KEXP Q&A: Owuor Arunga

photo by Dave Lichterman

Trumpeter Owuor Arunga is one of the handful of Seattle natives joining Macklemore & Ryan Lewis when they play Key Arena on Dec 10-12. Owuor, along with Ray Dalton, Mary Lambert, Michael Wansley, Andrew Joslyn are just some of the cast of characters, who, for the last year, have been on a world tour with the recently Grammy-nominated duo. KEXP caught up with Owuor to talk about his new song, “Black As They Come”, what it’s like to be part of such a massive tour, and his experience sharing stories on the road with the world’s hottest rapper.

How did you find time to record and write a new record while on the road with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis? 

I found that we were working a pattern of five days on and two days off. I organized a meeting with my team and a lawyer to help us define our business structure. We decided to do a casting call of the who’s who in the Seattle music scene – from Mark Sampson to Farko Dasumov to Jabrille Williams to Andrew Joslyn – everyone was happy to help and our sessions were extremely fruitful. I then started to develop a relationship with Geoff Ott, the lead Engineer at London Bridge studio, who was instrumental.

It started with a twelve-hour session. I came in with concrete ideas; however, I also wanted to be more open to the ideas the rest of the guys could bring to the table creatively because I feel collaboration is organic in nature and captures the true authenticity of music. The goal was to record as much as possible in a session. From there Geoff and I sat down and organized the sessions. I would take them on the road and literally edit in every country we landed in so my sessions are named ext. Norway, Hawaii, Cairo, Beirut, Milan, Corsica, etc. That helped me associate the vibe I was going for with each mix.

When I returned to Seattle I knew I would have multiple projects to finish, for instance bands in Nairobi, New York and Zurich, whom I was also determined to finish tracking for, as well as my band mates projects like Ray Dalton, Ryan Lewis, and so on. I was constantly leaving one studio and going to another, challenging myself to have a 48hr max turn around rate. We had no time to spare, but it’s fun!

photo by Jim Bennett

I remember seeing you at a jazz club in Seattle maybe two or three years ago. Since then so much has happened personally and professionally. What have been the biggest changes? 

Three years ago I was in Seattle, looking out to the world, dreaming of going over seas to foreign lands. Every gig was a chance to open what seemed like a giant gate to the rest of the globe. Now I’m fortunate enough to be on the other side of that gate. I went from being known or acknowledged by a few hardcore supporters, to becoming appreciated across the globe. What’s remained the same is the obsession with music, passion for collaboration, and a work ethic that’s nonstop. To answer your question in a sentence: I went from rocking shows in Seattle everyday to rocking shows around the world everyday (it’s been 250-plus shows this year alone).

What’s been your favorite gig? 

To be perfectly honest, when I perform with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, or any one else for that matter, I meditate and write all my dreams and aspirations, and each moment on stage is an opportunity to express that straight to the alter of the Divine. I take a proactive role, where I’m playing my greatest show no matter what the circumstances. It doesn’t matter if there is one or 10,000 people, I’m playing my heart out. If we’re at a hole in the wall juke joint in Austin for SXSW or doing three sold out nights at Madison Square Garden. None of that matters because I’m seeking to tap in to a state of mind. I can say in the past six years as an artist, I know if I bring the party to the people it’s going to be great regardless of what time or space we’re in. Play these shows don’t let them play you.

Do you have a favorite backstage story? 

Had to be the time we played the Red Bull X Games in Munich and Tony Hawk climes the scaffolding back stage and started taking selfies. That was awesome.

photo by Dave Lichterman

When did you start working with Macklemore? 

Garfeild High School, located along 23rd Ave & E. Alder Street in Seattle’s Central District, was where we first met. It’s an arts hub, especially for music. People like Quincy Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, were all alums. Music was a major part of our education, whether it was in the classroom or in the streets. We were part of a fraternity of artists who would continue to work together until the present day. In 2009, Aaron Walker Loud, drummer for the group Big World Breaks, got a call from Macklemore who was searching for a trumpet player. Aaron recommended two trumpeters and I was one of them. Due to the history Mack and I had developed at Garfield as classmates, he gave me a call and explained that he was trying to take his show to the next level. I agreed to work with him and on the way to rehearsal we realized that we were both in recovery. He was fresh out of rehab and I was recovering from a divorce. The conversations we had grew an old high school friendship in to an honest and cathartic artistic collaboration that continues through today.

Do you two share stories, thoughts, concerns on a regular basis about your recoveries? How does that manifest?

When you travel long distances in a rental car great conversation happens. We explore recovery, our goals, relationships and all. We actually have a game we play where you ask hypothetical what if’s and would you rather (fill in the blank) or (fill in the blank) for hours on end, it’s how we have become more vulnerable and continued to develop an understanding between band mates.

So between rental car rides, the world tour coming to a close, and everything else going on, what are you planning next?   

I am interested in service. I am now part of the One Vibe Africa nonprofit organization, which is based in my home town of Kisumu, Kenya. Their mission is to engage youth in music and keep our musical heritage alive. My next album is going to actively engage ways in which we can inspire the youth not only in Africa but globally, to lift the spirit and morale of communities via healthy, creative outlets. I am interested in contributing the same energy to programs in Seattle also, such as Jazz Ed, a music program working in the interest of preserving the art of Jazz among youth in our community. My mentor, Luversa Sullivan, introduced me to the idea that the highest level of learning is when you’re able to share and give back and I’m looking for ways to manifest that stage in my journey.

photo by Dave Lichterman

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