Friday, 4 March 2011

Hidden Gem: Osjan - Osjan

The dream of any vinyl collector is that you’ll turn up a gem at a car boot sale. In reality it rarely happens. Most of what is sold these days is junk (Mantiovanni, Paul Young, Phil Collins) and the good stuff goes at the crack of dawn if at all. I’ve wasted many a Sunday morning only to come home with a couple of disco 12s. One of the few gems I did find however was this record by Osjan. Walthamstow might seem an unlikely location to churn up a classic Indian-influenced polish jazz record but that’s exactly what happened.

Collectors in the know have long known that Poland was and is home to an excellent jazz scene. Cracow’s Osjan (or Ossian) were founded in the early seventies by two members (Jacek Ostaszewski and Mark Jackowski) of a previous group called Anawa. They’ve been playing as a key part of the underground Polish jazz scene ever since and are widely regarded as the act that brought world music to Poland. This isn’t world music in the conventional sense however. What Osjan do is incorporate influences from various cultures and assimilate them into their core sound of avant-garde jazz. Focus is on rhythm rather than melody. If you love three minute pop singles this is not the record for you. If however you like rambling, stoned twenty minute ethno-jazz epics featuring only a handful of notes then you’ll find yourself right at home. This is a band that is truly uncompromising and undoubtedly spiritual (they used to regularly perform with Black Horse Cheavers, a Cherokee shaman).

Osjan made intuitive music, mostly instrumental, and were clearly influenced by music from elsewhere in the world including Africa, Arabia and India. Their music is uncluttered and the emphasis is clearly as much on the space between the notes as much as it is on the sound itself. "We would play for half an hour on two or three notes," remembers Ostaszewski. "What fascinated me, not only in the sphere of music, was the search for forms that would allow free expression, not limited to the conventions of jazz, pop or classical music."

This 1982 recording starts with just snippets of sounds - a double bass here, an acoustic guitar there before the guitar picks up the melody and one can almost picture rainfall. Xylophone, didgeridoo, flute and bongos enter the fray one by one until finally after about 12 minutes a vocal can be picked out. Even now, full words can't be identified as the vocalist simply applies a la-di-da over the tune. The track (which fills the whole of side A) culminates in a battle between a flute melody, strong bongos and what sounds like a Guiro (the wooden scraping instrument of our schooldays). The track is essentially a cycle, starting slowly, peaking and then dispersing into a single guitar and vocal.

The track on side B peaks far earlier and is quite different although it features much of the same instrumentation. It has a slight Cossack feel as vocals are literally yelped over the fray.Eventually the instruments fall away to leave a solo bongo playing furiously. A folky flute is introduced to bring the melody back - its all quite entrancing even after repeated listens. The final movement is more melancholy and wistful as once again the flute and 12 string guitar bring us home.You've probably gathered by now that this is not a record you can dip in and out of, it demands the listeners attention if they are to truly appreciate it and doesn't really bear comparison with anybody else.

Osjan's legacy lives on through occasional (and almost mythical) live performances and their influence on others such as Maanam (a group formed by Jackowski) and Voo Voo. A truly original band and a story worth 50p of anybodies money I reckon...
Thank you to for some of the information in this article

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