Percussionist and Conga player of Gambia's Eagles Jazz Band
Ola Coker is a Gambian drummer and an original member of The Eagles Jazz Band with an exquisite experience of Gambian Congolese and Highlife music, a classic Rumba percussionist.
He is a living legend and most famous for being a member of the Eagles band of the Gambia. He was an integral figure in the fusion of Congolese and Gambian music rhythms with Gambian songs and Highlife music, paving the way for songs like "Fiesta Vous" , "Dohi Gudi" and "Gal Gan Chi Rabi" to come into existence and made popular by the Super Eagles years later.
Ola Coker was one of a handful of Cuban conga players who made Gambian music solid and firm as a structural pillar of music recognized by the music industry throughout West Africa.
Before dance music hit the street of Banjul and the B.O Janneh compound hall at Dippa-Kunda; there were only two guys namely Pa Njie-Sasu and Uncle Nicky Boy Prom the father of Leon Prom of the Chameleon band, singing in the streets and supplying the Gambia public with what is known as contemporary music, playing with only a guitar and singing songs.
Ola is the brother of Late O'Brien Coker, Police officer Osseh Coker, Biola Coker, Jabs Coker, Admire Coker, Maina and Modou Coker (in the UK). He is a creole, a fine gentleman, highly respectful, prestigious and kind at heart. Ola is a noble and he is a living legend in Gambia's list of great musicians.
He now lives in America but he is a frequent visitor to Gambia. He hanged with all the Ndongo-boys of Banjul"Afdie", he was not the "Ouse Pikin" type (House boy), an Ouse Pikin is someone who is always at home studying and doing domestic work at the house and not mixed with the indigenous culture and the street life of Banjul local boys commonly called Ndongos.
Ola was mostly seen with the street boys at ‘TEFFESS’ (the shopping streets) ‘TANN’ (the swamps behind Malfa school), and "TATI PERE" (the seaside area). Ola also joined "Mbarr", the circumcision camps were manhood is thought and all tricks are thought as rite of passage for becoming a Gambian elder.
He knew "Oy-ee Mam", the calling of the circumcision spirits at dawn before graduating into manhood. He did all that a Gambian boy would do to be counted as an influential character and youth leader in the community. He is a master in everything he does.
Ola Coker was also a great sports man who played football in the daytime and performed as a musician in the night time. He did the same like the Pop Singer Paps Touray, who was also a goal keeper for Phantoms in the daytime and perform as a musician at night.
Ola Coker played for Arrance FC with team mates like Dowu Joiner, Yusu Samba, Pa Samba, Remi Allen, E. Drammeh (captain), Njok Njie, Salifu Ndure, Confidence- Edi Manneh, Max Njie and others. There was the best team in the Gambia when they registered with the GFA.
Arrance FC had fierce competition with Augustinians, Black Diamonds, Phantoms, Foyer, Gambia United, etc. These were great teams and no one could predict the outcome of a game. It was a battle to thrill.
Ola was a Champion goalkeeper among Gambia's great Goalkeepers like: Pap Touray, Nyapsu, Lamin Touray, Amou Taal, Omar Sallah and Laye Sarr (Bahu-ma).
He started playing football at Tati-Park 9 Thomas Street) in Banjul and his team was called Tati-Park XI were he played together with late Youssou Sey, Youssou Samba and Pa Drammeh, the brother of football legend E. Drammeh He played at Crab Island school and with the Black Diamonds football team before bowing down with the Arrance Football Club which was the apex of his football career.
Ola inspired many Gambian conga players including the multi talented Laba Sosseh. Additionally, his name is used as the person who accurately played the Congolese music in Gambian bands and has set the standard of modern highlife percussion in the Gambia.
When the character Ola enters a scene, a Creole-speaking youngster the crowd cries "Hands of gold!" before jamming the dance-floor. Ola Started his musical career at the Boogie Boys Meeting point at Fitzgerald street in Banjul, a shoe makers joint ‘The Cobbler Shop’ with Guitarist Garba and many other boys. They played only Guitars and Ola was playing empty cases called Box as a drummer and conga player.
The popular Radio Congo was on the air everyday at 6pm and every Gambian youth would tune into Radio Congo to hear the latest music coming from Congo and Congo was the capital of music in Africa.
