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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 7, 2006

O-Shen goes back to his roots on new album

 •  Q&A: Musician travels between cultures

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

For his sixth disc, the 31-year-old Na Hoku winner wanted to stand out. With songs in seven dialects, he got his wish.

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Age: 31

Birthplace: Spokane, Wash.

Present home: Pupukea

Full-time Hawai'i resident: since 1999, but spends several months each year in Papua New Guinea

CDs released: 6, including 2 released exclusively in Papua New Guinea

Na Hoku Hanohano awards: 1 win for "Iron Youth" (reggae album of the year); 3 nominations for "Iron Youth," "Rising Son" and "Rascal In Paradise"

New CD: "Faya!"

Next O'ahu performance: At ARTafterDark's season-opening "Voyage to the South Pacific," 6-9 p.m., Feb. 24, Honolulu Academy of Arts; www.artafterdark.org.

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O-Shen, 31, was raised from infancy until age 15 in Papua New Guinea by his American parents, who were medical missionaries.

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Papua New Guinea-raised O-Shen has always kept his music rooted in the sights, sounds and soul of his homeland. But his new CD "Faya!" hits closest to his never-far-from-home state of mind.

The just-released "Faya!" has everything longtime fans of the thoughtful, fiercely intelligent vocalist have come to expect from an O-Shen CD. Reggae beats and melodies match wits with the occasional verse of flow delivered hip-hop style. Songs featuring lyrics in English and reggae-style patois combine with songs sung entirely in the native Papua New Guinea dialects that have made him a celebrity in that island nation.

Mixed in this time, however, are more Papua New Guinean dialects than he's attempted on disc before seven in all, including Yabim, Rigo, Nakanai, Kiwai and Niugini pidgin. "Faya!" is also O-Shen's first studio work recorded entirely in Papua New Guinea.

O-Shen, 31, was raised from infancy until age 15 in Papua New Guinea by his American parents, who were medical missionaries. The family's move to Spokane, Wash., his mom's hometown, was traumatic for the teenager then known by his birth name, Jason Hershey. Raised and educated in the village of Butaweng (population 1,500), a community where neighbors took care of one another, a strong sense of cultural identity was imprinted early in life, and no one judged anyone by the color of their skin, O-Shen suddenly found himself in a world where it was far easier to get by burying his identity instead of celebrating it.

After falling in with a "thuggish" crowd and barely graduating from high school, O-Shen, by age 19, was in Washington State Prison on a three-year sentence for burglary. While incarcerated, he reconnected with his culture, taught himself languages and upon release immediately returned to Papua New Guinea. Eventually, he found a new home in Honolulu.

Experimenting with music while working a Waikiki day job, O-Shen got his first big break after sending local musician Fiji a demo tape that impressed Fiji enough to let the eager twentysomething do a Niugini pidgin rap on his 2000 "Gratitude" disc. O-Shen recorded his debut CD, "Iron Youth," soon after, winning a 2001 Na Hoku Hanohano award for reggae album of the year.

For "Faya!" his sixth disc, he said, "I guess I wanted to ... show people a deeper side of me. My upbringing. Where I came from. Also maybe to stand out a little bit and let people know that I like living here, I like being respected and being given status almost as a local artist. But I still have to keep it real and let people know I'm not from Hawai'i ... expose myself a little bit, maybe."

I spoke with O-Shen about "Faya!" and his ongoing education in his homeland's languages and cultures.

Q. What personal challenges do you set for yourself before starting work on a new CD?

A. I try not to be confined by whatever kind of project people expect me to follow up with. ... I try not to be limited by any genre or type of music. I try to expand on my use of the languages and involve the culture a little bit in the music. More and more, I'm trying to do music that has more international appeal.

Q. Do you have total freedom to do what you want in the studio?

A. "I wouldn't say total. (Laughs.) I haven't let out the fire yet. I've kind of held back. I would say I'm a little bit limited by the market. ... Sadly and unfortunately, I'm limited in Hawai'i if I don't sing in English. You'd think it'd be the other way around. That I'd be limited if I didn't sing in Hawaiian. But if I did a reggae song in Hawaiian, it would have less chance of playing on the radio than an English reggae song.

"It's a lot easier on the (Neighbor) Islands. The songs on my album in other languages are played on the radio a lot more there. On O'ahu, the format is a lot more English-oriented. So I've been very blessed that they let any of my music in, because a lot of my music is in foreign languages that a lot of people here wouldn't understand."

