Mac Tontoh, one of the great pioneers of the fusion of African and western music, was born in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region. From an early age he tuned into jazz broadcasts on VOA and the BBC World Service, and as his father played trumpet in the local church, Mac was lucky enough to receive encouragement from his parents to pursue a career in music, at a time when playing a horn in a band was not considered a serious occupation in Ashanti society.
Mac’s first band, known as “The Comets”, was based in Kumasi and led by his elder brother Teddy Osei (who he later collaborated with in Osibisa). The Comets cut their teeth playing in Kumasi clubs such as The Jamboree, Kismet and Hotel de Kingsway. They became very popular in Ghana and Nigeria during the early 1960s for highlife and jazz, and Mac soon emerged as one of the leading and most progressive Ghanaian hornsmen, fusing the modern jazz styles of trumpeters such as Miles Davis and Clifford Brown with West African highlife.
Following his move to Accra, Mac spent a brief period with the Brigade Band of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, which played mainly at state functions, before joining the now legendary Uhuru Band. Uhuru was a big band which played its own brand of highlife as well as hits from American composers such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. Uhuru were very popular all over West Africa, and their fame spread when they played at Malawi’s independence celebrations in 1964 and toured Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 1965. During his time with Uhuru Mac also ran a smaller jazz combo, the Bogart Sounds Sextet, made up of the pick of Uhuru’s sidemen.
Still searching for new horizons, Mac left Ghana for Europe in 1968. At first he stayed in Hamburg, Germany, playing in various jazz clubs in the St. Pauli area. Then, after a rendezvous with brother Teddy and drummer Sol Amarfio in Tunisia, the trio traveled to London to form the band which was to set the world alight with its ground-breaking fusion of African music and western pop and rock: OSIBISA. Mac co-wrote all of Osibisa’s major hits, including Music for Gong Gong, Welcome Home and Sunshine Day, as well as the soundtrack for Sig Shore’s 1973 movie Superfly TNT. Apart from his activities with Osibisa Mac also became part of the London “scene” of the 1970s, playing horn sessions for rock luminaries the Rolling Stones, Peter Green and Elton John.
During the 1970s and 1980s Osibisa toured virtually every corner of the globe, and Mac became a complete performer, playing not only his trumpet but also marimba, percussion and digeridoo, and he established a rapport with audiences which few could equal. Highlights of Osibisa’s live itinerary include the Mar y Sol festival in Puerto Rico (1972), FESTAC in Lagos, Nigeria (1977), an extensive tour of India (1981) and frequent tours of the USA, Japan, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
After more than twenty years of living in London or on the road, Mac decided that it was time to return to his African roots for fresh inspiration. In 1992 he moved back home to Ghana and, with the help of producer/engineer Mike Swai, set up his own recording studio in Accra. Mac and Mike then set about searching for and collaborating with some of the most dynamic and talented young Ghanaian musicians. The first product of this new phase was Mac’s first solo album, Rhythms and Sounds (1994), which featured a jazz-tinged contemporary take on some classic Ghanaian highlife styles together with some hard-hitting African funk whose energy and punch recalled Mac’s early days with Osibisa. Rhythms and Sounds re-established Mac as a musical force to be reckoned with in Ghana, and several tracks from the album have become national institutions through their frequent use by Ghana Television (GTV).
Following the release and successful promotion of this first solo album, Mac decided to look deeper into the musical traditions of his own people, the Ashanti. He decided to form a new band, and went to his home town, Kumasi, to look for drummers and singers who were well versed in the Kete and Adowa styles of the region. His new recruits included Kwabena Bonsu (who had previously toured Germany playing traditional Ashanti music), Justice Obeng (voted best traditional drummer for Atwima district at the age of fourteen) and Nana Ama Dakwaah (Queen Mother of Offuman in Brong Ahafo region, who as a child sang to entertain her father, the Paramount chief of the area). Mac brought his new group back to Accra and started rehearsing. Shortly afterwards he enlisted the talents of poet and vocalist Messiah Aguze and added bass guitar and sax to the line-up.
The new fusion of jazz and traditional Ashanti rhythms which emerged from this group confirmed Mac’s status at home as a truly vital force in contemporary Ghanaian music. Not only were Mac and the group invited to play at important functions such as the funeral of the recently deceased Asantehene (King of Ashanti), Otumfuo Opoku Ware II, but they also received accolades for their performances at the international Pan African Festival of Arts and Culture (PANAFEST) in Accra (1997 and 1999), at the National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFAC) in Bolgatanga (1998) and at the Emancipation Day celebrations at Cape Coast (2000) attended by Africans from all over the diaspora, including delegations from the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.
Mac toured the UK with the Kete Warriors in 2000 and 2001 to a rapturous reception from British audiences. Since returning to Ghana after the group’s successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2001, Mac has taken a break from making music and is concentrating on his work with the Ghana National Commission on Culture. Recently, he announced that he will reunite with the other living members of Osibisa to tour the world. Mac Tonto Died in August 2010 after suffering from stroke for a while.