Meet Owuor Arunga aka ‘The Pied Piper to the Universe’, a platinum trumpeter for Hip Hop’s newest and brightest star, Macklemore. The US-based artiste, who provides the signature horn part to the song ‘Thrift Shop’, told BONIFACE MWALII about his Kenyan roots and life among the stars.
Tell us a bit about your Kenyan background…
I would describe my background as Kokoth, Karachuonyo, Kisumu, and the Diaspora. I was born at Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu and I am a Kisumu kid at heart.
We grew up pouring Omo and water in used tractor tyres and racing them down the street. Childhood in 1980s Kenya was pure bliss. My cousins Douglas and Tito were Quasi B boys and it was in Kisumu when my cousin Wendy played me Salt-&-Peppa’s Push It that I first fell in love with Hip Hop.
When did you relocate to the United States and what drove you there?
I moved to the States in 1993. My mother is American-born and I loved Michael Jackson, so I convinced my parents to move to the States so I could go see the statues of MJ. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: MJ sold me the dream.
How did your background and upbringing contribute to your career as a professional trumpeter?
My parents were Pan-Africanists. Songs like Africa Unite by Bob Marley were anthems that played at home. My upbringing helped me notice the power of message in music. As an artiste, I now aim for the same feeling I got when I heard One Love.
Why the trumpet?
I started playing the trumpet because I watched a Tusker commercial with a trumpeter playing Take 5 by Dave Brubeck and it was the coolest thing ever. The way he tilted his hat, his swag — I wanted to be everything about that commercial.
When I moved to the States my grandmother had a trumpet in her house. I picked it up and I never put it down.
You’ve interacted with some great American artistes, including Olu Dara, the father of rapper Nas. How do you relate with such people?
I’ve never said it publicly, apprenticing with Olu Dara was a gift. We met at St Nicks Pub on 148th in Harlem. Some friends and I were playing the Jam session and after I was done playing the waitress came to me and mentioned Olu wanted to talk to me.
I had no idea who he was, but I never forgot what he said, “Don’t lose that feeling…you got it”. He really believed in me. That was the ignition that made me move to New York and study jazz. The first person I looked for was Olu Dara. The rest is history.
Your nickname ‘The Pied Piper’ implies great prowess in your field. What would you say earned you the title?
I played Change is Gonna Come at the pyramids two days before the Jasmine Revolution. When the video came out news spread like wild fire because everyone had seen it and the legend of the Pied Piper begun among the elders from Coast to Coast.
The reason I say ‘Pied Piper to the Universe’ is because I came out of the Sun Ra school of music under the direction of Ahmed Abdullah. Learning about Sun Ra opened my eyes up to new ideas.
If you are familiar with Sun Ra (he was a prolific jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player, poet and philosopher known for his ‘cosmic philosophy’) you know that he dealt often with the subject of outer space. After four years of studying his music it just stuck with me.
Your relationship with Macklemore…
Macklemore and I met in high school and later in life became better friends because we were both in recovery. He was right out of rehab and I was recovering from a divorce. The fact that we had these experiences allowed us to converse on a very candid level.
Being vulnerable and sharing stories and lessons made working together cathartic. When things got better we were rising from the ashes of our past.
As a collective, your sound is quite unique, how did you bring it together?
Our sound was developed through an organic musical dialogue. We listen to a lot of the same music so we vibe on the same type of textures. However, I believe the true reason we have a sound is because we are like-minded and equally passionate about the music.
Together we make each other better artistes. Ryan Lewis might call me at 4am, like ‘we need to record some horn lines’ and there is no question we are going to get it done. I might write something on the spot, he adds his two cents, Macklemore adds his perspective, and by 7am we’ve got it. It’s a collaborative learning process.
What would you describe as your breakthrough moment?
It was the realisation that the process is the goal: ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’. For me it’s the idea that you are your own opponent; the only thing that’s an obstacle to me is me. Striving to do my very best was my breakthrough. It’s a state of mind that I must be aware of.
Did you ever imagine you would achieve the levels of success you have reached?
I set small goals for myself musically. So I started imagining new goals and knew that eventually if I would accomplish those goals as well. Truth is, I can’t control the future.
But I can control how hard I work, how much I practice, how much I collaborate with other musicians, how much I meditate, how much I take care of my body, how much I learn and so on. It’s said, ‘stay ready so you ain’t gotta get ready’.
You’ve toured many places with The Heist. Which concerts stood out for you?
Ireland is nuts. Authentic.
From a resident of a rural Third World town to being part of one of the most successful music outfits today, how does it feel looking back at where you started to where you are now?
I feel like the spirit of adventure, travel and exploration is something that makes me appreciate home even more. Every night when Macklemore introduces me he says “all the way from Kisumu, Kenya” and the crowd goes crazy. I have always known us Kenyans to be international. We are everywhere.
I think Obama really showed us how deeply entrenched we are globally. To me we are one of the flyest communities, the cradle of humanity, an international network of the most genius characters the world doesn’t know. I’m not from a rural third world town, I’m from the millennium city, Kisumu.
Do you see yourself getting involved in the Kenyan music industry at this point?
I’m already working with Kenyan artistes around the world. If there is anything I can do to contribute to our scene, I am ready, able and willing. I know artistes like Just A Band, Muthoni The Drummer Queen, DJ Adrian and The Villagers are really making it interesting in Kenya now. It’s important that radio, artistes, promoters all buzz together. I love what’s happening.
Despite your achievements you (and your entire crew) come across as unfazed by all the hype. Care to explain?
Staying unfazed is a way of keeping yourself grounded. You have to realise that you never have it figured out. As an artiste you have to constantly be learning and challenging yourself to grow. Part of it is being in the moment, not resting on laurels, and not to focus on the future, but appreciating the now and what it is you have to do. I aspire to be a Zen artiste — effortless, aware, alert, open focus.
The trials and tribulations of our past have really prepared us for what we are called to do now. We are who we are because of our failures. Now we take nothing for granted and appreciate every moment because ‘pride cometh before the fall’.
With musical success comes a lot of wealth. What do you plan to do with all the money?
I am able to take care of my family and I am very happy to be in that position. Any time I make money I reinvest it into the music — through my company, studio or instruments. I am out here flipping this music. It’s all I know, so it’s where all my money goes.
You are aware that we expect you to bring Macklemore for a performance in Kenya some time soon, right?
Does Kenya want a Macklemore show to happen? Let me know @Owuorobi on Twitter and I might pull some strings.