Obituary: Speedy Acquaye

Val Wilmer
Thursday 18 November 1993 00:02 GMT

Nii Moi 'Speedy' Acquaye, percussionist: born Accra, Ghana 7 June 1931; died London 15 September 1993.

SPEEDY ACQUAYE was one of a long line of African musicians whose presence in Britain since at least Elizabethan times has provided a cogent reminder of modern music's rich and diverse origins.

For over 40 years his challenging remarks and gap-toothed grin were as familiar around Soho as many of the quarter's better-documented denizens. But in Britain's careless tradition of paying scant attention to the individuality of black people, he often experienced anonymous status.

Those who knew him and his sturdy drumming knew better. Born in Accra in what was then the Gold Coast, Acquaye played a small drum, a parental gift, before starting school at 12. Teenage bands and encouragement from an older cousin failed to interest him in a musical career and he joined the Army briefly before heading for England. Pantomime (Man Friday in a Nottingham production) provided his show-business entry, London the stimulation for the rest of his life.

Soho in the 1950s teemed with small black clubs; here Acquaye found fellow Africans and local modern jazz players who admired their music. He worked with the saxophonists Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott and the redoubtable drummer Phil Seamen, then followed other African percussionists into Kenny Graham's adventurous Afro-Cubists.

A decade later, as part of the black milieu around the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street, he met the Lancashire-born organist Georgie Fame and became his guide to black society. Playing with his Blue Flames at the Flamingo and All Nighter in Wardour Street, Fame showcased Acquaye and started a new wave of appreciation for African musicians. Before long other rock bands were employing Africans to flesh out the rhythmic picture and Acquaye himself found work with such as the Animals, Small Faces, Rod Stewart, Graham Bond, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Ginger Baker's Airforce. With the Nightimers, he toured with his fellow Blue Flames the saxophonist Mick Eves and the Jamaican trumpeter Eddie 'Tan-Tan' Thornton. 'Speedy and I like a loving brother,' Thornton said. 'Him play power.'

Through teaching and his work with the Ghanaian group Dade Krama, Acquaye realised an early ambition to see traditional African music appeal to the young.

Acquaye was taken ill on a visit to Ghana in 1990, but cancer of the liver was only diagnosed shortly before his death. Georgie Fame, whom he rejoined for a recent residency at Ronnie Scott's Club, helped pay for his body to be flown back to Accra for burial, following a wake in London held at the Africa Centre, in Covent Garden.

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