It doesn’t take an especially perceptive person to realize the landscape of popular music is evolving before our eyes.
O ne simply has to look around, ears (and mind) open in order to see what is happening all around us. In one sense we can attribute a lot of this to the availability and attainability of home studio technology – a levelling of the playing field so to speak – where a decent home studio could be assembled for mere hundreds of dollars rather than tens of thousands. In the recent past, being able to record your music required a huge investment that most were unable to make in order to get a recording done. Musicians who fell outside the spectrum of what is typically popular music had little hope of garnering the type of following they needed to afford to produce a suitable recording which represents their creative ambitions. Experimental and avant-garde artists languished in obscurity, many of them happy to occupy a darkened corner of the room.
What we are seeing now is that spectrum is shifting. The foundation of the music industry is being dismantled and reassembled, bit by byte, as hundreds of thousands of basement dwelling musicians find their reach extended. Beyond the “bar band” formula of yesteryear, a new age of music is quite suddenly upon us. These are creative, and contentious times for musicians. One could have a strong debate over the state of the industry in general, and it is easier than ever to draw lines of division between us over what constitutes authenticity and meaning in music.
Meanwhile, the weird looking fish is growing legs and willfully crawling up the beach, becoming a fantastic colorful lizard before our very eyes. All sorts of new life forms are emerging from this murky primordial musical soup, and capturing the attention of people who would never have been able to discover them ten or fifteen years ago. Musicians who had a long history of pursuing music through more traditional channels found themselves suddenly disillusioned with an industry that is mostly ambivalent regarding anything that falls outside the predefined social expectations of bar goers and show attendees.
What we wanted – and some may say – what music needed – was an injection of pure unbridled creativity. Taking back the power. Putting the microphone back in front of the people with something interesting to say.
On that particular note, I want to talk about Okapi.
No, not the strange and endangered Congolese forest giraffe (though as allegory it serves very well to illustrate many things here.) No, I am talking about the self-described “avant-rock chamber duo from Ashville, North Carolina.” On November 1st, they released a full-length digital album titled “Carousel (Part One).” It was recorded at Electrical Audio in Chicago. Yes, THAT electrical audio. You know, the one owned and operated by legendary post-industrial-avant-punk Steve Albini. That alone should turn your head a bit, but by no means should you stop there, for there is so much more to discover ahead.
Okapi is music with a mission
There is no lack of interesting things to say about this duo and their work. I find myself somewhat flustered trying to summarize, anything I can tell you here is merely scratching the surface and tilting toward trite. The further I dig, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. Okapi are a two-piece “ensemble” featuring cello, upright bass and voice. Their music is at once dark and bright, plaintive and euphoric, psychedelic and cerebral. Above all else, this is music with a mission. No kidding either, their website even has an “Our Mission” page.
Okapi draw inspiration from many sources, some immediately recognizable and some more obscure and challenging. Their promotional materials are littered with quotes from Albert Camus, heavy existential musings, and a great and continual pondering of life’s inescapable absurdity. Their lyrics are thought-provoking and intelligent, even provocative and confrontational at times. This is not your usual lyrical fare. They string together anecdotes and poetic analogy like they are weaving a colorful flying carpet.
Take their song “Quarantine” as an example. From their “song anecdotes” page (yes, there is one of those too) on their website they explain:
“Frustrated with the deceit and dishonesty prevalent in society, a man decides to dismantle the town structure using his intellect and witty trickery. He utilizes the people’s weak principles as leverage against them, hoping to prompt a realization that could lead them to building a much stronger foundation of consciousness. But his plans misfire, and he’s captured by the townsfolk, imprisoned, and put on display in a transparent cell which sits in the village square. They study their captive like a deprived primate, and entertained by his suffering, hope he fulfills his own punishment by committing suicide.”
This is just one example. There is song after song of heady concepts that sound like they were ripped straight from the private and intimate journals of Kierkegaard or Voltaire. Yet they sparkle with an originality and uniqueness that is all their own.
Get on the bus
In the musical musings of Okapi, there is so much to dig into that I can’t possibly do it all justice in the scope of a simple article such as this. This is a group who has put a lot of thought and feeling into what they do, creating layer upon layer of meaning and mystery all while retaining a fantastic listening experience. At face value, it is listenable and interesting. It taunts you in a way – like a devilishly attractive little imp motioning you to get in the van and pet their new puppy. It’s nothing I’d expect to ingest while submerged in a sea of bobbing heads and fist pumps, though I imagine it translates pretty well into a more intimate live situation. While Okapi can be appreciated in terms of their musicality alone, for those who seek something more, there is plenty here to explore. On that level it certainly does not disappoint.
Okapi is a strange and beautiful endangered animal, and while I hesitate to send a bus load of tourists to go feed them their first hot dogs, they are a must-experience for those seeking a deeper connection to their music. Do yourself a favor, put on some headphones, light a few candles, lean back in your comfy chair, and listen to the whole album. Or better yet, buy it from their Bandcamp. Musical projects of this caliber truly deserve our support and appreciation.