Rolling down the decades with London-based musician Lord Eric
It was July 1969 and aspiring musician Eric Carboo found himself at the heart of an event that became part of rock history. It was the Rolling Stones’ free 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, thousands of them spread across the grass. 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 film 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, though, 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 trade in the early 1960s.
Talking to Eric with his laidback manner and flamboyant attire, it is hard to picture him quietly working 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 miramba and decided to amplify it. Wow! The sound was incredible. I tried it with the talking drum. Wow again! Amplifying traditional instruments was a completely new thing 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 cross-over of African rhythms and rock and it received an incredible reception. After that we just got bigger and bigger.”
In the early ‘70s, the band had enough cash in its pocket 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.”
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 Council sold it off – now we can’t even play there.”
For several years, though, Eric had been 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’ , 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 out in Camden before being extended to the rest of London. “We opened up a new field and 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 effectively killed off come full blown austerity. Eric founded another band, the Master Drummers of Africa, with notable performances at the Barbican and the Royal Festival Hall, and occasionally 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 more than 30 years of schools and community work eradicated has been hard. But I am still a man on 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.”
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal, October 5, 2017