Ayiba contributing writer, Seyiram Torkornoo, met up with rising rock star Osekre to chat about his band Osekre and the Lucky Bastards, as well as the popular, Aputumpu Music Festival which he organizes in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Seyiram: When did you get involved in music?
Osekre: I assume you are asking about my current project and that started off in college, at Columbia University. I was doing poetry when I started and writing a lot and was pretty much trying to figure out how I could let my poems out. I had the opportunity to start in a band. The way that it happened was, I did a poetry reading at a campus event and these guys I knew who were in a band asked me to come and sing their song since they did not have anyone at the time. I went up playing over their stuff and it was really cool. I did one of my poems over their stuff and since then I started exploring the idea of starting a band.
Seyiram: How does Ghana inspire your music?
Osekre: At the core of all my songs is ‘jama’ (a form of Ghanaian cheerleading song made by a group of people using drums, the gong gong, clapping and other instruments. It stems from the Ga people of Ghana). A lot of people do not really know ‘jama’ so there is a lot of association with Afro beat which is not what jama is, but I can see why people would associate them. We are more of an afro pop band but ‘jama’ is the motivation or spirit behind most of my songs.
Seyiram: When and how did you meet your ‘lucky bastards?’ How did the group come together?
Osekre: The Lucky Bastards and I have been kicking it for a minute. The current group is the third iteration of The Lucky Bastards. I started The Lucky Bastards in college and most of the people graduated, left town to get married or work. I always wanted to do this so I am the only one who stayed around. My current group is unique because I ran into my bassist at an open mic in Bushwick. He approached me and said he loved my music and wanted to jam with us some time. I had a bassist then but after that guy moved on, he came in and we have been playing together for two years now. My current drummer and guitarist are very new to the group. They were people I had touched base with a while ago and when I needed a drummer I reached out to him and he also recommended the guitarist. It usually works that way. One person recommends another because they have probably worked with them and know their stuff.
Seyiram: We hear you consider yourself a lucky bastard. Why this description?
Osekre: Yes, I do. Oh man, purely because I am very lucky. Of all the barrage of luck that has come my way, I believe that the most immense one is my journey through Columbia University. I came to Columbia University without funding. I didn’t realize that I didn’t have funding.
Osekre: It was a series of miscommunication and misunderstanding. My assumption was that I had funding and I reached out to people who assured me that I should have funding if Columbia admitted me. I tried to find out but there wasn’t much clarity because I got a very limited scholarship. So, when I got here, I fundraised myself through college.
Seyiram: How was that even possible?
Osekre: By writing to people, sending emails and doing little fundraisers, and that is why I am lucky. Every semester, I fundraised to go to school with the limited scholarship I had. I don’t want to go into numbers but it was less than 10% of my tuition for the year. I feel lucky because not many people can do that.
Seyiram: Why bastard?
Osekre: It is kind of intense but I am actually a bastard. I was more of an accident as my dad did not want a child at that time and my mum did.
Seyiram: So when did you realize that you wanted to go into music full-time?
Osekre: Ever since we started the first band. I just loved the feeling of what I was doing. I was practicing, writing new songs, challenging myself to do better and listening to everything out there which was around the context of what I was doing. I loved it and it felt natural. I felt like, ‘Ah, I am in my element.’
Seyiram: So how will you describe your sound?
Osekre: It is a fusion of Ghanaian music from Accra, specifically ‘jama’ with elements of rock from Bushwick. The horn session brings in a ska vibe to the sound. It is simply a fusion of afro pop, rock and roll, ska, and a bit of punk.
Seyiram: After you graduated from Columbia University and you told your parents that you wanted to go into music, what did they say and how did they feel about it?
Osekre: Well, I didn’t tell my parents anything. I graduated without any debts and my parents could not pay my fees so it was my decision to make because my life was in my own hands, so to speak. I was really lucky because my mother really supports me. Sometimes, I go and visit my mother and she has bought me a Michael Jackson costume she got from Walmart and suggests that I wear it the next time when I go on stage.
Seyiram: That is cute.
