Backstage with OKA: Big Sound from the Land of Oz
Damn. When you’re a serious self-professed music snob, it’s such a rare gift to be not only impressed by the experience of new music but getting completely sucked in by it with every fiber of your being. I (along with anyone and everyone who was at ARMA’s One World Stage last night) danced my yoga ass off to the ridiculously righteous sounds of Australia’s OKA with complete and utter disregard to the fact that I was wearing four inch heels and coming off of a recently sprained ankle.
OKA’s Stu Boga Fergie (Didgeridoo), the man behind the electronic beats, keys, didgeridoo and vocals inspired by his aboriginal heritage, Chris Lane with his captivating melody on slide guitar, harmonica & woodwinds, and Samoan-Australian rhythm specialist Charlie Zappa brought down a packed-to-capacity house with their headlining set last night. The energy was indeed palpable and not a soul within proximity to their music could be found standing still.
Although their raw, didgeridoo-fueled and sick beat-driven sound brought the dance party vibe to epic levels, there was no lack of emotional content or melodic lyricism to this multifaceted band–largely due to Chris Lane’s angelic bamboo flute. In a poignant moment, Stu dedicated a lullaby song to his daughter who was cheering him on from off-stage. The evening thrill ride culminated with audience members being invited to dance the last number with the band on stage (yours truly included), causing the entire place to erupt in a collective finale frenzy.
I had the privilege of talking with Chris before their set.
Me: This is OKA’s first time playing BaliSpirit Festival. How do you feel about it?
Chris: I’m very happy about it, because I love coming to Bali. I’m here all the time.
Me: So you already have something of a relationship with the island. What usually brings you to Bali? Surfing?
Chris: Mainly surfing, but not just that–Bali itself. The people, the food, the culture…and the surf’s amazing.
Me: What have you been doing longer, surfing or playing music?
Chris: Playing music. I started with the saxophone in primary school.
Me: You guys incorporate a number of different instruments from the traditional, didgeridoo and bamboo flutes, to modern synthesizers. Can you tell me more about them?
Chris: I play a whole bunch of different flutes. The main one I play is the Indian bansuri, which is bamboo. I also play the standard silver concert flute, because it’s chromatic it brings more of a jazz flavor to the mix. And the heavy slide guitar.
Stu does the didgeridoo, keys, vocals, and percussion. And Charles plays the drum kit mixed with percussionery, usually congas, and bongos or shakers. He’s half Samoan, so he plays this Samoan log drum that’s basically a hollowed out piece of wood. He has that set up in front of the drum kit, and that provides an island rhythm to some of our tracks.
Me: So all that’s got to contribute to a really original sound. How would you define OKA’s style of music?
Chris: Ohhh, that’s always a tough question. Lately we’ve been calling it Progressive Roots.
Me: I dig that.
Chris: There’s all sorts of elements in that. It’s a bit of a mash up of electro, dub, a little bit of reggae, a little jazz, and indigenous sounds like the didgeridoo obviously, which figures very prominently in our music.
Me: Would you consider yourselves a fairly indigenous Australian sound then?
Chris: Yeah definitely. But we’re contemporary–it’s not terribly traditional or anything.
Me: What have been some of the major influences on OKA’s music?
Chris: Well we all come different backgrounds but I’d say we all listen to a lot of reggae. There’s a whole bunch of Australian reggae that comes out of Brisbane that’s pretty epic, and also New Zealand’s right there so that’s had a strong influence on our sound as well. Bands like Fat Freddy’s Drop.
Me: There’s a pretty huge music scene there too obviously.
Chris: Yeah, it’s massive. They’ve got the Maori culture and they’re amazing musicians–awesome singers. A lot of vocal-based music with a heavy dub reggae kind of vibe that’s pretty rad.
Me: What initially inspired you guys to collaborate?
Chris: Stu and I were in another band together before OKA.
Me: What’s the dynamic like when you’re putting together an album? What’s your creative process–do you just start jamming and see what happens?
Chris: Yeah, we do a lot of that. There’s actually a market near where we live, and sometimes we’ll go down there and set up and just jam, see what kind of feedback we get. It’s like an incubator. And then when we got a track that has some form to it, we’ll try it out live at a gig.
Me: So do you actually play songs live for audiences before they’ve even made it onto an album in their final incarnation?
Chris: Yeah, we do that a lot actually.
Me: Wow, that’s pretty cool.
Chris: A lot of times the songs will morph again when we go to record them. It’s just what happens in the recording process.
Me: Are all three of you involved in writing the songs?
Chris: Yeah depending on the tracks. But Stu’s been doing a lot of the writing at the moment–especially when it comes to the electronic side. I’ve kind of shied away from the computer stuff.
Me: Well, yeah. You’re playing bamboo wind instruments. (laughs)
Chris: I mean I’ve just gotten to the point where I want to minimize the amount of time I’m sitting in front of the computer. Stu loves it, so I’m glad he’s been doing that.
Me: How do you decide what instruments to bring into a song? Are you literally just picking things up?
Chris: Some of it’s key based. If it’s in a certain key, it will suit some instruments more than others. It’s also a mood thing. That’s the beauty of jamming it out before you record it. Sometimes I just hear it in my head. It’s a bit of an experiment. You can get it right straight away or other times you have to go through a few different options.
Me: So how are you feeling about your set?
Chris: I’m really excited about it. I love playing music in Bali. There’s juice in the air here–with all the devotion in the culture and everything. I mean just look around us. You can look in any direction and be blown away by what you’re seeing. There’s no way to reproduce this kind of setting in Australia or anywhere else really. I just walk around the island and take in all the beauty there is here. It rubs off on everybody–everybody feels good in Bali.
Me: Totally. What strikes me about the island is how much it seems to be a magnet for creative people. There are so many artists, musicians and designers here. There’s something about the environment here that seems to foster creativity.
Me: Do you guys practice yoga at all?
Chris: Stu does, yeah. Charles not so much.
Me: I’ve seen you at yoga classes at the Festival.
Chris: Yeah, it’s one of those things I aspire to do more of. I find it tough to fit into to my day-to-day life. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I just need to be more disciplined. I find when I do sink into it, it helps me so much. I think you reach a point to where you do it enough and then don’t do it, you start to feel a little whacked out.
Chris: Like today I did a bit of yoga, but I didn’t really get into the zone. It was really more just stretching, and I felt kind of out of it later on. I’d been doing yoga everyday since a yoga retreat I attended and it was the first day I didn’t really get into it, and I felt a difference. It felt like I was out of my flow. It’s such an amazing, endless practice. And it really fits with music. Music’s really just another form of yoga, isn’t it?
Me: Absolutely, to me the two are inextricably linked.
Chris: That’s what so cool about BaliSpirit Festival – you’ve got yoga during the day and music at night. It’s awesome.
Me: What’s your favorite yoga pose? You don’t have to know the Sanskrit name of it, but extra points if you know it. (laughs)
Chris: Child’s pose (laughs)
Me: Love it! (laughs)
Chris: …and Savansana. (still laughing)
Me: I see what kind of yogi you are! Hilarious.
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Written by : Melanie de Leon