Ask anybody who is old enough about Kiki Gyan and two answers would obviously roll out: first, he was a keyboardist for the legendary afro-rock band Osibisa. Second, he was once a young millionaire who died a pauper thanks to drug addiction.
One thing that get lost or not widely know was his contribution to the growth of Osibisa, as one of their gifted songwriters and a musician who pioneered a new sound-Afro-Funk; a blend of highlife music with Electronic funk and disco influences of the late 70s.
The story of Kofi Kwarko Gyan, famously called Kiki is well documented. He was drafted into Osibisa during their tour of Ghana in 1972 following the exit of the band’s keyboardist Robert Bailey. A precocious and dexterous teen, his talent was spotted by Mac Tontoh (co-founder of Osibisa) at age 15. This resulted in Kiki trading playing music for school. As he aptly put ‘there was too much music in me; I couldn’t stay in school’.
His talent earned him studio sessions and hung outs with Mick Jagger (Rolling Stones) and Elton John and played for the Queen, Elizabeth II at The Buckingham Palace. The fruits of his work: a millionaire by age 18. As he told journalist Kwaku Sakyi-Aidoo ‘more than 3.6 million dollars passed through my hands. I could make £ 8,000 over a weekend as a session keyboardist. I was the best in London’.
Best he was as he was hailed at a point in his time the 8th best keyboardist in the world’ sharing list with the likes of Stevie Wonder. Kiki Gyan, who was once married to Yeni Anikulapo, daughter of Afrobeat legend, Fela Kuti, unfortunately became a victim of drug addiction; a lifestyle that burrowed deep into his soul.
Kiki Gyan had to fight drug addiction for two decades despite numerous rehabilitation programmes. The efforts of friends such as South African legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela and Ghanaian ace musician Kojo Antwi at ‘cleansing’ him was near fruitless. He unfortunately passed away with AIDS related complications on June 10th 2002 aged 47.
Asked what might have accounted for Kiki Gyan’s involvement with drugs, Mac Tontoh attributed it to Osibisa’s failure to protect him as elder brothers (Osibisa) should from fake friends and bad influence adding ‘Kiki should have died with dignity’.
In 1979, he quit Osibisa citing the lack of recognition. In an interview, he stated his disdain for the band’s leaders-brothers Mac Tontoh and Teddy Osei- for taking credit for some of the hits he wrote. Kiki Gyan wanted to be a star, be in the limelight and not stay seated at the dark edges of the stage as a keyboardist.
Some of the hits he penned for Osibisa include Dance Your Body Music, Sunshine Day, Welcome Home, Coffee Song.
After branching out as a solo act, he released a novelty album that made the charts in UK and America. His album 24 Hours In A Disco was recorded live with a 16 piece orchestra and mashed highlife with Electronic Funk, Soul and Disco influences into a new musical genre labeled Afro-Funk. 24 Hours In A Disco boasted such hits as Sexy Dancer, Pretty Pretty Girls, Feelin’ Alright, Keep On Dancing.
Listening or watching Kiki Gyan speak about his life, choices and actions was a delight. His interviews indeed exude honesty and deemed no question as ‘uncomfortable’. With a good sense of humour, he spoke unashamedly free, giving no heed to people’s opinion of him. He was one who never solicited compassion from people. In his estimation he had a good time on earth despite his struggle. As he recounted to journalist Kweku Sakyi-Addo ‘we (Osibisa) travelled round the world, flew first class, slept in the best hotels and had the best girls. Man, life was good, too good’
Yes, Kiki Gyan could not win his fight against his demons (drugs) and died ‘without dignity’ but in the conversation of Kiki Gyan, one must not see a drug head but a man who was brave enough to experiment with his ideas, brave enough to walk away from a band which was in the throes of fame. His talent should and must be celebrated. Thus my excitement when I heard the staging of a tribute concert in his honour on the 3rd of October, 2015 and the launch of a Kiki Gyan Foundation to educate young kids on substance abuse issues.
One of the things that stuck with me during his interview with Kwaku Sakyi-Addo when he appeared on Kweku-One-On-One years ago was his reply to the question of regrets. With a sullen face he obliged he regret not getting to know (spending time with) his daughter and allowing himself to be cajoled into taking his first dose of cocaine. Aside these, he would live the same life again especially ‘cruising from New York to the Bahamas again’, he said with a big grin. That was obviously who Kiki Gyan was-a man whose flaws had claws.