For nearly 20 years now, OKA have been instrumental in influencing the shape of roots music in Australia. The group draws upon their indigenous connection to place and country but aren’t afraid to mix it with contemporary and adventurous musical styles like house, reggae, jazz and electronic beats. They have pushed their sonic endeavours even further on their ninth album The Sunset Sessions which features Jamaican spoken word smith poet Michael St George. Despite decades of touring, their upcoming leg in WA is something they are all still looking forward to, with shows at Mojos, Settlers Tavern, Indi Bar and Railway Hotel from May 24 to May 27. For vocalist Stu Fergie a.k.a. DidgeriSTU, having musicians from such different cultural backgrounds is a unifying factor that has taken them to where they are today. BRAYDEN EDWARDS called him on the Sunshine Coast to get the fascinating story on the background of group, taking on new challenges with their new albums and why they see campouts as being the ultimate gigs of the future.
You describe where you are now on the Sunshine Coast as home, but for someone as well travelled as you it’s probably not so straight forward as that?
Yes my aboriginal people are from Cape York but I’ve almost become local here. I grew up through the Pacific as a kid as well. My parents were missionaries and I was actually born in Papua New Guinea and grew up all over the joint. One year I went to six different schools.
It definitely sets a backdrop about yourself, but how did OKA also come to be a group that represents such diverse cultures?
We kind of met as mates busking on the streets actually. I was busking on one side of road and the other guy was on other side and we ended up jamming together and we’ve been together ever since. It’s why we chose the name OKA because it’s the different colours of the world. It’s the earth bringing different traditions together which started with us on street busking and somehow ended with us up on stage and on festivals and taking us around the world which is pretty cool.
Speaking of bringing different styles together your new album feature Jamaican spoken word artist Michael St George. I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind how that collaboration came about as well?
Yeah we actually met in Bali randomly at one of the stages. We kind knew each other and were fans of each other’s work without ever having met each other. He’s a jam artist that played in Canada for a lot of years and we would tour there in North America a lot. He had a partner in Australia who was a fan of OKA so we randomly met in Bali and next minute we were jamming together. We’d either go to Canada or he’d come to Australia and just be creative together. He’s our support act through our Western Australia tour which is spoken word and reggae vocals. He’s a real roots muso which is cool. He’ll also jump up on some of the tunes we’ve been working on together too.
So is he across the new album or just a handful of tracks?
Just a handful. We’ll probably do a whole new album after this with him because we like what he does so much. He does that old spoken word poetry style of the 60 and 70s. It’s all that Rastafarian culture and cult spoken word and reggae from when they have religious get togethers with their murumbindi. It’s an African drum kind of vibe spoken word just like you get in church. It’s his natural expression which happens a lot with Jamaican music. We only hear that kind of music it when it gets commercial but if you listen Bob Marley and to the reggae roots there’s that element of spoken word going right back.
Did it influence the writing of how you guys play songs?
I don’t think so much so. He added a unique colour but we meet in a very similar way, writing in our own studio in the moment. You might be in car on on the ocean it’s about capturing the moment and painting the picture with sound and it’s a perfect marriage with Michael St George. He uses his lyrics and vocals as instruments like I would use my didgeridoo to paint a picture of my culture and how I see the world. He adds a beautiful colour.
Is the diversity of the group and representing different cultures a unifying factor in your music or is it sometimes hard to bring it all together?
Talk to any musician and we all have ways of writing and creating music and the way we collectively are as musicians mirrors off each other and reflects who we are. Our drummer represents this north west African and Polish background you know? He expresses that on the kit. We don’t really have a lead singer, it’s often instrumental so we’re all putting layers together and you have to be with like minded musicians to do that. The big bond is expressing life in Australia and the big thing I’m obviously coming from is an indigenous perspective. Australia is so multi-cultural and we’re painting this picture and we’re all together and because we spend so much time overseas it’s become a big point of our music painting a picture of what Australia is like. It’s probably been that connection that’s allowed us to have such longevity because we connect with each other and it stops us from getting sick of each other.
For your tour of this album and previous tours I noticed there are lots of regional shows. Do you want to be out of the cities maybe more than other bands because you feel your music works there in a way that’s different or special to you?
Absolutely, we’ve always called ourselves creative nomads. As a musician that old notion of the travelling musician is very much in our blood and our music reflects the experiences of the communities we get to become part of. We feel most normal in rural communities so we feel individuality part of the bigger and more worldly people rather than identifying with the scene of a particular city for example. Sometimes they’re the more intimate and connected kinds of shows.
What’s your favourite kind of show that really captures the energy you’re trying to create and allows you to really engage with the audience?
We’re just now starting to do the OKA campouts which are the evolution of what we’e already been doing in going to really remote places like National Parks and have a weekend where it’s full concerts where we can play more than we usually do and expose them to more of the traditional culture of a particular area. A lot of music isn’t one style or one pace sometimes it’s really chilled and laid back while other times it’s really high energy.The OKA campouts gives us an opportunity to be diverse in playing all the types of music that we love. Sometimes at a festival or a show you’ve only got like an hour or an hour and half to play music where as we’ve got about nine hours of tracks and it’s hard to know what to play. So something we’re looking forward to next year is a big tour around Australia with campouts going to rural areas and giving people that opportunity to really connect with the country and the spirit of the land and experience our music in a different way too.