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Face to Face with OLU DARA (Unabridged)

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

Olu Dara / Photograph by SUE KWON

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Friday, March 14, 2008

By Alex Abramovich


Best known as Nas’ father, Olu Dara was born Charles Jones III, into a musical family in rural Mississippi. Dara’s father sang in close-harmony groups — his grand-uncles performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels — and Dara himself learned to play on homemade instruments, honed his skills in US Navy bands and then made his name as a cornet player on New York’s avant-jazz scene. He’s a brilliant musician, but despite his accomplishments (or, perhaps, because of them) Dara is also a hard man to pin down: It took friends and family decades to convince him to release his first solo album, the lovely and eclectic In The World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic Records, 1998). And despite the success of that album — and that of its 2001 follow-up, Neighborhoods — Dara maintains that his performances are impossible to capture on record. He prefers instead to be heard in more intimate surroundings, where he can respond directly to his audience and channel their every impulse into his playing and singing. (Unlike Nas, Dara tends to make his lyrics up on the spot, and forgets them quickly afterward.)

I visited Dara a few weeks before his 67th birthday, at his home in Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood. Surrounded by books and instruments, we talked broadly and specifically about music, language and history — and while I’m writing this introduction a few weeks after the fact, the conversation itself is still rattling around in my head.


Olu Dara: You called me a jazz musician, but I've never considered myself a jazz musician. I recorded with a lot of them. But I never have referred to myself as one, nor have my family or my friends. Just writers.

Alex Abramovich: Tell me what you are?

OD: A writer, songwriter, instrumentalist — just a musician and songwriter.

AA: The last time I saw you perform, it sounded so much like a lot of the West African music I listen to.

OD: Well, I’m a Mississippian. And Mississippi music is just a few degrees away from authentic African music. There’s not a division in style and sound in certain areas of the United States, especially the southern part of the United States. The root of the music, of my music, is African music.

AA: You wouldn’t even call it African-American, you would just call it African?

OD: Yeah, it’s African music. Africans live all over the world, so if they live in South America, you wouldn’t call it African-South American. Or if they were born and raised in Europe, you wouldn’t call it Afro-European. It’s just like any other kinds of music. If you’re Mexican and playing it, it’s Mexican music. If you’re playing Chinese music, no matter where you are, they’re going to call it Chinese music.

AA: Jazz musicians who call themselves jazz musicians, would you say they’re playing jazz?

OD: If they call themselves jazz musicians, they’re playing jazz. They’re playing European instruments: They’re a group of people from one nation playing another group’s instruments, which is a strange thing in a way. If you saw a white band playing all African instruments, what would they be called?

AA: A bluegrass band?

OD: Exactly. So that shows you what I’m saying. Jazz is such a new thing. After the Civil War, the black musicians got their hands on European instruments that were thrown away after the war or they started going to institutions to learn to play European instruments.

AA: But you learned to play your music on European instruments.

OD: Some of them. You really can’t play true African music on European instruments.

AA: Because it’s microtonal?

OD: Well, even more than that. The tonality is different. European instruments are much louder than African instruments. They’re the loudest instruments on earth. They’re made like machines, in factories, and there’s a big difference between picking up a wooden horn, or a string from horse’s hair, and getting a factory-made, metal, brass instrument.

AA: That kind of West African guitar sound, it sounds to me like a thumb piano transposed to a guitar.

OD: Yes. That’s a good analogy. It has the tone, like you said, the microtone.

AA: And the lightness.

OD: Yeah, the lightness and even the melodies and scales and everything are completely different. The attitude of playing scales based on chord progressions in jazz — it’s akin to European orchestral music. European orchestral music goes from chord to chord to chord. It never stays monotonal. Jazz is basically the same way, other than maybe the Coltrane era, when he played the modal stuff.

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