Q&A with legendary musician/visual artist Lee Oskar, his new album powerfully addresses the atrocities of the Holocaust

"I hope that any art form speaks for itself. With music, because it’s such a universal language that touches and moves people all over the world, for all the ages of time, I hope that people can experience the music purely. I know that music can open people’s eyes and open people’s hearts to all kinds of racial and socio-cultural implications and realizations, so I would hope for the best in humanity in this way."

Lee Oskar: Never Forget

A Chance To Understand World History & Hope For Tomorrow

Composed, produced, and illustrated by Lee Oskar, recorded, mixed and co-produced by Brandon Busch, forthcoming new album Never Forget (Release Day: JANUARY 28, 2022) powerfully addresses the atrocities of the Holocaust, while also serving as a stirring reminder that great music is a universal force for everything positive and vibrant throughout society. Never Forget's nine largely instrumental tunes are sequenced like a soundtrack. The son of a holocaust survivor, Never Forget is Oskar's musical memoir - Passages Through Music - telling his journey, his and his family's story -- but also humanity's story. Danish born Lee Oskar is a world-renowned harmonica virtuoso, composer, producer, visual artist, musical explorer and manufacturer of Lee Oskar Harmonicas. Oskar shares his signature music with loyal fans around the globe, featuring new arrangements, innovative compositions and well-loved hits. In Oskar’s iconic role as a founding member and lead harmonica player for the pioneer funk/jazz band, WAR, Lee and his colleagues composed and recorded such hits as “Low Rider,” “Spill the Wine,” “Cisco Kid,” “The World is a Ghetto” and many other arrangements that gained them international renown for over three decades (1969-1993).

Lee Oskar / © Jerry and Lois Photography

Oskar and his original band mates continue performing today as the LowRider Band. Lee also performs his individual compositions locally and around the world with some of the most outstanding musicians selected from the Pacific Northwest as Lee Oskar & Friends. Over his lifetime, Lee Oskar has been dedicated to spreading his love of harmonica playing and music with people all around the world. As a harmonica manufacturer since 1983, he created an exclusive harmonica system designed for music lovers of all kinds, levels, genres and styles. Lee considers the harmonica to be a natural instrument for music lovers of all ages, backgrounds, skill levels, and musical tastes. So, it has been a pleasure for Lee to provide Lee Oskar Harmonicas to Playing for Change students and aspiring musicians and share a mutual commitment to unite people through the universal language of music.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Special Thanks: Lee Oskar & Leipziger/KL Productions

How has music and art (general) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Lee Oskar: For me, as both a musical and visual artist, I see the world and the journeys that I have taken through the lens of an artist. These colors my views of everything! Whatever I am experiencing in life and the world around me, my creative nature processes it and turns it into an art form, whether it’s through my compositions and performances, or my paintings, or even my producing of other talents.

Where does your creative drive come from? What characterizes your music and visual art philosophy?

Lee Oskar: My creative drive is part of my DNA… I was born this way and have fostered my creativity since I was a young child through artistic expression. My music and visual art philosophies revolve around being aware, attuned and attentive to the world around me and within me, to be as much in the moment and in touch with my own thoughts and feelings, which in turn drives my artistic expression. My art is my memoir.

"I hope the message of my music is that we, as humans, have so much in common that goes far beyond our differences, and we can find peace through music, the universal language that bonds humanity together. If I could change one thing in the world it would be that everyone could find their niche in life, and something that they love to do. I think this would lead to lasting peace among people if people had internal peace." (Various photos by Lee Oskar's life and career / Lee Oskar's archive)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Lee Oskar: I have been very fortunate over my lifetime to have had amazing experiences that have helped define and shape me professionally and personally. Though there are many, one that stands out in particular is a meeting with the former manager, Steve Gold, who said something powerful to me that has stuck with me through all these years. He said, “You only earn what you know how to claim.” It sounds like a very simple concept, but it is actually quite profound. Through my journey as an artist, I have also grown and evolved as an entrepreneur and business leader and this idea has been of great meaning to me as I built my many different businesses under the umbrella of Lee Oskar Enterprises.

