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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

How singer Omar was born into soul and raised around music legends

His fans include Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu, now Omar is one of four acts bringing his virtuoso skills to Irish Village, Dubai

Omar refuses to believe the great British soul tradition is forgotten when so many fans are discovering it. Getty images
Omar refuses to believe the great British soul tradition is forgotten when so many fans are discovering it. Getty images

With soul music’s calling card often being goose-pimple-inducing vocals, it is easy to forget that it actually rests on the shoulders of virtuoso musicianship.

Otis Redding’s ripping vocals wouldn’t have flown without groove-ridden horns and bass behind him; Marvin Gaye’s on-mic heroics wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the luscious accompaniment provided by producers The Funk Brothers.

A soul artist who is accomplished in both worlds is a rarity.

It is one the main reasons why luminaries such as jazz pianist Robert Glasper and vocalist and Gaye collaborator Leon Ware answered the phone when Omar Lye-Fook, better known as simply Omar, calls about collaborations for his latest project.

Released earlier this year, Love in Beats is a superb collection of soul and light funk tunes that not only get you dancing but sound amazing on a good pair of headphones.

Omar will be showcasing the new work at the inaugural edition of Soul Jam at the Irish Village on Thursday, October 5.

While the 48-year-old is looking forward to playing on a bill that also features compatriot Micah Paris, he disagrees with the notion that both are representing a forgotten British soul tradition.

“I have heard that before, but that’s just not the case, man,” he says.

“There is people saying that there is a resurgence or something, but in my opinion it never left. The people in the scene have kept on doing what they are doing. It is just that it never got the same publicity as grime or the new hip-hop, and that’s because it is looked at as an older person’s thing. But I am getting younger fans who know my music, too.”

That crossover audience comes from word of mouth, and who better to spread that buzz than the legendary Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu who have gone on record to profess their admiration for Omar.

“That is a nice thing, and I eventually ended up recording with both of them,” Omar says, almost shyly.

“I think what drove them to me is the fact that I am all about the music, you know what I mean? Ever since I started making music as a kid, I always wanted to stand out. I wanted to get to a position that as soon as you heard my music you would know that it was nobody other than me.”

That quest is a family thing. Omar admits he never really had a choice when it comes to a career in music.

His father, Byron, was a studio musician and drummer who worked with the likes of reggae legends Bob Marley and Horace Andy, while his mother was known to “play a little guitar” at home.

That creative DNA passed down to Omar’s two other siblings: his brother, Roland, is acclaimed hip-hop D J Scratch Professor, while his youngest sister, Samia, is a gospel singer.

“It was all about the music in our family,” Omar recalls.

“My granddad also played the saxophone, and my grandmother sang in the church choir, so a lot of us were leaning towards that area of things from when we were little. I guess you can say that it was in the blood.”

But his father knew that raw talent can only take you so far. Omar bolstered his prodigious skill – which included playing the trumpet, piano, bass and percussion – with training at London’s esteemed Guildhall School of Music.

The education transformed Omar into a virtual music factory, writing, performing and producing all his records, including 1985 debut single Mr Postman (released on his father’s label Kongo) and gorgeous 1991 hit single There’s Nothing Like This.

Describing the latter’s popularity as life-changing, Omar is amused at how the song came together. Once again, his father’s influence was all over the process.

“We were recording the album and I still felt that it lacked a stand-out track,” he recalls. “So I went through my father’s record collection and there was this [American funk] band called the Ohio Players and they had this song called Heaven Must Be Like This. From that I got the bassline and I wrote that song in a day. I made a cassette out of that song and played it all day, and I never got bored. I knew I had something.”

Omar performs on October 5 at Soul Jam, featuring Alexander O’Neal, Mica Paris and Jacki Graham, at the Irish Village. Doors open at 7pm, show starts at 9pm. Tickets from Dh175, from www.theirishvillage.com

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