Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Olu Dara is living drama. A trickster who lets aura shift around him. Anybody who’s talked to him knows that. Unbelievable events unfold every day. He allows them to collect in his bones and resolve themselves in the work. They make peace somehow. When I caught up with him, we ran smack into a hysterical man who was beating on a puppy dog because the man’s brother had died. I called the cops, conflicted regarding the man’s future. Olu bore witness, noting stock stillness on the two adjoining blocks, looks of shock and failed attempts to stop the action. He looked into the eyes of the dog. Our interview naturally emphasized one’s place in the scheme of things.
At a soul food eatery in Harlem, Olu, a multi-instrumentalist from Natchez, Mississippi, discussed his approach to music, his country look at life, and after all these years, his decision to do his own album (In the World, Atlantic Records), which includes a track of improvised (freestyle) rhymes. Olu has developed music for two of his own bands and several theater pieces. Best known for his collaborations with dancer/choreographer Diane McIntyre, Olu is currently working on a play by Rita Dove, The Darker Face of the Earth .
Tracie Morris You’ve become a professional storyteller in a way…
Olu Dara Yeah, never because I wanted to, I just had so many stories to tell. I remember as a kid, people didn’t believe me. People say truth is stranger than fiction—well, I’m one of those people.
TM You accepted your destiny?
OD I enjoyed it after awhile. I thought, maybe this is a special thing I’ve been given to fit my personality.
TM Is that why you ended up choosing so many different ways to say things?
OD I was always eclectic. Other children would select one thing to be good at, and I’d select everything. I never looked at things as being difficult. You read articles and they say the trumpet is a very hard instrument to play, you have to practice eight hours a day. I never practiced in my life. I consider it the easiest instrument to play, blowing the trumpet is as easy as blowing up a balloon. Even today, if I don’t have a gig with it, it will never come out of my bag. It’s not on my mind, because so many other things, they’re more important.
TM Like what?
OD Usually it’s just finding different instruments to play, drawing, wood burning, meeting new people. Meeting young people through my kids, that fascinates me. There’s no communication gap between me and the young. I understand their language. I listen to their music, I understand why they dress the way they dress. I never left my childlike vitality in the dust, I always kept it. I can still think like a youngster.
TM Yeah, but the stuff that you’re playing on this new record is very oriented towards tradition.
OD Yes. It came out that way. I didn’t plan that record. Half of the stuff I made up in the studio. The musicians weren’t there—I just laid up songs by myself on the guitar. I did a tribute to Zora Neal Hurston, but I didn’t think about her until I sat down and started playing—the words came to me: “Zora/ I feel so bad! So sad! I heard they ran you out of Harlem! I heard you cleaning for a man/ who owns a paper mill/ way down in Edenville…” All of the new things I composed for the record just came to me as I started playing in the studio.
TM Who suggested the piece that you and Nas (your son) did?
OD I brought him in, he listened to it—I didn’t really write that piece specifically for him. He came into the studio and sat there a long time just listening, then he came back a week later and did the same thing, just sat there and listened for a couple of hours. Finally he got up and just started talking.
TM It was a really nice collaboration. His flow works so well with yours. It’s like some sort of genetic understanding you all have.
OD That’s what it is, the same thing I had with my father, a genetic understanding. We could talk without speaking.
TM The lullaby you did for your youngest son, Kiani, was really sweet too. You sound like a doting father.
OD I am. (laughter) That’s all I am.
TM Well, you adopt everybody. Who are some of the kids that you feel you’ve raised in the performing arts industry?
OD I would hate to name names because I would have to list at least twenty or thirty of them.
TM Well, how about ten?
OD I really couldn’t name them all. There are so many musicians who have come through my bands, and dancers and actors whom I have worked with in the theater. They’re all over the place in terms of artistic medium. I see people I’ve helped raise making names for themselves now in hip-hop, blues, theater, film and literature.
TM Besides your own release, I think the last person I’ve heard you work with on a record was Cassandra Wilson, on Electric Magnolia.