Another memorable moment in my career was when I was touring with WAR, and Ray Charles was the opening act for us at Shea Stadium in New York. Yes, that’s right, he opened for us, which blew my mind as Ray Charles was such an icon to me and to the world. At the time, I was quite young and “green” or naive. When I heard his performance, I was completely shocked by how terrible the sound system was, and naturally felt awful for him and concerned for all of us in WAR. My wife at the time gave excellent advice and encouragement to me by reminding me to not make the fans suffer, and to give my all despite the inadequate sound. Later, after the show, I saw the promoter George Wein along with Ray Charles and his people, along with the WAR management, and bluntly said that the sound system “sucked.” I think people were a little taken aback by my brashness (and honesty) especially in front of Wein, but I felt vindicated when he answered back, “You know, the kid is right!”

I have another story from back in the ‘70s, a time when we had quite a huge fan base all around the world, including Mexico. We had a sold-out show in a big bull arena there, and when we arrived, we discovered that the promoter had run away with the money. There were thousands and thousands of fans waiting to hear us play and no sound system. Someone offered to bring a small sound system, that was like the kind you’d hear in a hotel lounge, so the show went on. The fans still went wild even with such an inferior sound system, but these days that could never happen as music lovers are far more sophisticated in terms of the quality of how music should sound. The big lesson here for me professionally was to always check the credibility of the business people involved, confirm and verify every detail.

"As for hopes and dreams, I am hopeful that my new record label, Dreams We Share, will continue to expand and touch people all over the world with my original music as well as the music from extraordinarily talented musicians who I have the honor of producing, such as Takahiro Miyazaki, David Rotundo, and Moses Concas." (Lee Oskar performing with WAR, 1970 / Photo © by Michael Parrish)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Lee Oskar: I’ve been so lucky to have had such rich and memorable experiences throughout my musical career covering more than five decades.

One highlight I’d like to share was when we (Eric Burdon and WAR) played Ronnie Scotts in London, which was known for being a hard-core jazz club where giants like Coltrane and Miles Davis had played, and typically, they’d sneer at Rock N’ Roll, or fusion, or anything but pure jazz. However, we played there 3-4 nights and Melody Maker magazine called us the “best live band ever heard.” So while we were there, Jimi Hendrix came in one night to hear us and—incredibly enough— he sat in to play with us. So sadly, he died the next day.

Someone in the audience was recording the show on reel-to-reel tape, which was confiscated by our management. However, years after this history-making show, someone somehow had access to the masters and made a copy of the show, and we later learned that at some point, there were cassettes floating around. Of course, the sound quality of those bootleg recordings was awful. But years later, someone else gave me two CD’s of this show, Jimi Hendrix’s farewell performance with Eric Burdon and WAR, Sept. 16, 1970.

Another important highlight happened more recently, involving the legendary fusion drummer, Billy Cobham. I was so honored when he invited me a few years ago to join him as a guest coach at his Billy Cobham Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat, which brought together accomplished rhythm section musicians from all over the world. I especially appreciated the fact that someone of his stature appreciated what I stand for musically, that is, being completely immersed in the moment and playing in the pocket. It was a thrill to be a part of this program and share my love for the magic of collaboration, chemistry and concentrating deeply on the music itself with like-minded artists.

On a final note, I am honored to be a part of Playing for Change, an amazing global organization that inspires and connects the world through the unifying power of music. I’m proud to be a featured artist on Playing for Change’s “Songs Around the World” album and the “Listen to the Music” project in collaboration with musicians from around the world. In addition, through my company, Lee Oskar Harmonicas, we have created a special limited edition line of harmonica products exclusively available through Playing for Change to help support artists and musical education around the world.

"For me, as both a musical and visual artist, I see the world and the journeys that I have taken through the lens of an artist. These colors my views of everything! Whatever I am experiencing in life and the world around me, my creative nature processes it and turns it into an art form, whether it’s through my compositions and performances, or my paintings, or even my producing of other talents." (Photo: Lee Oskar with his parents and brother Rolf, 1976)

Your forthcoming new album "Never Forget" is a very interesting project. Tell me a few things about it?