Q. Is it OK with you that most people here who buy "Faya!" probably won't understand the lyrics to more than half the CD?

A. "Yeah, I am OK with that. It's kind of interesting. Papua New Guinea, where I come from and grew up, has a third of all the languages in the world more than 800 languages. And because of that, the artists there sing in (many) languages. Over there, anybody who listens to local music turns on the radio and hears languages they don't understand all day long. ... So coming from that background, where I listened to a lot of different dialects of island languages, it became easy for me to sing in almost any language. That's pretty common. Most artists over there sing in at least 10 languages. No artist will ever just sing only in the language that they speak. ... They'll try and gather it all in one, because then they'll appeal to more different areas within the country."

Q. Do you converse in all of the Melanesian and Polynesian dialects on "Faya!"?

A. "Not all of them. But I understand a good portion of most of them. Yabim is what I grew up speaking, as well as Niugini pidgin. ... Nakanai, I don't really understand. But I've known that song ("Tutu Gae," which is on "Faya!") since I was a little kid. It was in one of my friend's dialects, so he kind of refreshed me on it. The other dialects, I speak a little bit just from being (around) my musicians.

"A lot of my musicians are from other language groups outside of where I grew up, so I kind of picked up on their dialects, too. The southern dialects are more Polynesian and the northern dialects are more Melanesian. ... There's a lot more (variety) of languages on ("Faya!") than on my previous projects. We put it out not knowing how Hawai'i would react to that. ...

"The other albums had a lot more English, with me trying to make stuff more radio-friendly. But I think what I've learned after making a few albums is that I have to be happy with it. I have to think a little bit about what will play on the radio. But I really just have to be happy with it myself. ...

"I get a lot of good feedback about the other languages. A lot of people tell me that that's what they like best about me ... that I always incorporate the languages. ... I use English just because I have to. But if I could choose to eliminate English in my music, I might not do it completely, but I would probably not use it very much. ... I love learning (languages and dialects). I could see myself writing my own simple Hawaiian songs in the future. I'm learning."

Q. What were some of the inspirations for the songs on "Faya!"?

A. "The first song on the album, 'Geio Geio,' is a traditional chant ... normally done with a hand drum, and danced with. I did the chant in authentic tune and tempo, but just added reggae music to it. ...

"I did 'Maoli Girl' because I want to bring back the word 'Maoli.' It died in Hawai'i. People in New Zealand call themselves Maori. They don't say that they're native New Zealanders. They still have that word. Their identity is Maori. Hawaiian people call themselves Hawaiian. They don't call themselves Maoli anymore. The colonialism is so bad that the word has disappeared out of use. ... It's amazing to me seeing people call themselves what foreigners gave them as a name. I think Hawaiians who are in touch with their culture shouldn't call themselves Hawaiian, because it's not a Hawaiian word. It's not Hawaiian at all. ...

"'It Ain't Easy' is a song talking about incarceration. In Papua New Guinea, there's a big crime problem. In Hawai'i, too, especially among the native community, with methamphetamine. The Hawaiian community has really (been) hit strong with that. I was locked up ... on the Mainland, when I was 19, for three years. That was a big turning point in my life. So this was a song reflecting on that experience, and also letting youth know that going down that road is not worth it. Once you get locked up, you lose everything. You lose your freedom. It's not worth it."

Q. "Faya!" has chants, hip-hop, dancehall, reggae and other music genres. Could you ever imagine putting together an album that didn't cover a wide spectrum of music?

A. "I don't think I could. Sometimes, I'm sure some people think that I'm all over the place because I try to do everything. ... But I just do what I'm feeling at the time, musically.

"I think (my music) will evolve more away from hip-hop the longer I stay away from the Mainland. There may be more chanting in the future. More influence from the (traditional Papua New Guinean) songs, and trying to preserve some of those old songs. Once you record a song, you're preserving it for history. It's almost like you're archiving it for the future.

"The song 'Geio Geio' almost died out where I live. None of the kids my age knew that song. But their grandparents all know it. One of the elders taught me the song, wrote the chords and everything for me, and then I took it back to the city and recorded it. The album isn't out over there (until March). But when ('Geio Geio') comes out, it'll be deeper than just the music. That whole coastline speaking (Yabim) is going to learn one of their own chants again. They're going to relearn it, be able to sing it along with the beat and, hopefully, inspire people to sing old songs."

Reach Derek Paiva at dpaiva@honoluluadvertiser.com.