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.

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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! 

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The album’s front cover

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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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Earth Wind & Fire: Opened My Eyes

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One of the fun things about the music of the ’70s was the surprise that awaited whenever you bought an album. With self-contained groups, especially, you could never really know ahead of time what the whole album would sound like.

The first album that got to me in this way was Earth Wind and Fire’s Open Our Eyes, released in 1974. Once again, it was my nephew Kevin who brought the album home, and it was the first time we’d heard EWF. As usual, I pretended I wasn’t interested, but after he left the house I sneaked into his room to listen more closely. My favorite song was Mighty Mighty, the first tune on the first side, because there was no intro, no warning: as soon as you put the needle down you had to start dancing… or singing.

Walk around
Why wear a frown
Say little people
Try to put you down
(Put you down)
What you need is a helping hand
All the strength
At your command
How’s your faith
‘Cause your faith is you
Who you kiddin’
To yourself be true
Spread your love
For a brighter day
For what you search
You’ll find a way
Awww, yes sir
Ooh hoo
Ooh hoo
(x2)
We are people of the mighty
Mighty people of the sun
In our heart lies all the answers
To the truth you can’t run from
(Doogey doogey doo doo)

That was my favorite song, but I liked them all. On the first side, the songs (Mighty Mighty / Devotion / Fair But So Uncool / Feelin’ Blue / Kalimba Story) were just what I expected: there was singing, lots of drums and African percussion, they made you dance, and they made you sing. Feelin’ Blue was a bit of a surprise since it was all mellow and vocal, with smooth harmonies but without that aggressive beat of its preceding brethren. But I was okay with that… it fit right in.

On the flip side, the third song–tucked in right behind Tee Nine Chee Bit–was the surprise: an instrumental tune called Spasmodic Mood. It was a cruel trick to play on a teenager’s ears: it started out with African-sounding drumming, so you got ready for some ass-shaking. And then bam! A horn! Then a piano with some drums! Then the horn comes back! And no vocals, nowhere! Huh? Damn, if you didn’t know it was an EWF album you’d swear it was your daddy’s jazz album! And then, as quickly as it began–one minute and forty-one seconds later–it was over, with a final piano punctuation, as if to say “Now that didn’t hurt, did it?”

And somehow it paved the way for the next tune, Caribou, a tune fat with chorally vocals that had no words, only scatting. By then you were sitting down and paying attention, which was the perfect setup for the final tune–the title tune–Open Our Eyes, a beautiful gospel-flavored solo vocal with churchy piano behind. Whoever chose the sequence of tunes knew what he or she was doing. A mind trick of the highest order.

Mind you, I was a kid; my main responsibility where music was concerned was to dance or sing along. I didn’t yet know who these guys were. I was unfamiliar with their jazz pedigree. I only had feelings, and the main one was respect: I could respect this album because it didn’t feed me the same tune times ten–each tune sounded different! If I wanted to feel grownup, there was a tune I could play. If I wanted to feel African, there was a tune on there for me. If I wanted to shake my butt and sing, there was something. If I wanted to feel like I was in church, there was the title track. And if I wanted to play a trick on some stodgy grownup who thought that Earth, Wind & Fire was for bratty-ass kids, well… I could play Spasmodic Mood! And in later years, when I would make countless mixtapes for friends, this song would be a staple I’d sneak in for the jazz purists.

But that’s how it was done then. There were plenty of self-contained groups like EWF, who studied music, who played instruments, who often played more than one instrument, and who wrote their own material. Groups like Santana, War, and the Isley Brothers, whose music fills my shelves. This is the music that spoke to us… And still does.

Which is exactly why my original copy of Open Our Eyes is spinning on the turntable as I write this entry. Oops, gotta go flip it over … excuse me…

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