OD I hope I had some influence on Cassandra. I believe I did a little bit.
TM She’s from Jackson, Mississippi. So, is it just a Mississippi value system coming through, or…?
OD Yeah, that’s what it is. I grew up in Mississippi, and I think the older I got, the more Mississippi experiences and roots started coming back in my music. You have to understand, I was high up in the avant-garde jazz situation at one time: be-bop, and Art Blakey. Way away from Mississippi. Somebody who likes to do the music like I do, up in New York, they would look at you like you’re crazy. “Blues? And country blues like that? Stop playing your harmonicas and guitar, and start playing your trumpet.” When I formed my Okra Orchestra, I’m not going to say it was a brave thing for me to do, but… everybody else was playing be-bop or avant-garde jazz. But I had to do it. I was playing with Art Blakey in Spain somewhere, a strong be-bop band—and he looked at me and said, “This shit’s boring you, isn’t it? It ain’t nothing to you, is it?” I was on the sidelines, waiting. I had finished my solo, and he was laughing like he always laughed; but he was talking to me while he was playing, saying something completely different from his expression, like, “Ha-ha-ha, this shit ain’t shit for you is it?” I thought: I’m glad he said it. It’s nothing to me. I can play this in my sleep. You play a solo and then you stand back on the stage. It ain’t enough. He said, “Go out there and do your thing. Tell jokes…” That’s what I did, I told jokes, did a split. Sang the blues… And eventually I got us out of a little trouble in certain nightclubs we played in the Midwest, because people didn’t want to hear any jazz, they wanted to hear blues, and I would come out and sing the blues and get the people off of Art.
TM Really? What kind of audience comes to hear Art Blakey, and does not expect to hear jazz?
OD They didn’t come to see Art Blakey. He had a gig in a nightclub where they hire bands, maybe somebody there liked jazz… They’d just come. I got caught in a couple of places where people would say, What the hell is this? You’d better change that shit quick.
TM So here comes Olu Dara, and what did you do?
OD Made up blues songs. Double entendre blues songs until they were satisfied, and then we’d go back and play a little jazz.
TM So tell me a little bit more about how you work on words for your songs?
OD I never come prepared with words, whether I’m going to record or do a live performance. My words come as soon as I step to the microphone. Other than that, I have a block. But when the first beat hits, I got lyrics.
TM How did you get in a position to work with so many theatrical productions?
OD When I formed my band, the Okra Orchestra, it was different from all the other bands that were playing around at the time. My band was theatrical. I told stories, we played music from all genres, all eras. I would have theatrical things happen, like girls belly dancing, girls bouncing canes on their shoulders and hips. I’d have girls washing clothes…
TM Washing clothes?
OD Actually washing clothes on stage, to the rhythm.
TM Do you mean playing washboard, or do you mean washing clothes?
OD A washtub, a washing board, soap, water, clothes, and a girl beating eggs to the rhythm. For my last performance at Symphony Space, I brought that back in a piece I did with Diane McIntyre called “Bluesrooms.” We had one girl washing clothes, and another beating eggs to a song I had written called “Kitchen, Kitchen, Let Me Go.” Two young girls visiting their aunt down South, college girls, and she had them working in the kitchen. And they’re singing with the eggs being beaten to the rhythm: “Kitchen, kitchen, let me go:” So, that’s how I got into theater and the dance world. They used to come and see me. Some of the greatest writers in America used to come down and ask me to write music, or act in a play. All the people that I had admired from a distance in other fields, I met them all through my band. They would come and see the Okra Orchestra.
TM Yeah, it was really quite an effective group. You had the Okra Orchestra and Natchezippi. What do you call the new collective that you put together for the album?
OD I don’t have any name for them. I just used my name, “Olu Dara,” because it’s not a group anymore, it’s just things I do. In Natchezippi and Okra I did specific things. They had a purpose. Okra was a theatrical nightclub band and Natchezippi was a concert band. I did fifty different things with those two bands.
