his own band Agor Mmba was based. This included a range of workshops and a weekly show called Sugumugu Sunday.

“Agor Mmba means ‘children at play’ and Sugumugu ‘happiness always’,” he explains. “The idea was for families to take part and have fun – for example, we would set African folk tales to music and act them out, complete with props and costumes. Our aim was to empower kids with a positive cultural vibe.”

The concept was then taken into schools, starting in Camden before being extended to the rest of London.

“Soon we were touring the whole country, from Cornwall to Scotland. It was not just jumping about, but creating culture, and it really inspired a lot of children. It became my main mission. We had little money, but loads of commitment and passion.”

Cutbacks in council funding saw it fizzle out as the new millennium dawned, and then it was effectively killed off by full-blown austerity.

Eric went on to found another band, the Master Drummers of Africa, with notable performances at the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, and continues gigging with Agor Mmba – his genial persona guaranteed to light up any stage.

But it is hard being a musician these days, however illustrious one’s pedigree.

“I bump into people and they ask me why I am still travelling by bus,” he says, laughing out loud.

“That is no big deal, but seeing our schools and community work eradicated has been hard.

“But I am still a man on a mission. To this day, I get positive feedback from those who benefited from our work. They are big men and women now and doing well, many of them working in the arts. What we did was amazing.”

Black History Month: upcoming events

Thursday October 5

Island to Island: Journeys though the Caribbean. Launch of Hackney Museum’s new exhibition celebrating the English-speaking Caribbean and its connections Hackney through photographs taken over the past 60 years. Hackney Museum, 1 Reading Lane, E8 1GQ; 6pm-7.45pm. More info: 020 8356 3500. Until January 13. Free
The Life and Legacy of Maya Angelou. A celebration of the work of the late African-American writer, performer and activist. Hackney Central Library, 1 Reading Lane, E8 1GQ. More info: 020 8356 3000. Until October 31. Free

Friday October 6

Hidden Figures.
A film revealing the little-known story of how three black women mathematicians at NASA helped power America’s space race in the 1960s. Francis Crick Institute,
1 Midland Road, NW1 1AT; 5.30pm-8pm. Free, but book via Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk

Saturday October 7

Pegasus Opera Company’s journey through black history. Featuring a range of figures,
from Jamaica’s Queen Nanny to African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, all set to the music of black composers. Brixton Library, Brixton Oval, SW2 1JQ; 7pm. Free, but booking essential on 020 7926 1058

Monday October 9

In conversation with Doreen Lawrence. Presented by the University of Westminster at Regent Street Cinema, 307 Regent Street, W1B 2UW; 6pm-7pm. Free, but book via Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk

Tuesday October 10

Kaiso Vibrations. A musical journey exploring Trinidadian music, from kaiso through calypso to today’s soca. Homerton Library, Homerton High Street, E9 6AS; 6pm-8pm. More info: 020 8356 3000. Free

Wednesday October 11

Hidden in Plain Sight. Exhibition launch celebrating
the contribution of black nurses to the NHS over the decades. Royal College of Nursing, Cavendish Square, W1G ORN; 5.30pm-7.30pm. Free, but book via Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk or call 0345 337 368. Until March 10

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Containing rare footage and photos, this is an opportunity to see the first documentary about the iconic writer, performer and activist. Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Square, E8 3BQ; 6.30pm-9pm. More info: 020 8356 3000. Suitable for ages 18+

Thursday October 12

The Story of M. SuAndi’s moving tribute to her mother, who raised her children to be proud of their African heritage in the face of prejudice in 1960s Britain. Now part of the A Level English literature syllabus. Bernie Grant Arts Centre, Town Hall Approach Road, N15 4RX; 1.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets £10 (concs £8)
on 020 8365 5450; boxoffice@ berniegrantcentre.co.uk

Friday October 13

When We Ruled. Seminar by Robin Walker on the little-known history of pre-colonial African civilisations and Black Britain. Wolfson Lecture Theatre, King’s College Denmark Hill Campus, 10 Cutcombe Rd, SE5 9RJ; 5.30pm-8pm. Register via whenweruledioppn.eventbrite.co.uk. For more information email: krystal.rose@kcl.ac.uk

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