Underexposed Omar is gaining attention as Great Britain's `Godfather of Soul'

ON POPULAR MUSIC

October 19, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

About three years ago, I discovered him through two of his fans: Angie Stone and Erykah Badu. I had interviewed the two at different times, and both went on about Omar.

"That's my boy," Stone said.

Because I love the music of those gifted sistas, I wondered what this Omar cat was all about. Turns out he is one of the most acclaimed soul artists in the United Kingdom. The press over there calls him the "Godfather of Brit Soul." A charismatic vocalist, talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Omar has been making albums (five in all) since the early '90s.

Though he hasn't broken above underground status in the United States, he has amassed strong cult followings on both sides of the Atlantic. Ever since Stone and Badu hipped me to Omar, I've been going on about him, too.

Sing (If You Want It), released in the States last week, is the singer-songwriter's first album in five years. It's the follow-up to 2001's colorful, if unfocused, Best By Far. Omar is on a short American tour to support the album. He performs at Washington's Bohemian Caverns on Saturday night.

First thing I want to know after the London-based artist answers the phone in his Los Angeles hotel room: "Why so long for an album, man?"

"Hey, I had to change my label, start my own label, change management. I was touring like crazy. I had to get my [stuff] together," he says, almost apologetically.

Also during the five-year hiatus, Omar (whose last name is Lyefook) built his own studio, where Sing (If You Want It) was recorded. Despite the discombobulating period preceding the album's release, the artist produced a cohesive set, much more fluid than the disjointed, Latin jazz-leaning Best By Far.

"When I create the music, it just comes out," says the performer, 38. "I don't let the business affect my music. I like it to be eclectic. I don't really think of a flow."

This time, Omar had a little help from a few American friends: the ever-tasteful Stone, respected (but sometimes boring) rapper Common and the legendary Stevie Wonder. The Motown genius met Omar in London in '92. He promised the younger artist that he would write him a song. But eight years went by before Wonder delivered anything. Out of the blue one day in 2000, Wonder, who was in London playing a gig, called Omar. He was ready to record something. Finally.

"When you get that call, you drop everything, you know," says the artist. "I convinced him to use a live band. It was a vibe going. He played the keyboards and the drums."

Because Omar was in lounge jazz mode on Best By Far, he saved the Wonder song, the exuberant "Feeling You," for the new album. Suffused with a funk-rock-jazz sound reminiscent of the legend's Songs in the Key of Life era, the track is a standout. It surpasses the mostly forced cuts on Wonder's last album, 2005's A Time to Love.

On Sing, Omar went for harder grooves, "something for the clubs," he says. "Your Mess" best exemplifies this meatier direction. Buzzing synths and cinematic strings give bold textures to the strutting beat. It's one of Omar's finest productions, bringing to mind the sassy dance hits that flowed out of Salsoul Records in the early '80s.

The new album retains Omar's exploratory spirit. There are few convincing forays into hip-hop between the mature funk-soul tracks.

"I try to keep everything fresh, man," he says. "You don't want to keep doing the same things all the time. I just want to keep the music funky."

And it stinks so good.

See Omar at Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th St. N.W. in Washington, on Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, go to bohemiancaverns.com.rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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