TM So what made you take the plunge? This is your first lead album project, but you hold on to those other people.
OD Recording was the last thing I wanted to do. Because it didn’t mean anything to me. It won’t describe me. I can’t put what I do on a record, and I knew that. I did it because my sons wanted me to do it. People in my family, cousins, everybody just started asking me. Yves Beauvais, the producer at Atlantic Records, has been trying to get me to record for the last five, six years. He had seen everything I’d done, not just nightclub and concert stuff but theatrical stuff, the dance stuff, storytelling things. So, the combination of all these people asking me… I mean, musicians in the street saying, “Well, you should do something at least for posterity.” I thought, Okay, I could write some new stuff and do some of the music that I put together for the Okra Orchestra. With that group I was doing years ago what the hip-hoppers are now doing rhythmically and conceptually. Before I formed my band I was an original member of the Fatback band called Pretty Willie and the Soul Brothers, playing rhythm and blues. We used to mix it all up: jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, gospel, everything in one band. And that’s the concept I always liked: to be able to play everything. When I was growing up I thought a musician was someone who played all music, not just one style. I was shocked when I found out people just play one style of music for their whole lives. I couldn’t understand how somebody could do that! With so much music in the world, so many influences, and each one can make you feel so different, take you so many places.
TM What about critics who would argue that in order to do something really well, you have to focus. And that if you start to mix then you lose the integrity of that particular form…
OD That’s been disproved so many times, I disproved it myself. I’ve played with the greatest be-bop musicians, the greatest avant-garde musicians they had in my generation, funk musicians; I made a name in all those fields, and I didn’t lose nothing. I was proficient in all of them.
TM Who would you say is one of your favorite people that you’ve worked with?
OD Oh my goodness… Diane McIntyre, she’s my favorite of all time. She knows everything, more music than most musicians. I like her because we can fly. We can create shows in three days, and be successful with it. And have elements in it—drama, music, dance—surprises.
TM She’s not even a musician.
OD Not even a musician. She’s the greatest artist I’ve ever worked with, period. And I think I’ve been in more bands than any musician I know.
TM In a previous interview you talked about your close-knit community and family. How did you manage to maintain that throughout the years [in New York]?
OD New York is a small town to me. The whole five boroughs. I look at it as a small community, because I’ve played in mostly all of the communities. Black, white, whatever. A lot of people from different communities like my music. I’m easy to know.
TM You do inject a lot of humor in your work. How did that concept develop?
OD That’s natural, I was very theatrical when I was a child, doing school events, school plays. I was a very shy guy but then I developed a sense of humor because I saw that most people were not happy. I could see sadness in people’s faces, and fear. I had a certain type of exuberancy about life itself. I developed a sense of humor to make situations easier for me. That is the way I am.
TM Very social.
OD Yeah, I’m a very social person. People need other people to make them feel better, that’s all. That’s why in my music I try to keep a happy thing going on.
TM I see, parts of the album are really introspective. What was the reason for that?
OD I knew there were people who needed to hear some of the things I was saying. Usually, my themes are about women, food or children.
It just happens every time I open my mouth, the song is going to be about a woman, some food, or some children.
TM I gathered from your career that you like okra.
OD Yes, love it. Crazy about it.
TM Are you satisfied with the kind of contractual arrangements that you got with Atlantic?
OD No, I’m not satisfied. I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I got what European blues musicians get for a contract. But I don’t expect them to give me a contract like that. The Rolling Stones or any other European group can cover one of my songs and make more money than me, so I don’t expect to be satisfied monetarily. But I’m satisfied in the respect that nobody’s telling me what to play. The producers, the record company know what my career is all about and they know what I do.
TM So you had artistic freedom.
OD Yeah, that’s all I want. You can get the money other ways.
TM It seems like a lot of artists or performers now are working under severe artistic constraints. There’s a lot of rigidity in schools of thought and how people should approach music.