Lee Oskar: The messages here and the theme were the critical elements. I thought in every composition that the melodies and the meanings, as well as the playing, was designed to reinforce that underlying point that we're taking you on a trip and it's a trip designed to make you never forget the horrors of the Holocaust. In many ways I see this as my ultimate statement. For all my life the things my mother told me about that experience have remained with me. It's something I wanted to make certain is never forgotten and in many ways that's always been on my mind and always been a driving force in my work, those memories… All people, no matter their backgrounds, have much more in common than the things that make them different. I want to make music that inspires and unites people, that says we can achieve things together and that it's really time to think more about what we can accomplish working with each other rather than focusing so much on what separates and makes us different.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Lee Oskar: What I miss the most these days from the music of the past is what I perceive to be a drifting away from the spontaneous thrill of the music itself—the chemistry, the musical camaraderie, the improvisation that comes when you are so immersed in the music. These days there is more of an emphasis on having everything buttoned up in a neat professional, highly rehearsed and produced package with a commercial perspective at the forefront… and while that certainly has its time and place, it sometimes seems to take the place of the more freewheeling, spontaneous joy of the music which is where the true genius can lie.

As for my fears, I am concerned that because society and culture have become even more politicized than it used to be—we’re in extreme times now— people may not be able to separate the music itself from the personal identity of the artist who created it. Turning this fear into a hope, I hope that people will experience the music or the art purely, at the deepest level, without allowing their feelings about the identity of the creator to influence how they experience the music or art.  I also deeply hope that the universal language of music will one day bring peace to the world.

As for hopes and dreams, I am hopeful that my new record label, Dreams We Share, will continue to expand and touch people all over the world with my original music as well as the music from extraordinarily talented musicians who I have the honor of producing, such as Takahiro Miyazaki, David Rotundo, and Moses Concas.

"More broadly speaking, the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my journey through life are to be true to yourself, to be and to create in the moment, to know your strengths and surround yourself with good people who will support you and create synergy with you, and most of all, to live and experience each moment fully." (Lee Oskar / Photo © by Michael Weintrob)

What do you hope is the message of your music? If you could change one thing in the world, what would that be?

Lee Oskar: I hope the message of my music is that we, as humans, have so much in common that goes far beyond our differences, and we can find peace through music, the universal language that bonds humanity together.

If I could change one thing in the world it would be that everyone could find their niche in life, and something that they love to do. I think this would lead to lasting peace among people if people had internal peace.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Lee Oskar: I’ve learned so much through every step of the way along my musical paths. Musically speaking, I think it’s important to get away from categories, which should be reserved for marketing people and librarians. I say this because my music, from my WAR days and beyond to include my latest project, Never Forget, encompasses music that defies categorization, and touches on so many different genres and styles that appeal to all kinds of people who may consider themselves to be diehard fans of a certain single type. More broadly speaking, the most important lessons that I’ve learned in my journey through life are to be true to yourself, to be and to create in the moment, to know your strengths and surround yourself with good people who will support you and create synergy with you, and most of all, to live and experience each moment fully.

What is the impact of music on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

Lee Oskar: I hope that any art form speaks for itself. With music, because it’s such a universal language that touches and moves people all over the world, for all the ages of time, I hope that people can experience the music purely. I know that music can open people’s eyes and open people’s hearts to all kinds of racial and socio-cultural implications and realizations, so I would hope for the best in humanity in this way. I deeply hope that people are affected positively by my music, and want to learn more, question more, feel more, understand more. My new project, “Never Forget” is a perfect opportunity to give people a chance to understand world history and my personal history at a much deeper level, and discover their own feelings about tragedy, loss, pain, suffering, family, atrocities against humanity, and hope for tomorrow.

Dreams We Share - Home

(Photo: Lee Oskar's artwork, "Tolerane" © 2021)

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