"The near-death experience made me a top singer"

Tony Kofi, then 16, was injured in an accident at work.

"The near-death experience made me a top singer"

Tony Kofi, then 16, was injured in an accident at work. He fell from a high height and saw himself playing a musical instrument. This experience led him to a new path in his life and he became a well-respected saxophonist.

Tony was three stories high and noticed how beautiful it was. The sky was peaceful and clear. Tony recalls, "I was so happy."

It was spring 1981, and Tony Kofi (16) was working as an apprentice carpenter to replace the roof on a house.

He was so eager to impress, he asked his supervisor if it would be okay for him to continue working while his boss ate lunch. He was warned by his supervisor to be cautious.

He was cutting a length of two-by-four wood. Tony recalls, "I didn’t saw it properly, and it splintered."

"It grabbed my sleeve, and took me down."

Tony began to fall.

He thought he couldn't possibly survive. He said that he was able to relax, let go, and close his eyes.

He says, "I don’t know if it’s adrenaline or not – because I’ve read about this, which states that when you fall from great heights, everything slows down." "I started to see flashes. It was amazing."

Tony's visions showed him different places and faces around the globe.

"I saw young children I had never seen before. Those were to be my children, I suppose. The one thing that stuck with me was my standing up and playing an instruments. It was the strangest feeling I've ever felt in my whole life.

"And that was it. I blacked out completely."

In the 1960s, Tony's Nottingham childhood home was filled with the smoky, silky tones of jazz musicians. Tony's mother Ama was listening to her records.

Jack, her husband, was from Kumasi in south Ghana. Ama had witnessed Louis Armstrong perform live in person during his 1956 visit to the United States. It was what had led her to fall in love and be a jazz lover.

Jack, who had spent time in England during his 20s pursuing his boxing career in England, moved to Nottingham in 1959 to establish a home for his family. Ama, their two sons, and Jack joined them a year later. She brought many records with her and the house was filled to the brim with jazz beats and syncopated jazz music.

Ama and Jack had seven more boys, and Tony was their fifth. His 1964 birth recalls his childhood just like Armstrong's song What a Wonderful World. He remembers his upbringing with "skies and clouds of blue"

He says that he can't remember winter as a child because it was too much fun for him to think about these dark, cold days.

His childhood was "very traditional" with Ghanaian food, and Ghanaian music. His parents insist that Twi be spoken at home by his family in Ghanaian dialect. English was only for the outside.

Tony, however, was quite a tearaway when it came time to go to primary school.

He said, "I was born left-handed. In Ghana, if you have left-handed children, they will want them to be right-handed." My parents insist that I be right-handed. It's an old tradition.

"The school was informed. They had to ensure that I wasn’t writing with my left hand, which I believe made me a bit disruptive because I was going against what the grain of wisdom dictates.

Tony was a sports fan, and he played football with his friends during his school years. He expressed a passion for music in secondary school, but was told that he would not be able study it.

Tony says, "They gave you little tests and then picked who was more focused or who was more grounded." Tony doesn't believe he was one of those chosen.

"I was very upset about that and they placed me in woodwork. I accepted it and that is what I did throughout my secondary school."

Tony was making great progress in his craft and quit school in 1980 to become a carpentry apprentice. He attended college once a week, while learning on the job the rest of the time. He had his tragic fall while working at one of these jobs.

Tony, his father, mother and two brothers were by his side when he woke up from the accident. He was deeply worried about his condition and wanted to know how he felt.

"I said that my head hurts and they replied: 'You gave them a fright, I've been out for days.

Tony was disorientated, bruised, and had suffered severe head trauma. Tony was told that the fall had caused him so much damage to his head that he could have been killed.

He recalled his work supervisor visiting him in hospital.

"He said to him, 'You just completely struck the bottom of your head like a bag of potatoes.

Tony was able to leave the hospital after three to four weeks. He returned home to recuperate. Tony had been paid some money as compensation for his fall and loss of earnings. His job was still available for him to return to at any time he felt ready.

However, the images he saw when he fell wouldn't go away. They kept "flashing back", every time he closed his eye.

Tony says, "They really haunted my soul because it was almost as if I [was] being shown some thing."

Although he kept the information to himself, the fall changed his outlook on life.

Tony, who had never studied music before, began to think about how he could spend his compensation money on a musical instrument.

What was the instrument that he saw in his visions of it? He looked through music books, and he found a description of a shiny, brass-colored woodwind instrument with a conical form.

It was the saxophone.

Tony says, "I don't claim that I was musically illiterate back then, but I had never seen a saxophone."

Tony bought his first saxophone in 1982 for PS50. This was a large sum, and is equivalent to around PS200 today. He carried his musical treasure back to his family.

His mother stared at him incredulously, not knowing what Tony saw in his vision.

