Sunday, August 19, 2018

Don't You Listen?: A Profile of Tona Walt Ohama (Part 3)

Feel the Emptiness Inside: 1987-2007

Ohama, forthcoming to this point, shuts down when questioned about how he spent the next few years. “It’s stuff I don’t want to talk about. I really don’t.” Yet, just as he sneaks jokey names in his album credits and hidden content on his CDs, Ohama can’t help but drop clues about his activities during these mostly undocumented years.

In 1987, he saw the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street; protagonist Gordon Gekko and his “greed is good” philosophy found an unlikely disciple in Ohama. 

“Everybody was like: let’s make money, let’s buy an island. It was all material stuff. I got into that for a while,” he says. “I went through a period where I was flipping houses. In the beginning, it sounded like a great plan. I got to five houses, suited up and down with tenants in each one. I realized this is a lot of work, it’s gonna kill me and I’ll be doing something I can’t stand. So I got out.”

Tona Ohama in 1989:
the Gordon Gekko years.
During this time, he also started hanging out with a woman named Rachel. 

“She had been a prostitute her whole life,” he says. “You can piece together your own story however you want.”

Ohama wrote about their “strange friendship” in his 1994 song, Rachel’s Dream; it ends with Ohama singing: “Let’s set Rachel free/ Everyone just go away and let her be/ No one tell her how to live, not even me.” Rachel was found dead in 1997, leaving behind three children. Rachel’s Dream was played at her funeral. 

“She was so dangerous and in so much trouble.”

But the most significant event for Ohama in the 1990s was the birth of his first and only child. 

Ohama says he had dated the mother for only three weeks and was living with another woman when Tona Michael was born in 1992. Ohama was there for the birth but says custody issues prevented him from seeing his son for almost seven years. 

“When I was cut off from him, that’s when I made that record,” Ohama says of 1994’s On the Edge of the Dream — his first CD release and the first full-length album under his own name in a decade. 

“I was inspired to do one more album. I worked on it for about a year, pretty much full-time. I didn’t expect it to be the fiasco it was.”

Dedicated to Tona Michael, On the Edge of the Dream was recorded in Ohama’s new studio in an inner-city Calgary neighbourhood, where he also developed an accompanying multimedia show.

Throwing himself into the work, Ohama planned his musical comeback and rented the Calgary Planetarium for 10 live performances. 

He was brimming with confidence. “I felt that’s the best record I was ever going to make and, if I had to end there, that’s ok,” he says. “And with the budget I had, I thought it was a great (multimedia) show.”

Poster promoting Ohama's
ill-fated 1994 shows at the
Calgary Planetarium.
Then Ohama says the city prevented him from advertising his Planetarium performances unless it pre-approved the show’s content. With neither the time nor appetite for bureaucratic approval of his art, Ohama had to rely on media coverage and pre-Internet word of mouth to let people know about the performances. It wasn’t enough.

“That just killed me,” Ohama says of his Planetarium shows. “One show, we had three people. It holds 350 people. Those shows were just heartbreaking, honestly.”

Feedback on the album — released months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide — was even more disheartening. “I never got treated as badly by people before or since as that period to what I was doing musically,” Ohama says. “They’d tell me what a piece of shit this was. They would say, ‘Your music is like wallpaper; it’s not even real music.’ I didn’t expect that. I thought it would be more positive.”

Crestfallen, Ohama decided to end his recording career a second time and throw himself into the artistic projects of others, something he had done before making On the Edge of the Dream. During this time, Ohama worked on Canadian TV series Jake and the Kid; did soundtrack work and sound design for nearly 30 animated films; acted as head audio engineer for a Sports Active Television video game; and helped assemble a CD-ROM on the Klondike gold rush by Canadian author and storyteller Pierre Berton. 

Ohama also reached out to Doug Wong, who hired him at Canada Disc and Tape, which manufactured On the Edge of the Dream.

“He needed to make some money and we were happy to have him here,” says Wong. “He made a lot of other people’s projects better.” 

Ohama designed album covers, produced and mastered records, and later branched into DVD authoring.

“I was busy in music but I wasn’t doing my own music anymore,” Ohama says. Yet he was content in his professional life — then, in 1998, his personal life also took an unexpected turn for the better. 

