Sunday, August 19, 2018

Don't You Listen?: A Profile of Tona Walt Ohama (Part 4)

There's a Place Where We Belong (2007-2018)

Ohama wakes up his Mac desktop and plays a video shot on 7 Ave. S.W. during his street-sweeping project. “So I meet this girl right here,” he says, pointing to a young woman playing an acoustic guitar. “That’s Solstice.”

Three decades Ohama’s junior, Solstice was a student at the Alberta College of Art + Design who was singing her original songs on the corner of Centre St. and 7 Ave. downtown, outside of the now-demolished Art Central building. In her repertoire was a song called Dirty Paperwith its lyric: “I need a car to get to work to get some cash to pay for gas to get to work to trade my days for dirty paper.” 

Hearing that, Ohama was captivated. Something awoke inside him.

“Her lyrics were so good. That was probably the first time in 10 years that I said: ‘We got to record this,’ ” he says. “That pulled me out of the whole ‘that’s the end, I’m going to kill myself’ thing, working on her project.”

Ohama entered Rocky Mountain Recording Studio where he produced This Moment Will Never Happen Again,released in 2008. No synths here: Ohama captured the songs as he originally heard them, with just Solstice and her acoustic guitar. (Today, she works as a schoolteacher; that debut remains her only album to date.) 

Ohama-produced debut album from Solstice,
This Moment Will Never Happen Again.
Newly inspired, Ohama took a job as a dishwasher at Teatro and built his current studio where he recorded 2010’s Earth History Multiambient, his first album in 16 years. 

“It was really tough,” he says of the recording sessions. “What was tough about it? How technology changed is number one. Two, I hadn’t been writing, so I had nothing to say.” 

But then he did. The result is a diverse album that contains what he calls “joke things” (OMGHey What); deeply personal songs, such as Isolated (“If you listen to the lyrics, that was the point where I was ready to end it”) and Earth, an old-school, 16-minute eco anthem with a lengthy, jammy instrumental middle section and a rap by the son of Rachel, Ohama’s friend from the 1990s.

“He called me up and he said: ‘You wrote a song for my mother and it played at her funeral when I was 10 and I want to do music now,’ ” Ohama says. “So I played him what I had done for Earth. I said I want a rap here. Then he came here and we did it one take. It’s perfect the way it is.”

The anything-goes nature of Earth History Multiambient revealed a new Ohama, untethered to his past or to people’s expectations of him. That spirit infuses everything he’s done during this fertile decade.

He followed Earth History Multiambient with a “synth edition” of the 1972 Jethro Tull prog classic, Thick as a Brick,which he deems “my true masterwork.” That was 2012; the same year he released his avant-garde soundtrack to the movie Pull.

In 2013, New York’s Minimal Wave label, which specializes in obscure 1980s synth music, introduced Ohama’s earliest material to a new audience with the release of the eight-track compilation, The Potato Farm Tapes. (Minimal Wave had included Ohama tracks on label compilations earlier in the decade.)

Ohama compilation The Potato Farm Tapes,
released in 2013 on the Minimal Wave label.
And, in 2015, when he found on eBay the first synth he bought — not just the same model, the same ARP Axxe — he snapped it up and then used it to layer monosynth goodness atop the music of several female singer-songwriters on last year’s Grrlz Monosynth Tower CD.

The album ends with Ohama and Mia singing the 1986 Peter Gabriel-Kate Bush duet Don’t Give Up; given Ohama’s earlier thoughts of suicide, hearing this version seems too intimate for strangers to hear.

But most notably, this decade is marked by Ohama’s entry into ambient soundscapes. For his Multiambient Tower Soundscape, which played in the downtown core during the 2014 High Performance Rodeo, Ohama composed three elements and how people experienced the music hinged on where they were and where they moved.

The elements were Core, a mixture of common downtown sounds, from footsteps to birds and traffic; Trees, synthetic washes invoking wind blowing through the tree sculptures outside of Bankers Hall; and Tower, the soothing, two-note bell tones of the Calgary Tower Carillon — which, it should be noted, sounds like church bells. 

Just like in Dania’s dream.

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