Tony says, "I said, 'It is a saxophone, and I'm planning to play it. I'm also going to learn it.'" "I am going to quit my job."

Tony distinctly recalls his mother placing her hand on Tony's head and asking Jack to speak to him.

Tony recalls Jack saying that Tony "is throwing away a perfectly good deal." "He's probably afraid of what happened in fall."

Tony refused to listen to his father, even though he tried.

"I said, 'I can't go back.' "They [didn’t] understand why I was saying that, but I told them that if I went back, I would as well have fallen in that fall."

Tony could not afford lessons, and his father and mother were not able "hard-earned money" to spend on music tuition. Tony's mother, however, offered Tony something more valuable and precious - vinyl gold.

Tony says, "She gave me the stacks and records." Tony says that she told him, "Look, this is very, very great music. Use these records, and learn from them." They were recorded to cassette. I put on the headphones and listened constantly. I tried to learn from them all and would try to play along.

Tony started to learn how to play the Saxophone. However, his first attempts failed to produce the same mellow, soulful tone that the saxophone is known for.

Shriek, screech, squeak.

Tony says it was "like a five-year old child trying to play the violin." It was painful to the ears and excruciating.

His "musical barometer" was his brothers. The door to his bedroom would suddenly open and a shoe would crash towards Tony, hitting him on the back or head.

He continued to practice, for first two hours, then five hours, then eight to ten hours per day.

As time went on, the flying shoes were less frequent. His brothers started to sit down and listen to Tony play.

Tony recalled his mother bringing a tray of food into his room one day and Tony saying to her, "I recognize what you're doing... I love that tune."

It was taken from Duke Ellington's album Take the "A" Train.

The song features a train traveling down the subway track from New York to Harlem's Sugar Hill District.

Tony felt that his life was on the right track. He says, "It was an amazing time to be me."

Tony could play the saxophone by hearing it, but he couldn't read music and wanted more information about music theory. He approached a college in Nottingham that was well-known for its music and performing arts training. However, he was denied admission because he had not passed any musical examinations or grades.

He says that it was almost like a rejection. But this time, I didn't want to accept it. I had found something I loved and wanted to do. That rejection only made me stronger.

He was looking through Downbeat magazine in America, and reading about jazz musicians' lives, when he saw some ads for music colleges in the United States.

Tony says, "I picked one and thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to write them and try to apply.’"

He submitted his application to Berklee College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts. This college is renowned for its musical excellence. Berklee alumni have received 311 Grammy Awards to date.

Tony says that they auditioned me first but eventually took me. Tony was 24 years old when he left for America to study music.

Berklee awarded him a scholarship because he said they believed he was "pretty smart" for someone who had self-taught. Tony was also featured in Nottingham newspapers, and he received help from his parents and fundraising efforts.

He says, "By that time they were really proud of me and impressed that it was something I had stuck to and that I'd made something of myself."

"When they realized I was accepted to Berklee College of Music," everyone said, "Wow, this really is serious." I then told my parents about the visions.

Tony said that they believed this was the best path for their son.

Berklee was a great place for him. Musicians from all walks of the globe came to the college to learn jazz. Some were self-taught like Tony. Others were classically trained.

He says, "They accepted me showing up there as a normal thing." "But in England, the country I was born in it almost seems like you must go through a system in order to be accepted."

He returned to England in 2005 and began work on All is Know, his first album. It won the BBC Jazz Award in 2005.

He recalls that the first track they recorded was Boo Boo's birthday by American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk. "I also remember having the music in front me." We listened to the first take, and I thought, "You know what? It sounds like I'm singing from the hymn sheet."

"I thought, "OK, I have to go back to where I feel most comfortable, which is how I started." I took the music out, ripped it up, and played five choruses full of pure magic. That's how I finished the entire album.

Tony is a musician, composer, and bandleader. He also teaches at The Julian Joseph Jazz Academy, and The World Heart Beat Music Academy. He began teaching at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in September 2020. This year, he was awarded an honorary professorship by Nottingham University.

He enjoys working with musicians of all ages, encouraging others to follow their dreams and never lose hope.

What about the other images he saw when he fell from the roof? The faces of children and different places all around the globe?

Tony says they have also come to live.

He says, "I have three amazing children and [am] also the grandfather." "So it all came to pass, and I've traveled all over the globe. I had the privilege of working with some of the most talented musicians.

These include Macy Gray, Harry Connick Jr. and the Julian Joseph All Star Big Band.

Tony encourages students to learn by ear and not use sheet music when he teaches. He says that this can be very liberating.

Tony says, "It's almost like riding a bicycle with stabilisers." Tony said that this is because you use stabilisers to keep your balance. You can feel the freedom the child has when the stabilisers are taken off.

He's following Louis Armstrong’s advice to "Never play the same thing twice".

BBC Radio 4's Life Changing series begins 13 October

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