Sonny Akpan obituary

Other lives: Conga player who performed with the Funkees

My friend Sonny Akpan, who has died aged 69 after a prolonged period of illness, was a highly regarded conga player who played in chart-topping acts internationally, including Nigeria’s Funkees and Eddy Grant’s band, plus the psychedelic dub ensemble African Head Charge. He also played for the Rolling Stones, Fela Kuti, Lester Bowie, Osibisa, Phil Manzanera and Julio Iglesias in a career spanning five decades.

Born into a farming family in Akwa Ibom state, Nigeria, Sonny learned traditional drumming from his elders, earning his stripes in highlife band Dan Satch’s Atomic 8.

Sonny’s first real success came with the Funkees, founded in 1970 during the final days of Nigeria’s civil war. Based in Aba, the Funkees honed their sound playing the town’s thriving nightclub scene, channelling rock and funk influences through traditional Igbo lyrics and rhythms.

Sonny recalled how the Funkees’ postwar popularity contributed to healing Nigeria’s divisions. “When you started playing good music everybody forgot. Things started getting normal.”

Relocating to London in 1973, the Funkees continued performing before breaking up in 1977. Sonny moved on to Eddy Grant’s band, the Frontline Orchestra, touring globally and appearing on four albums including Walking on Sunshine (1978) and Killer on the Rampage (1982).

The Funkees orginated from Nigeria
The Funkees orginated from Nigeria Photograph: Handout

During this period Sonny also participated in Steel an’ Skin, activist Peter Blackman’s percussion project in response to inner-city unrest, promoting black consciousness in schools, prisons and hospitals. Here Sonny met steelpan player Fimber Bravo, beginning a musical collaboration that culminated in their album BEAT (2000).

In 1986, Sonny left Grant to establish a drum manufacturing workshop near his home in Dalston, east London, with his friend Spensa Thornton, before joining African Head Charge, put together by the producer Adrian Sherwood with percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. Bonjo and Sonny’s percussive interplay underpins the collective’s album Songs of Praise (1990), widely acclaimed as their masterwork, but after recording In Pursuit of Shashamane Land (1995) Bonjo returned to Ghana and African Head Charge folded.

Sonny continued sessions, gigs and teaching, reuniting with the Funkees for several UK performances in 2003. Two Funkees-related releases followed in the wake of renewed interest, Nigeria Special: Part 1 (2008) and The Funkees: Dancing Time (2012). Sadly, hopes of further shows were dashed after founder Harry Mosco died in 2012.

In a final interview Sonny declared, “I lived in rhythm, I was born in rhythm. What God gave me was rhythm and I will die with it.”

He is survived by his son, Ime, and two daughters, Adiaha and Uyai, from his marriage to Aster Paige, which ended in divorce in 1982, and by his grandchildren, Malachi and Sade.

Robert Green

The GuardianTramp

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