OD Like I said, being eclectic with music cancels all the problems. I’m just a musician, I’m not one who says this music is the greatest, be-bop, classical music or country blues. My job as a musician is to be able to get all these things out, all the music that is in my culture. If a musician lives in a village in Senegal, he has to know all the music within that village. I have to be familiar with all the music in America. A surgeon should know the total human body, and not just the leg.
TM Even if you are a specialist.
OD Exactly. If you’re a musician, then be a musician! I play for me and I play for the earth, but basically, it’s not what you’re playing, it’s who you’re playing for. There’s an audience sitting out there, that’s what I’m thinking about.
TM So you play for your audiences?
OD I play for me and the earth first, but when I say the earth, that means everybody. Each audience requires a different thing. Each place requires a different thing.
TM So, being perceived as an entertainer doesn’t bother you?
OD No, it doesn’t bother me at all, because that’s what I am. I want to do the most difficult feat, which is to entertain and to create.
TM You talk about the responsibility of someone in a village in Senegal, and I know you were in Africa when you were in the Navy. Did you extract anything from that experience that influenced your work?
OD What it did was reaffirm what I already thought music should sound like, feel like. I got a good part of what I needed musically from the country blues music that I got growing up in Mississippi. I was prepared for African music because the blues they sing in Mississippi and the rhythms they play connect with it. I understood the intricacies, all the subtleties of it, it was just like the blues language. And I don’t mean urban blues, I mean country blues. There’s a big difference.
TM There seems to be a resurgence in the blues these days.
OD There is. It’s a resurgence in old blues, but new blues is there. I consider all the hip-hop people blues people, I consider the rhythm and blues people of today, like Mary J. Blige, stoneblues; just as blues as anybody else. Even more blues because they’re using more African rhythms. The older blues rhythms only used a few rhythms because the drum had been taken away—they used the shuffle on the back beat and stuff like that. Hip-hoppers use polyrhythms. Rhythm and blues people now use polyrhythms, whereas back in the early days only one musician would have used it, and that was James Brown, and maybe Sly.
TM Sly Stone?
OD Yeah, but particularly James Brown. Everybody else was doing the shuffle and the four note beat. James Brown was unique. And now, blues is coming back. It’s here, modern blues is here. They don’t want to call it that, but that’s what it is. I look at videos and the young people, listen to their music, and I say, Man, that’s more blues than we had back in the day. But they call it other names now. All it is is blues with more sophisticated rhythms. Like Keith Sweat, that’s blues to me. I could name a lot of them, but you understand what I’m trying to say. On my album I tried to do as much old stuff as I could. I like music in all genres so I went to the Caribbean sound, the Mississippi sound, I did the African High Life, I did contemporary blues. If I do another album I’ll come an a contemporary one, where I want to be anyway. Where I really am in my heart.
TM Getting back for a second to how you see contemporary R&B as being a continuum of traditional blues forms, there’s a lot of wordplay on the record.
OD Yes, with the vocals, instrumental music has taken a back seat. It didn’t progress as fast as our vocal music in this country. Instrumental music has its leaders, whereas the blues, and hip-hop, they don’t have icons and leaders, they don’t look at one person and say, “Well, that’s the king and queen of that.” They go do their thing. Mary J. has got her thing, in hip-hop, Nas got his thing, Wu-Tang got their thing, Snoop got his thing, they’ve got many places to go.
TM That’s a radical point of view that you’re offering, because a lot of people complain that contemporary black music doesn’t have the musicality that its predecessors have had, in terms of form.
OD That’s because they’re prejudiced against the youth, and when they hear a new rhythm they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid of the lyrics, the rhythm, the way they dress, they’re intimidated because these are new people. That’s all it is, fear and intimidation. And they don’t listen to the music.
TM But a lot of the work, Olu, was developed in the studio by producers, and not as much by the artist.
OD Yeah, but the producers get their information from the artist. They don’t come out of their head with this information, if they did they would be doing it themselves. They get it from watching artists. So all they do is make the concept more palatable to the public on an LP. But when these same people go out in public, they can stretch out. I’ve done most of the things I’ve wanted to do. I’m satisfied. The last thing I hadn’t done in the art world was make a record. I’ve done everything else. So now, I do a record. Why? Because there’s nothing else to do.