There was a tough competition between the Congolese music and the Hilife music of Ghana but the Congolese music won this popularity contest by blending both Pachanga and Rumba in their rhythms, while Hilife music was purely Ghanaian.
The music of the Creole community was started by the Cho-roo-roo Band by R.K.O Joiner, Uncle Wole Coker, Mr. Allen (MacDonald Street and Uncle Joker. They played Banjos and acoustic guitars, boxes and other acoustic hand percussion.
They were the starting point of the Creole music. There was also the Gambia Gumbay boys with Uncle Kobna and friends who played a more traditional music based on Guitars, Carpenter's saw as percussion, beating nails to the bottle percussion bottle and nail percussion.
There where youth clubs that had an open heart to all Gambians and all were invited to join including the Crystal Comrades, Junction Bi (Oxford Street & Louvel Street) in Banjul.
These Clubs held most of the social activities at the Methodist Hall at Dobson Street in Banjul. They also organized classical music nights whereby youth choir groups would play concertos and classical music of Bach, Handel, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Amadeus Mozart, Linz, Tchaikovsky, Ravel with a deserve range of musical instruments from cellos, viola, clarinet, accordions to windpipes.
These were the days that Classical music was in the Gambia. There is a list of very recognized personalities that were known as the party goers and social event organizers. They had their respect from everyone and when they dress to go out, it was like a fashion show and the hats of the girls were like a day at the royal Ascot.
Later they introduced the Waltz, the Bossa Nova, Fox Trot and lately the northern Country and western music with the likes of Jim Reeves, Buck Owens and Rock-a Billies like Jerry Lewis, Billy Fury, Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. This is where Ola Coker Came from.
Ola Coker came from a socially matured society with the likes of the few listed (out of a thousand) Gambian Cerole Boys and girls who changed the social landscape of the Gambia from TRADITIONAL MUSIC TO WESTERN POP MUSIC with the likes of (excuse the long list): Dowu Grant, Tom Bright, Ingram (Femi) Peters, Bani Foster, Arthur Foster, Bani Elliot& brother Late Elliot, Kwamina Elliot.
James George, August Prom, Princess Taylor, Patience Joiner, Laqrja Roberts, Tom Sowe, Eddie Bright, Mary Davis, Ola Coker, Prince Coker, Tom Ogoo, St. George Joiner, kaba Joiner, Ruth Sowe, Ester Sowe, Cathrine Cates, Joy Coker, Mary Thomas, Sam Jones, Ola Roberts, John Peacock, Theophius George, Oremi Abraham, John Abraham, Sam, Campbell, Archibald Campbell.
Babs Davis, Hanna Foster, Mary Thomas, Mathilda Thomas, Elizebath Reiner, Rosanna Reiner, Dayo Savage, Joe Colley, Sam Taylor, Ransford Clyn Thomas, Ruben Mendy, Thomas Grant, Francis Kah, Soronke Mahoney, Arthur Caqrrol, Steffen Phillot, Solomon Oliver (Galandou, Burang Oliver, Raymond Sock, George Foster (Hagan St).
Felix Foster, Gregory Reiner, Joseph Taylor Thomas, Crispen Grey Johnson, Monty Grey Johnson, Samuel Grey Johnson, Victoria Grey Johnson, Richeal Jones, Adel Frazier, Abdul Aziz Frazier, Sarah Goddard, Jonathan Williams, Horace Valentine, Hanna Valentine, James Valentine, Winston Roberts, Harry Boy Johnson, Sam Taylor, Sam Davis, Ruben Phillot.
Hezekiah Phillot, Dave. H. Thomas, Johnny V. Coker, Joe Coker, John Davidson Coker, Jeremiah Aki Allen, Zephaniah Beres Ford king, James Ogoo, John Dalliah, Edmond Thomas, Anna George, Hanna KIng, Georger Foster (Cricketer), Charles Valentine. These guys and dolls were the trendsetters and the taste makers of music in the Gambia.
Ola Coker made a giant leap from the Boogie Boys combo band to the Ritz-Reform band at Ritz Cinema in Banjul under Mr. John Bright of Fitzgerald Street. Mr. John Bright (commonly known as Pa Bright) was a legendary entertainment entrepreneur.
