Okapi Guitars

Dateline: 03/20/98

Okapi Guitars is World Fusion at its best. John Laidler and Bernhard Huber are two residents of Australia who combine their skills on guitar, vocals, bass, and programming to create an African-pop sound combining pop, jazz, reggae, and dance whichis at once unique and melodic. Their new CD is called Choko Choko and contains nine orignal songs. I recently spoke to John Laidler about the band, their music, and their direction.

Paula: How did you get involved with African music?

John: In the late 1970's, I knew the rudiments of guitar playing, and happened to see the Sex Pistols on TV: I knew I wanted to be in a band, and formed one with similarly-inspired friends. That band played punk/noise 'music' around Sydney, but broke up in 1980.

Punk had already established an alliance with reggae, and I was attracted to dub reggae in particular. I became much more interested in rhythm, and in 1981 a friend who shared my tastes in dub and worked for a local record company gave me some records by Franco and Tabu Ley on the Makossa label from New York.

The lightness of this music, my first exposure to true African pop, disconcerted me: I was used to the thump and bang of dub. But I found myself seduced by the melody of the bass and guitars, and the particular harmonies of the chorus and horns.

Around this time I had been invited by one of my colleagues-in-noise to do a fortnightly radio program on a local community station, 3 to 6 am. When the African music came along I mutated this program into the first all-African music show in Sydney, "Eardrum", which ran for ten years (1983-1993) in the slightly more civilized timeslot of midnight to 1 am.

At the same time I had begun home-recording sessions with another friend, Hardie Tucker, a drummer, who played me the first Sunny Ade record on Island. We recorded rhythm-based music on his four- (and, later, eight-) track tape machine, and released three cassettes. The last one, ("Wampum", 1984) included soukous, highlife, and juju songs.

In 1984 I went to Africa for three months, visiting Zimbabwe and Kenya.

When I returned, Hardie had already recruited Bernhard Huber and begun some new recording projects. The three of us soon decided to form a band, and the Okapi Allstar Guitar Band debuted in 1986. The band released a CD in 1991, but folded the next year. Bernhard and I tried to put another band together, and one result, the Hosho Hitmasters, did complete a few engagements around Sydney in the mid 90's. But most of the time since then, we've returned to home recording, now enhanced by hard disks and CD recorders.

The Do It Yourself ethic has always been central in my musical activities. Every recording I've been involved in has been independently released. I feel immune to record companies :-).

Paula: Are either of you of African background?

John: No. I'm third generation Australian, Bernhard is a German immigrant. Can white men play the blues? :-)

Paula: What has the reaction been to your music?

: I remember my first listenings to African pop: it seemed very light, and I found the bass guitar particularly strange: shouldn't it be pounding out some root notes, rather than playing interlocking rhythms with guitars and hi-hats?

A frequent comment on our music is "it's so happy!". On the other hand, I find myself referring to a lot of Top 40 music as a "dirge". It's an issue of how you hear such things as keys and rhythms: I don't think major keys and busy rhythms means happy happy, dancing on the beach, drinking pina colada, take your shirt off, but it seems to be the only connection some people can make to African music.

Some people think African music can only be (authentically?) played by Africans. Africans who have seen or heard us are often pleased to see Australians taking the music seriously, and some have been very enthusiastic about what we do.

Paula: What do you hope to accomplish as a musician, and with Okapi Guitars?

John: I'd like to keep playing this music as long as possible. I'd like to be involved in composition, arranging, recording and producing this music for as long as possible, because it's so much fun. There's no end to the process, and I'm happy to simply go on.

Okapi Guitars is our 'third mind', since things appear in the completed recordings that can't be claimed by either of us. It's surprising!

Paula: What is your day job (if you have one)?

John: I trained as a librarian. I work, part-time, for CSIRO, Australia's largest publicly-funded scientific research organisation as a librarian, web manager, internet trainer, and general IT support dogsbody.

Paula: Who are your musical influences?

John: I love all the great classic African bands: Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, Bembeya Jazz, Etoile de Dakar, Sunny Ade, Mahlathini, Milimani Park, Simba Wanyika, Thomas Mapfumo. All of them are giants of their respective styles, whose careers span twenty or thirty years.

I'm very taken by East African music, and the variations it works on Lingala styles.

The music of the Shona in Zimbabwe combines relentless energy with ecstatic spirituality...which can't be bad!

I love large bands, orchestras in fact, such as the juju and highlife groups which number twenty or more. I think these large ensembles working together in the production of such affirmative music is a sort of mini-utopia. I would like to be the lowest-ranking cowbell player in a Nigerian juju band. I would be so happy every night, tapping out my small repertoire of patterns in the midst of this machine-for-producing-joy.

Paula: What do you like the most about African music?

John: 1. African music has given me the most intense feelings of 'connectedness', of feeling 'at home' of any music I've heard. It just feels so good.

2. For someone interested in guitar-playing, there's no other music that gives you such scope, both in terms of styles, and in accommodating players of all levels.

3. The best African music embodies African social values that I admire and would like to promote.

Paula: What else would you like people to knwo about your music?

John: A song from our last cassette ('Salty Banana' 1996) is featured in the latest feature film from Rolf de Heer "Dance Me To My Song", to be released soon...may be shown at Cannes in May.

We also have three songs on the "Main Site v1.0" enhanced CD, recently released by DMR Diversions.

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