TM This is the first time I’ve talked to someone who said they did a record because they didn’t have anything else better to do.
OD That’s the main reason I did it. I never was interested in records, mainly because they’re produced. I know what real people sound like. When I go and hear a record I say, That person doesn’t sound like that. He doesn’t play like that. So, that’s why it never interested me, it’s just a business venture for people to get known or whatever. I had other talents to make me happy. I didn’t need a record to be known. As a matter of fact, I kind of liked the idea of doing it on my own, to see if I could sustain my career with no records, that was fun. I still packed the places. No records. Still get new fans every year. No records.
TM Tell me about this project you’re doing with the poet laureate Rita Dove?
OD This is Rita Dove’s first play called, The Darker Face of the Earth. We did it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year and it was very successful. So we’re doing it at the Crossroads Theater here in New Jersey, and we’re going to take it to the Kennedy Center in November.
TM How exciting.
OD I got a chance to write some beautiful music for it, and I enjoy her concepts. She uses a Shakespearean approach, but it has to do with slavery. I’ve never seen anything in theater with a different twist on slavery like this one, it’s beautiful. It’s epic-like.
TM How was it to collaborate with her? Did she just give you free reign, did you guys go over concepts?
OD Free reign. “Come in,” she said, “I want you to do a little music,” that was it. I met her in New Jersey.
OD I went to the opening of The Piano Lesson. I was doing some of the music for it and I met her in the lobby with some people. They introduced her to me and she said, “I want you to do my music!” I said, “Cool.” I said, “I’ll do it different. It won’t be music you’d find in slave movies!’
TM So what influenced your decision on how to approach the music for that piece?
OD The characters are not too long out of Africa, so instead of having those old field hand type songs we’re used to hearing in slave movies, I put more of an African flavor to it: (singing in a West African motif) rather than (singing) “swing low, sweet chariot…” I had a little of that in there, because that was in the script, but everything I do has an African edge to it.
TM You mix a lot of those musics together, it seems really organic in the album.
OD You mean within one song? Yeah. I do that naturally in my performances. I didn’t know if I was able to do that on the album, but since you say so, I’m glad to hear that. I may play a couple of notes and say, That’s enough of you. Bring your cousin Henry in here. That’s the way I think when I’m playing. I get tired of one form quickly, so I had to put them all into one song.
TM Now, you told me that your songs are about women, food and children…
OD When I was growing up in the rural section, my mother would say, “We’re going to see Mrs. Mary!” I would say, “I don’t want to go. I’ll stay here!” But when she’d say, “We’re going to see Mrs. Lucille,” I’d say, “Yeah, take me with you, because Mrs. Lucille’s kitchen is popping!” I wouldn’t go to houses where there were no good cooks, that didn’t have a nice food aroma. Or I wouldn’t go to people’s houses that weren’t into cooking. It turned me off.
TM I’m with you there, you’ve got to have food. The worst thing in the world is not having enough food when somebody comes over.
OD That’s the worst feeling, hurts me to my heart. Some people don’t care, though. I want to give them a feast, if I could…
TM See, I thought that was a Southern black woman thing, but it’s obviously not if it makes you feel embarrassed too.
OD I feel a lot of troubles if people come in the house and there’s no food.
TM So you can cook and all?
TM What would you consider your primary medium of conveying your ideas?
OD It would have to be music, theater and visual arts mixed.
TM But if you had to do one thing to represent yourself?
OD That’s a hell of a question. I think what really satisfies me best is having a guitar in my hand and singing. Singing and telling stories. Sitting on a chair or a couch with just a guitar, talking. I could do that for the rest of my life.
Tracie Morris is an award-winning performance poet, bandleader and recording artist from Brooklyn, New York. Her most recent work is a text for Ralph Lemon’s Geography Project, debuting at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1997.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.