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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the January 30,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Olu Dara’s Trip: From Natchez to New York
While his discography is not what you’d expect from
a 61-year-old musician, vocalist, guitarist, and trumpeter Olu Dara
is not your run-of-the-mill blues and jazz musician.
For one thing, he owns no record player, no compact discs, and doesn’t
listen to the radio. Perhaps this is part of the reason why he has
such a totally unique take on blues, jazz, and funk music, and the
reason why his two albums for Atlantic Records have been given so
much critical praise.
Olu Dara performs at McCarter Theater, opening for the South African
a cappella stars Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on Sunday, February 3, at
Dara made his debut under his own name with, "From Natchez to
New York," was released in 1998, and created quite a stir. Then
in 2001, his second release, "Neighborhoods," was named by
Time magazine one of the 10 best albums of the year.
Despite the fact that Atlantic has since dropped him and most of the
people working in its once-legendary jazz department, Dara is
he’ll find another label. After all, he doesn’t look anywhere near
his 61 years of age.
When told over the phone last week that he seems extraordinarily well
preserved, Dara laughs and says that’s because he hasn’t changed his
"As much as I like to go drinking and running around, I know the
way I look has nothing to do with that," Dara says from his flat
on Convent Avenue in Harlem. "The drinking and running around
are preservatives for me," he adds, laughing. "But beyond
that I really think it has to do with my attitude. I have a youthful
attitude going on with myself."
Dara grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, surrounded by nature and by
blues music. He was the oldest of seven children. "I was three
or four years old and my grandmother would sing me to sleep each
he says. "Natchez was right on the river and it was very much
a blues town. There was always plenty of live music around."
"My grandmother didn’t consider herself a professional, but it
was a cultural thing for her," he explains. "She was born
in the 1800s, before radio and before records. Dara says she passed
songs along to him from the memories of her mother singing them to
Dara’s father was a traveling musician who sang with the Melodiers,
a vocal quartet with a guitarist. He describes his mother as totally
non-musical. His parents had no stereo, but they did have a radio.
"My mom was just a strong-ass mom, and she insisted that each
of her seven kids take piano lessons," he recalls.
"My mother had a piano and I started to play cornet right away
and I started giggin’ right away," he says, "because it wasn’t
about taking trumpet lessons, it was about learning to play some music
right away so we could earn some money by doing some gigs," he
"It was about blowing into it and finding your way around so we
could play some music and get paid."
When told that his experience with piano lessons mirrors the
of thousands of suburban white kids, Dara says "it ended up being
that it was the girls who learned how to play, all the boys in the
family ended up dropping it."
The young Dara took lessons on piano and clarinet, and always had
a guitar around, "for decoration, but I never had the chance to
be around anybody who could teach me." It’s only in the last 10
years that he’s begun performing with guitar in public, he explains,
having taught himself to play.
So as a kid, if he wasn’t taking piano lessons or playing trumpet
and cornet in the street corner group organized by one of his older
friends, what was there to do around Natchez?
"There was quite a bit to do," he explains, "we were in
the country, we were nature people. There were bayous, rivers, lakes
and we had a lot of freedom as far as leaving the house and roaming
the creeks and the woods, at least during summer when school wasn’t
Dara’s music education also came from the live music being performed
in the area.
"There was this guy Elmore Williams who used to play a lot, and
I used to be able to walk from my house and go to a joint nearby and
hear him," he says. "There was a whole bunch of other people
I used to go see. I’d go across the river to Louisiana and hear B.B.
King before he got famous, and Bobby "Blue" Bland at Haney’s Big
House. Jerry Lee Lewis was a youngster at that time, too."
Dara attended Tennessee State University in Nashville, first as a
pre-med major ("my mother’s plan"), then as a music theory
and composition major. After something less than three years, he left
school to join the Navy.
"In the Navy, I knew I could play in a band, and that’s why I
signed up for a four-year hitch," he says. "My greatest
was when we set sail from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina to Africa,
and three days out to sea, the drummer became sick and had to be sent
back, so I became the drummer. I found myself playing drums in the
land of drumming and I had never really played drums in my life
but my band mates had faith in me," he recalls. Once in Africa,
he learned from African drummers and their influence can still be
heard in his music.
Dara was in the Navy, playing music, from 1959 to 1963.
Then he settled in New York City. "My intention was not to be
a professional musician any longer," he explains, "because
my profession in the Navy was being a professional musician. I was
actually afraid to try to tackle the New York scene for a while. I
never had any intention of playing here at all, until I was about
30, then I started getting back into the music."
Dara credits the grounding and exposure to other musicians he received
in the Navy as a priceless educational experience.
"The whole experience allowed me to get my chops together, to
see old cultures, and see how their music is part of their lives.
It was a great gift to be able to play music and get paid for it,
in the Navy, and I thank the American taxpayers for my education,"
he adds, laughing.
"Being able to play music made up for all the other stuff you
have to go through when you’re in the Navy," he says.
Through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Dara has survived as a musician
by working a variety of club gigs as a sideman and leading his own
bands, but more importantly, by working in musical theatre.
"I worked with `Hair’ in 1970, and that got me networked enough
in the theatre world that I was able to go on and do other things.
I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to depend on clubs for my
income," he says.
Since the release of his two albums on Atlantic, Dara has made rapid
progress, capturing the attention of prestigious events like the
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, playing at the festival in
year 2000. "When I’m home, B.B. King’s is a good place for me
to play," he says, "and I like playing in the theaters, Town
Hall and Carnegie Hall."
At McCarter Theater on Sunday, Dara will be accompanied by Kwatei
Quartey, guitar, Coster Massamba, percussion, Larry Johnson, drums,
and Alonzo Gardener, bass. Dara switches on and off between vocals,
trumpet and guitar, but says "What I do mostly these days is
Olu Dara the songwriter credits John Lee Hooker, Bill Withers, Ray
Charles, Johnny "Guitar" Watson and Mavis Staples as
"I enjoy singing a lot," Dara explains, "the horn can’t
really change that much, but there are unlimited things you can do
with the human voice. I decided early on, a long time ago, that I
didn’t really want to present myself as `the trumpeter Olu Dara,’"
he adds, noting he also plays harmonica as well from time to time
At live shows, he says, "each song comes out of another rhythmic
genre, you’re not going to hear a blues as you know it with every
number," he explains, "but I have the blues feeling and blues
vernacular in everything I do. To me, the blues is infused in all
musical cultures in America, anyway."
— Richard J. Skelly
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $29 and $32. Sunday, February
3, 3 p.m.
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