For those of you who follow me on social media, you might recall that I have been talking about working on a Punk Rock series. That is still very much in the works. It is quite a different undertaking than my Lord Franklin series (yes, I’m promoting that again, because I’m proud of it!) Truth be told for the punk series there is so much music, art, books, and fashion to go through that I have gotten bogged down with making a cohesive series out of it. Rest assured it is still on the way.
Additionally, those of you who follow me might remember that awhile back I purchased a vintage camera bag at a thrift store. Inside it was an assortment of old camera lenses, assorted gear, and most incredibly, a good condition Olympus OM 10 film camera. Beyond inserting fresh batteries I have not experimented with it to see if it still takes photographs, but in examining the solid workings of the camera I am pretty sure that it probably does just like it did when first introduced to the market 40 years ago.
As I admired the look and tactile feel of the camera construction since the day I purchased the literal ‘bag of goodies’ I had some thoughts about how that solid feel to the camera reminded me of some of the changes to how music is made these days. In terms of the camera the most telling example is the fact that it has a manual winding lever, which 40 years since its release seems about as archaic as the very first daguerreotype cameras first introduced in 1839. Imagine…there you are on vacation with the family assembled in front of..oh lets say the Grand Canyon. Everyone get together now, smile! The photographer would have to focus, frame, adjust, then snap the photo from a long thin shutter release button (nothing like the low profile buttons of today). Ok fine, but what if you wanted to take another photo of the family? The just to be sure photo as most call it. Well you would have to slide the manual advance lever approximately 180 degrees until an audible click was heard before you could take that next photo.
And as I sat gripping the Olympus camera, I thought how different that simple film advance action was to people 40 years ago. How antiquated it seems now and how wonderful it is to have digital cameras and smartphones by comparison. As so often happens to me, my mind shifts gears rapidly towards music. In some ways I think there is almost a little too much music now. Or maybe I should say too much mediocre music made designed to solely move bodies around and shift sales units. But when the radio stops playing the songs there is often little lasting memory of the song once it has been deemed to be ‘overplayed’. We move on and don’t look back until we hear it on the radio or streaming after a year or two away and proclaim it to be a ‘classic’.
All of which is fair enough. But believe it or not, there is still music being recorded, released and promoted in the more old school way. Like the film advance on that OM 10 camera, the albums are recorded ‘one at a time’. One song first. One well crafted song stripped down of anything extraneous, focused instead on the lyrics and natural emotion of the song. Well worked in the studio-edited, with different instrumentation experiments, different tempos, different vocal approaches. When that song is completed, work begins on the next song. One at a time until maybe 20 songs are recorded for an album. Of those 20, maybe 10-12 will be chosen for the album itself.
With photography now, the ‘trash’ button is used readily. Someone not smiling? Delete, take it over. Not so easy back in the days of the Olympus OM 10 or other similar cameras. That photo was on the film roll, whether you wanted it to be developed or not. So what the serious photographers had to learn was patience and skill at not wasting chances. Load up the film. Compose, focus, structure, frame, set aperture, set shutter speed. Then and only then is when the shutter gets released and composition takes place.
So to with music now when someone comes along that reminds you of the way music was produced in the studio-one song at a time. Awhile back I began hearing a lot of buzz around a new artist called J.S. Ondara. Originally from Kenya, he became interested in the sounds of singer songwriters such as Bob Dylan. Eventually he moved to Minnesota to hone his craft, much like those photographers skilled in the capabilities of their cameras. To J.S. Ondara, the words are his camera. The skills and lyricism translated to his own original songs that are powerful in their words, and the words by turn powerful in their singing. The album-Tales Of America abounds with poetical lyrics all written by Ondara himself.
There is a mystery to some of the words that begs repeated listening. A realization that songs and delivery such as he gives are destined not for karaoke machines of the future, but for something more real, more telling, and more revealing. They will become part of the rich tapestry of language that lies at the heart of the best popular music. And it happens when the songs are approached the same way a good photo is taken-one at a time. Never too much at once. Never too flashy or driven by outside forces. Just a singular moment. A photographer out in the wild, utilizing skills of composition honed by years of dedication. Or a songwriter in the studio, utilizing different yet similar skills of composition and performance honed by years of dedication. One at a time.
Saying Goodbye-Written By J.S. Ondara
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Photographs By Robert P. Doyle