He was a pioneer of the cinema and a band owner, the Ritz-Reform band play mainly playing instrumental music with bandleader Gustavo Taylor as saxophone player like the American bands of King Curtis and Motown's Junior Walker and the All-Stars.
The Ritz -Reform Band was with Accordion player Charlie Valentine (later with as bassist the Super Eagles), Charles the trumpeter, K.C During, Gustavo Taylor and others. They had a small spell with Ritz Reform and then Ola moved to join the Black Star to join long time friend Oussou Njie, and with Sammy, Marcelline, Charlie Valentine, Lelly (on Maracas).
On the other side of town there was the African Jazz at 13, Dobson Street formed by business man and innovator Alhagi Chamsu Coker. The African Jazz had Modou Cham on Congas, Badou Jobe, Guitarist Jallow, The African Jazz was a collection of Laba Sosseh'e Foyer Band which he disbanded to form the Rock-A - Mambo. The musicians of both Rock A Mambo and Foyer Band formed the African Jazz after Laba Sosseh decided to go to Dakar, Senegal to start a band called the Super Star.
This is how the battle of the bands started. The Half Die band was African Jazz band and the Soldier town band was Black Star. The rivalry was fierce between the Eagles and the Africa, Jazz.
The people would say when you want to hear Congolese rumba you have to listen to Black Star but if you want to hear good pachanga, you would have to listen to the African Jazz.
Even at a dance at Hyde Park Vous Dance, the Black star band had a pair of Congos for the performance but they fixed it wrong and not being able to use it rightly, it was Modou Cham of the African Jazz who came over and fixed it right for the Black star band. There was a rivalry but there was comradeship.
While the African Jazz of Chamsu Coker was in top gear, the band members decided leave to join Malick Secka, a photographer at 30, Hagan Street who bought brand new musical instruments from England whereby all musicians had their instruments.
Before this time the bands were semi- acoustic, meaning that many musicians improvised their own hand made instruments while the bands were also centered around one or two proper musical instruments like a guitar or a saxophone.
Alhaji Fisco Conateh, Seedy Jow, Nurainu Carew and Pa Cham of Hyde Park Vous were instrumental for assisting the African Jazz boys to start to a new band with Uncle Mike Malick Secka to start the Eagles; who sacrificed to bring into the Gambia, the first set of professional music instruments.
With these instruments, the boys were able to show off their musical talents and their specialty in each and every instrument. The move to start the Eagles forced Ola Coker and most of the Black Star band members to go along with the idea of forming the Eagles Band.
A proper band with a professional set up and a complete band stand. With the Eagles, they introduced one Edu Hafner to the band. People heard him sing all over the place but he was not a member of any group and so the Eagles took him in as a singer with a voice that was later to become a key voice in both the Eagles and the Super Eagles.
With the Eagles band Ola had many performances and toured with the band to Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone they had the Chance to meet with Prime Minister Albert Maggai of Sierra Leone who gave a standing ovation for the band.
A triumphant return waited for the band when they returned to Banjul in 1964. The streets were paraded with people as far as your eyes can see, they were untouchable and they were made stars from this point, a symbol of Gambian pride and icons and also loved by everyone.
They became the Emblem of Success in the Gambia surpassing every work of life. Gambia had never seen such a celebration of human achievement. In 1967, Ola left the Gambia and also leaving the Eagles to study in Russia. He studied in Sociology, Trade Union, and Political Science before moving to England after his time in Russia.
In England, he went to Kings College in London for a few years before transferring to the United States for further Studies at the renowned University of Illinois.
In 1968, the Super Eagles was born but before this time Ola was busy with others trying to secure musical instruments to form a more professional band since they were the national heroes and being known in Sierra Leone and other African Countries.
They visited many rich Gambians and they turned them out; even a top Gambian businessman insulted them for asking him. For him, he said music was purposely for bringing people together and his mum always allowed him to do whatever he thought was right and that's how he became a musician in the first place.
In America, he bought his pair of conga drums which he played regular as flashback music to his glorious career with the Eagles Jazz Band as one of Africa's greatest Drummers in the business of music. As in music, so in life.
Author: Oko Drammeh