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Face to Face with OLU DARA (Unabridged)


AA: If language is the enemy, what is music?

OD: Music started out as information about life. Simple things like, “There’s water 10 miles away if you need it,” or “There are some children over there that got hurt and need medicine,” or “We had a nice time last night at the party,” or “Your daughter got married and she’s beautiful.” That’s how simple music was.

AA: Just because voices carry further when you sing?

OD: It’s not that voices carry further. It’s what was said. Language is what destroys the human soul. Humans spend a lot of time being against something or for something. I’m quite sure at one point people didn’t have language. They were just living in nature, like anything else. And everything, I think, happened naturally. There was a fight or a skirmish like it happens naturally in the animal or insect world in nature. Once it came, people used language as power against each other. The differences of language from culture to culture — someone speaks another language? Oh, he’s the enemy — that kind of thing.

AA: Maybe that’s the original fall from grace.

OD: Yeah, I believe so. Being afraid of the differences is what it comes down to. Animals- all living things are - at peace with what living is out here. They accept death, disease, they’re not emotional like that.

AA: And musicians can’t lie the way politicians do. You hear the false notes immediately. And, in any case, when you play music, you can't help but be a part of a collective.

OD: That’s the life, fortunately, of a musician. That’s why, if you play with the wrong people, there is going to be disharmony. When I started out in jazz, jazz was a different kind of culture. Whether the band was good or not, the audience would go just to see the historical figures.

AA: The names. The audience for jazz, a lot of the time, doesn’t really hear the music. They just go to feel like hipsters.

OD: So true. I found that out. I used to ask the musicians, “Why are you guys rehearsing so much? Why are you worrying about this? They don’t know what it is.” They’d see the magazines and books and films or whatever and say, “Well, these guys are famous and they are very important within that music.” Once I found that wasn’t working for me, I became completely free and said, “I’m going to pick this guy who never works, but he’s such a wonderful human being.” I chose them basically for two things: the character as I saw it and the way they sound. They were great, but they weren’t being hired because they were not in this certain social situation.

I saw a lot of elitism in the jazz world. Fortunately, I only stayed in it for about 10 years. It was good for me, because I made a name playing for those guys. I wasn’t a jazz musician, but I became one. I didn’t grow up in a jazz environment in Mississippi. And when I was in college, jazz musicians completely isolated themselves from the rest of the college students and the music that college students liked. The word superior was always dropped. And we were taught that jazz music and the European orchestral music was superior to all other forms of music, even to the point where they’d say jazz is America’s only original music. That’s a big crock. I could never understand how they could say that, omitting the music of the Native Americans. But we’re a new culture, just learning how to walk.

AA: It seems to me that African music is completely different from American music; even the core values are different. In West African music, there’s no separation between dancers and musicians and performers, or even percussion instruments and melodic instruments: The drums are melodic and the melodic instruments are percussive.

OD: It’s funny that you talk about that because the other night, the guys in the band came to me and they said, “My God. This is great.” We were playing. The people were dancing. It was a small club, intimate. I loved it. Our music was heavenly to me. I was saying, “I’ve been missing this feeling.” We don’t play for dancers very often. I used to years ago, but when we do play music it comes out majestic, because I can really create. I can use all kinds of lyrics. I can make up things at the spur of the moment because the people are standing right in front of you laughing, smiling. Then I bring them up onstage. I brought some women up the other night because one woman was moving like she was a belly dancer, so I made up a song about belly dancing. They were so happy about that. I called one woman onstage — they ran to get onstage to show what they could do with their belly dancing. It made the music so organic. Usually we’re tired when we play. We should have been tired because it’s harder work playing for dancers because they’re all up in the music and up in you. But what it did was exhilarate us — that exchange. It goes back to what you were talking about. There is no separation at all.

AA: And dance music is trance music, right?

OD: Yes, it is. It makes it so nice for the musician because you don’t have to go from point A to point Z. You don’t have to know we’re going to move here. You don’t have to do that. They’re the ones that control the music more than you do. Because you’re actually a servant for the dancers.

AA: You don’t record much, either.

OD: I never really planned on recording at all. I’ve always been a person who likes adventure, in the arts especially. I’m always going to try to find another instrument to play. I never get bored with what I’m doing. I’m free enough. Most of my songs, I made them on the spot. I don’t have record companies telling me what to do. I don’t have producers. I made two records under my own name, and when I recorded those I felt that that was more than enough.

AA: I love those records, but when I saw you perform you sounded nothing like them.
OD: Was it better or worse?

AA: I don’t want to put down the records, but seeing you live is a totally different thing. And infinitely better, I thought.

OD
: You’re not putting down the records. I know that myself. I just wanted to ask you to see. But live, yeah, that’s when you hear what it’s really about. I remember when I first heard Miles Davis in person. I thought, “My God. You’re completely different live.” His tone, his approach, everything. People who know Miles Davis only by his records don’t even know Miles Davis.

 

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