He got a phone call: “It’s time you meet your son.”

• • •

An arrangement was made to meet at a tea shop in Inglewood. 

“My son walked in with his mom,” Ohama says. “He’s visibly trembling. He was so scared. I didn’t know what to do, right? So I said something about Darth Vader and Luke, and he said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to cut my arm off?’ We laughed a little bit and then we sat down and played a game of chess. We’re getting to know each other. He pulls a thread in his sleeve and starts sucking on it as he’s thinking of his move. I did exactly that when I was six. I couldn’t believe the power of genetics. I was blown away. That’s when I knew I’d cut my arm off for this kid. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Over the next several years, Ohama bonded with his son. And just as Tona Michael’s birth inspired Ohama to record again, his son motivated Ohama to reconnect with his back catalogue. In 2006, Ohama — with assistance from Wong — released a nine-CD, one-DVD box set containing his albums, videos, TV appearances, radio interviews, demos, live tracks and all kinds of oddities, ephemera and memorabilia, including pieces from disassembled studio equipment. 

It was a massive undertaking as, having destroyed or lost master tapes and original photographs, Ohama sourced much of the box set’s contents from others. Five hundred copies were manufactured, pre-selling for $100 each. It sold out. 

Studio parts included in Ohama's
2006 career-spanning box set.
"The sales of it went to fund a college education for Tona (Michael),” says Wong. “(Ohama) wanted to be able to supply something to him and this was his way of doing it.”

However, the following year proved one of personal and professional upheaval. 

Tired of putting his creative energy into other people’s projects, Ohama handed Wong his resignation. There were no hard feelings. 

“With Tona,” Wong says, “once he gets to a point where he’s learned everything, I don’t think he wants to stay, doing the same thing over and over again.” 

Soon after taking his son to the Saddledome to see Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters perform Dark Side of the Moon — “the greatest night of our lives,” Ohama says — he was again cut off from seeing his son, then 14. 

“Because I was cut off from him, and because I wasn’t making music, and everything (I created) was in a box — and my son was going to be fine — that’s the year I decided I was going to kill myself,” Ohama says. He began putting his affairs in order, including updating his will.

That summer, he started a project that would transform — and ultimately save — his life. Every day, for 12 hours a day, he’d pick up litter and sweep several blocks of 7 Ave. S.W. outside of the building where he lived. 

Ohama would befriend people living on the streets and, if they provided him their month and date of birth, he’d jot their names in a book he carried in his backpack, The Secret Language of Birthdays, which assigns personality traits to birthdates. He also tried to build connections between the police officers, business people, drug users and the homeless individuals who shared this street.

“That may sound crazy,” Ohama says but points out he was inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make A Big Difference. 

“I read about the broken window theory,” he says. “If you’re in a neighbourhood and a window gets broken, and nobody fixes it right away, then another window is going to get broken. If you fix that window right away, and maintain your neighbourhood, it’s going to keep the neighbourhood strong. 

“So I said, OK, I’m going to start by cleaning up all of the litter on the street. I’m going to make sure everything looks nice. I’m going to change this neighbourhood. And I did it 12 hours a day for 90 days.”

He also wrote daily emails to friends, documenting his experiences as well as the stories he was told. 

“They fill me up and rip me apart; the pain and secrets that have been shared,” Ohama wrote on Sept. 15, 2007. 

Later in the same email, he writes about what the street-cleaning project means to him personally: “This is one of my goals in life: to create intense memorable moments with special people.… I never have had — and can’t imagine having (sadly) — a summer as memorable as this one. 2007, it will be tough to top but I will probably try.” 

Looking back, Ohama is convinced sweeping the streets put him in a meditative state that “opened some sort of doorway.” He reveals, one day during his street-sweeping project, he felt compelled to call Dania.

“We had barely spoken for 20 years,” Ohama says. 

“When she answered the phone, she said I just had a dream about you. This is what Dania told me back then. ‘Something important is happening. Tona needs to write on the synth again. He will play again and people will be healed.’ Then she told me she dreamed my music was being played on church bells.”

He laughs incredulously. 

“Then look what happened. You tell me what that was about.”

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