Interpreting Your Life Story As a Song: From Swiss Chris to Lee Oskar and Back

Lee Oskar
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Last summer, on a lovely Sunday evening, I attended a most unusual book launch party. As a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, which is the international trade magazine of the book publishing industry, I’ve attended dozens of book launch parties. Typically they’re brief affairs, held at some interesting venue (restaurant, penthouse, rooftop, or location related to the book), and feature cocktails, appetizers, and other publishing industry people.

But this party was for a music instruction book, written by master drummer and musical director Swiss Chris (real name Christoph Flueck). The book is Modern Drum Set Stickings, which to me sounded kind of pornographic. But that’s just because I’m not a drummer. In reality, I know that this is some kind of serious drumming term. Anyway, it’s a 75-page book of instruction, for professional drummers.

The event was held at Shapeshifter Labs, a new arts and music space in Brooklyn founded by musicians and artists. It was no mere performance; it was a drum clinic. Therefore, the room was filled with musicians, most of whom performed as part of the demonstrations that Swiss Chris presented.

For almost three hours, Swiss played, demonstrating techniques from the book, accompanied by different permutations of the various musicians.

There was  lots of history made: they played Weather Report’s classic, Mysterious Traveler. The master drummer from FELA! played his… well, master drums. One of Chris’s students from Berklee performed. Drummer and Swiss Chris mentor Kenwood Dennard was there. And so was Garrett Shider, son of the late Garry Shider from Parliament/Funkadelic. How’s that for amazing?!

Between the performances, Chris talked about the book, about drumming, about his love and appreciation for the musicians in the room, and about his passion. He also mentioned that he was writing a musical biography of his journey from Switzerland to the US.

Swiss Chris party

Swiss Chris (back row, third from left) and a few of his friends after his book launch party

That’s when I immediately thought of harmonica master Lee Oskar, another musician who came to the U.S. from Denmark and got involved with some black musicians–Lonnie Jordan, Papa Dee Allen, Charles Mller, Harold Brown, B.B. Dickerson, and Howard Scott. That’s right: I’m talkin’ about WAR, the band! The reason Lee Oskar came to mind is that he too wrote and recorded a musical biography. It was Lee Oskar, his first solo album, released in 1976. Each tune described an important event in his musical life, from his days in his birthplace of Denmark to his meeting the guys in Los Angeles. I’m a sucker for a story, especially if you can tell it musically; so my heart instantly melted when I heard the suite of three tunes that made up the first side (named “That Side”).

Listen to the first song–I Remember Home: A Peasant’s Journey–and experience how evocative it is! 

leeoskar2

The album’s front cover

Lee Oskar back

On the back cover, the artist explains his songs (click to enlarge)

I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Lee Oskar and WAR in New York City, back in the ’80’s. It was funny how it happened. I’d seen an ad in the Village Voice announcing the band’s upcoming NYC appearance at the Ritz (which is now Webster Hall). Since I was already in talks with their manager as part of my research for a book I was considering writing about the music of the ’70s, I called him to see if I could meet the band when they arrived.

“What?” he said. “They’re not booked in New York! That must be a bunch of impostors.” He asked me to read him the information from the ad, and the next thing I knew, the real band was booked! So I ended up hanging out with the band in the green room above the stage. True happiness, as WAR had been–and still is–one of my all-time favorite bands. Lee Oskar gifted me one of his harmonicas, and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan asked to borrow the white sunglasses I was wearing and played the whole gig wearing them. Great memories!

Lee Oskar harmonica

The harmonica that Lee Oskar gifted me. Although it’s never been played, it’s definitely been cherished!

So I can’t wait to hear Swiss Chris’s musical biography, in song. Is that pressure? Oops, my bad. No pressure, Chris… just get to writing!

Whose musical life story got YOU excited?

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