Catching up with funk’s harmonica master
Lee Oskar’s new album, She Said Mahalo, is a collection of love songs, inspired by a woman he met in Hawaii.
It was written at the same time he was working on Never Forget, a memorial to his family’s experiences during the Holocaust.
“I’m always creating and composing in my home studio,” Oskar said. “Through time, I record a lot of music. Some stays in the can, some things keep evolving, until I see how they fit into a specific project. During COVID I was by myself, going through a divorce, but if I didn’t finish up Never Forget, I would have felt ashamed. I was also working on Mahalo. As they came together, I realized Never Forget is not as commercially appealing as some of my other music, but I needed to do it for myself. I wrote those compositions to help get rid of my fears and phobias about antisemitism. After it was out, I decided to wait for a while, before I put out Mahalo.
“I don’t have a title before I create the music, or an album,” he continues. “I let the expression come out of the process. I marinate things as I go along. When I play live, it’s in the moment, but when you go into a studio to produce and engineer, you have to make sure things go smoothly. You have to prepare the music properly for the other players, but not have it all spelled out.
“That’s what I love about producing. You can sculpt the music and shape it into all kinds of things. I create a road map, because I know what I want. Then, I work to get the chemistry between people flowing. I don’t tell them what to play. I have them focus, but don’t kill the individual identity of the artist. I tell them to play it the way they feel it. It’s not a monologue. We’re all part of a band and everyone contributes to the arrangements of the compositions.”
The tunes on She Said Mahalo cover a lot of musical ground. Oskar often says he plays harp like a singer, not a bluesman, and the melodies on Mahalo really sing. “Children of the World” is a mellow Afro-beat tune, while “Morning Rush” blends ska and reggae, with Oskar’s phase-shifted harp line playing off of a shakuhachi solo by Youichrou Suzuki. The soulful R&B of “Funky Rhetoric” is anchored by former Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, and the album closer, “One-World Fist”, is a freestyle jam, with an all-star cast of players from his touring band Lee Oskar and Friends.
She Said Mahalo will be released on the label Oskar started three years ago, Dreams We Share. “I have a colleague that works with social media and we have a distributor, but so much has changed in the dynamics of radio. It’s not the same platform you had 30 or 40 years ago. My music doesn’t have a cookie cutter shape. It’s blues, world music, and many other categories category, so it’s hard to get it on the radio. It’s a wild card. In the long run, I’d like to inspire directors to use the tunes in movies. I like funky stuff behind a sweet melody. I want people to enjoy it. I’m not just a looking for a hit on the radio.”
In his youth, Oskar had plenty of hits on the radio. Soon after he came to the U.S., he met Eric Burdon and became a founding member of Burdon’s post-Animals backing band, War. After Burdon left, War went on to make a long series of best-selling albums, including The World Is A Ghetto, released 51 years ago this November.
‘Is it 50 years?” Oskar asked. “It seems like yesterday. I’m 75 now and I was 25 then, so I guess it is 50 years. But anything that’s real, and gets to touch the hearts of people, has much more life than a trend; it’s timeless, which is what you’re always dreaming of when you’re in a band. That’s why I came to America [from Denmark]. Eventually, I moved to L.A. and met Hugh Masekela and Stu Levine, who put me up for a while. I met Eric (Burdon) jamming in a club with Blues Image. They had a hit and famous people came to sit in and jam. Eric told me he wanted to put a new band together and that was my calling. I was fortunate to meet a bigger-than-life guy like Eric and be part of War, the band he put together. I loved playing the blues, but I always wanted to play harp like it was part of the horn section. I got to do that with Charles Miller in War. We inserted little hooks and melodies into the horn parts and, in between, I’d do a little doo-wop dance.
“’The World Is a Ghetto’ came from a jam. Percussionist Pappa Dee Allen came in with some of the words and the hook: ‘The world is a ghetto.’ B.B. Dickerson (bass) sang it and we started jamming and throwing out ideas. There wasn’t a lot a lot of conversation. If someone started talking, we’d say; ‘Shut up, man. Just play.’ In the early days, we were seven guys, with chemistry between us. We were a jam band, always creating. We never played a song the same way twice on stage. We always played right from the heart, making it all up in the moment, every time we played. I still play with some of the guys in the Lowrider Band – Harold Ray Brown and Howard E. Scott. Some or the other guys have been gone a long time.”
For Oskar, playing music remains a lifelong commitment.
“I’ve been playing music since I was six, in Copenhagen,” he recalls. “That summer, an American came to visit and gave me a harmonica. I started playing and never stopped. I flunked music and English in school – I was too busy playing music and speaking English. I was committed to my art. I didn’t have a time line for my music. Whether or not I succeeded, I was going to keep doing it. It keeps me sane to write and perform and play music. It even makes me a better businessman. You need a vision, a love of innovation and persistence. The roller coaster goes down and up, but music became my occupation. Most people have a job.”