Osekre: Yes, everyone has been supportive. I recently sent my dad a link to some of my songs but I haven’t heard from him yet. I am curious to hear what he thinks because he doesn’t know much about my music career.
Seyiram: Do you plan on going back home to Ghana? Your sound is unique and I am not sure there is anyone doing something similar to what you are doing.
Osekre: Yes, I do. It is unique and this is a blessing and also, not necessarily a curse. Our sound identifies everywhere. Wherever we play, people identify certain aspects of the sound that is consistent with what they play there. This allows us to play at reggae gigs, punk rock gigs, African gigs, afro-beat gigs, and for me, that was the goal. I did not want to be limited to any particular genre but I want it to be a truly world sound. In Ghana, I think people will recognize this because we have played at a few African Student Association events and people have gone nuts so I know it will not be a problem. There isn’t anything going on in Ghana that sounds like us but there used to be and that band was called Osibisa. They are a huge influence on me because before I came to college, I met the keyboardist from Osibisa called Kiki Gyan. I was hanging out with him for about six months at the Accra Psychiatric Ward.
Seyiram: How did you come up with the idea for the ‘Aputumpu’ festival?
Osekre: I was going for ‘Aluguntugui’ but I forgot the word [laughter]. The ‘Aputumpu’ festival is actually an extension of a blog which I started when I moved to Brooklyn. The blog profiled certain bands that I thought deserved certain platforms that they were not given access to, such as ones that I felt were unique but were not given the opportunity to play at mainstream shows in Brooklyn.
Seyiram: What does it mean?
Osekre: I was going for something that had a musical sound but the meaning that I associated with it was something that is sweet on the inside but rough on the outside like sour sap, ‘aluguntugui.’ We believe these bands will become big one day. That is why we did the festival. A festival for rising bands.
Seyiram: Describe your most memorable experience on stage.
Osekre: Man, unfortunately, I can’t tell you that there is one because every time we play, people tell us that was our best performance. However, there was an interesting time when we went to MIT to play at one of the African Students Association events. It was not this version of Osekre and The Lucky Bastards, it was an earlier version of the band. I was the only African person in the band and everyone else was white and you could tell from people’s faces that they were wondering what the white kids were doing there. However, when we got started, everyone was on their feet and people went nuts. To see that transformation happen was priceless.
Seyiram: What other artists inspire you?
Osekre: K’naan, Nneka, Meta and the Cornerstones, Blitz the Ambassador, Ayo, Esperanza Spalding (who I performed with in Boston), Friends of Mine, Titus Andronicus, Osibisa, Fela Kuti, etc.
Seyiram: I am sure many people have told you that your music has a Fela Kuti quality. What kind of role does he play in your music?
Osekre: I think the association with Fela comes from the energy on stage and the freedom to speak your mind. To be honest, I think people are giving me more credit than I deserve because I don’t think that I have gotten there yet and I don’t think many artists who imitate Fela have gotten to the point where they are as honest as Fela is. For me, it is an aspiration and I hope I can come to the point where I am not really talking about political reasons or any other reason and can honestly speak my mind. I am passionate about Africa and I’m interested in the issues that go on there but I believe Fela is that champion who did not hesitate for a minute to address the issues. My music is basically about happiness and insanity but I believe there is more happiness than insanity so far, and hopefully I will bring out the other aspect as time goes by. I don’t want to be controversial for controversial sake. I really want to talk about things I am passionate about.
Seyiram: What impact do you imagine that your music will have on your listeners?
Osekre: To be honest, the thing about being a bastard is that my life is one of constant gratitude. Back home, we believe that when a child dies and another is born, the second child is a reincarnation of the dead child. I consider myself lucky because I wasn’t supposed to be born so my life is one of constant gratitude and celebration and that is why my music is always about celebration and is happy and teasing. I really do not have an agenda. I just want to communicate how I am feeling and what I am feeling. I feel lucky and can’t pretend to be angry so even the heavy issues that I address, I approach it from an angle of reason. Sometimes that gets the message across because people can easily dismiss what you are saying because they think you are angry and don’t really appreciate the reason behind your anger. Maybe this is the new form of activism, maybe, and maybe it is just me being lucky and finding a new approach to discuss issues I care about.