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Calgary synth-pop pioneer conquers prog and ambient genres
“It’s a Japanese samurai warrior mindset. You want to achieve perfection in everything you do. Everything,” says Tona Walt Ohama, the mild-mannered Bruce Wayne behind his mighty synth pop pioneer alter-ego known simply as Ohama. A second generation Canadian of Japanese descent, Ohama has never so much as set foot in his ancestral homeland. “I have an interest in that culture but I don’t feel Japanese,” he says while drawing a clear distinction between Tona Walt, the human being, and Ohama, the recording artist. “Just because I don’t wear the makeup, it is as different as Marilyn Manson or Alice Cooper are from their real life selves. Ohama is a recording artist and that’s all he does; The only thing I think about when I’m Ohama is synthesizers.”
Ohama has been extremely busy since re-emerging from a 15-year hiatus with his Earth History/Multiambient double CD in 2010. Currently he has two very distinct projects to share with his ever-growing fanbase.
Multiambient , the installation, located on the Plus-15 concourse of the Epcor Centre, features 15 simple, non-rhythmic, synthesizer compositions randomly played over 15 precisely spaced speakers. “It’s designed so you can create your own mix, just by moving through the space,” the artist explains. Standing beneath one of the circular, overhead speakers, the washes of sound seem to materialize out of thin air. A trio of delicate piano-like notes dance towards you, while subtle bass frequencies pulse from the woofers in the walls. The effect is relaxing and meditative, comforting even.
Multiambient stands in stark contrast to Ohama’s other current offering: Thick as a Brick: The Synth Edition , a limited edition CD, wherein Ohama lovingly re-creates Jethro Tull’s 1972, prog-rock epic, brick by synthesized brick. The original album made a huge impression on a young Tona Walt Ohama when it was initially released, three years before he bought his first analog synth and embarked on his unique journey from the family potato farm outside Rainier, Alberta, to become one of Western Canada’s foremost electronic music recording artists.
Until now, Ohama had never even attempted to cover a song by another artist. “I had no idea how hard this was going to be when I started it,” he says. “I felt like a guy who’s rebuilding an engine on weekends in his garage, and tinkers with it for 10 years, but he hasn’t got a clue how to do it. It was fun. I couldn’t tell you what key things are in, the chords, time signatures or tempo changes are, or anything. It was done line by line, piece by piece until it finally came together like a jigsaw.”
All told, he spent 900 hours over a six-month period before it met his exacting standards. While Ohama’s version is a fairly faithful rendering of the original, the synthesized sounds create a different texture and atmosphere. “I approached this from a synthesizer player’s point of view. What I wanted to accomplish was to try and get these little, tiny synth sounds to actually sound like a band. I was replicating the performances. I wanted to make sure it was always about the power of the notes and not just the effects and the sounds.”
The only common denominator between these two projects is Ohama’s unique synthesizer sensibility. Ohama has already plunged into another project, though he refuses to divulge much about it, other than to say: “It really is exciting, and it really is different, and it is not progressive rock.”
As further icing on the cake, Minimal Wave, the prestigious New York record label and ’80s synth archivist, has just released The Potato Farm Tapes , presenting eight of Ohama’s prime cuts from the early ’80s on a weighty, 12-inch slab of crimson vinyl. Ohama is clearly pleased and a little surprised at the resurging interest in his work, both new and old. “It’s been an incredible year,” he says with a slight shake of his head. “I’ll never have another one like it.”
Contemplating Tona Walt, the humble, soft-spoken man behind Ohama the recording artist, I am reasonably convinced he might actually be wrong on that point.