Monday, April 27, 2009

Global funk connections: Omar

The underappreciated genius of UK soul, Omar was making his unique brand of jazzy neo-soul way back before anyone in the US thought it was a good idea. Born Omar Lye-Fook, his parents are Chinese-Jamaican and Indian-Jamaican – an unusual background from a soul singer, which perhaps explains his distinctive vocal and musical style. Whereas 99% of soul artist are grounded in gospel music and the black church, Omar was inspired more by jazz and reggae.

Omar first exploded on the scene at age 21 with “There’s Nothing Like This”, and in 1990, it was an apt title – still regarded as a Brit soul classic today, it’s an organic groove with Brazilian and classical touches.


The rest of his debut album unfortunately contained nothing else like this, and was a messy attempt at late 80s hip-hop influenced soul. A year later however, Omar returned with “Music”, which built on everything made that first single special and is an amazing artistic achievement for one barely out of his teens. All written and arranged (and mostly played) by Omar himself, “Music” is a majestic soul record sprinkled liberally with orchestras, fat brass, latin percussion, doo wop harmonies and jazz scatting. "Tomorrow" below is a perfect example.

For some sad reason, absolutely no one bought it and it is now almost impossible to come by. I once stumbled across a second-hand copy which is perhaps my most treasured cd.

He re-emerged in 1994 with “For Pleasure”, a more stripped-back work, with a soulful synthesized approach reminiscent of Stevie Wonder. Among many highlights, the album spawned a couple of brilliant singles – the harmony-laden synth-funk of “Saturday”, and the exquisite piano ballad “Outside”.





Yet with his sophisticated stylings still largely unappreciated in his homeland, Omar started releasing albums through a French label. He is still funking out in his late 30s – 2001’s “Best by Far” in particular is another fantastic album well worth checking out, while 2006's "Sing (If You Want It)" featured a collaboration with his idol, Stevie Wonder. He has also appeared on albums by Common, Guru, Real People and Dimitri from Paris, while doing productions for Mica Paris and Laurnea.

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