They Got Breaks, Too

Posted by Leo Messias on 18. Jul 2009

In Aug 2006, a young French-Vietnamese beatmaker named Arnaud Bertrand traveled to Vietnam on holiday. More than just visiting the homeland of his grandparents, he was on a trip to find and satiate his addiction for lost old records -- or vinyls, to use industry jargon -- of a bygone era.

Without being able to speak a word of Vietnamese, he set out trying to explain in English what a vinyl was to random people on the streets of Saigon. As arduous a task as that was, luck finally struck Bertrand and he managed to find a local market where he procured over 30 unknown Chinese and Vietnamese vinyls and brought them all back to France.

Sampling the strong Southeast Asian sound identity he heard in those records with hip-hop and electronic beats, he composed 32 songs and released his debut solo record Chinoiseries (Favorite Records, 2008) under the stage name ONRA, which turned him into an underground star almost overnight.

One of the critically-acclaimed album's singles, the hilariously-contagious "The Anthem," went on to be used by Coca-Cola in an advertisement -- one containing animated versions of hoop heavyweights Yao Ming and LeBron James-- for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

Oozing French charm and worldly musical savoir-faire that will make you want to run to the next country in search of lost grooves and forgotten gems, the producer extraordinaire is set to kick the party high at UCCA/SuperGanbei on Thurs, July 23.

Here, we dig through ONRA's mental crates to learn more about the genesis of the Chinoiseries project, his current China tour and what it's like being more popular abroad than in his native France.

Leo Messias: How did you get into instrumental hip hop?

ONRA: I have always listened to hip hop music since I was 10- or 11-years-old, so it was kind of natural for me to get into this. But the only thing is that I've always been more into the beats than into the lyrics.

LM: So do you think the term "beatmaker" accurately defines what you do nowadays?

O: "Beatmaker" defines what I am, but doesn't define the kind of music I do. As a beatmaker, you can also understand "producer." Like almost every other producer, we [beatmakers] make a lot of different styles of music depending on our mood and whatever inspires us. You can't really put a name on it. All I know is that my sound is still hip hop-influenced, but with a twist.

LM: How do you start composing a song?

O: I always start with a sample or with a drum pattern. I don't play any other instruments, but I'm learning the piano on my own, little by little.

LM: Can you explain how important the drum machine is in your sound?

O: The drum machine is really important ‘cause it has a warm, fat sound. It is very different from the sound you can get from a computer software. It is the central piece of my set up, my main piece of my equipment. I have been using it for the last five-to-six years now.

LM: I heard your set this year at Sonar, Spain's most progressive electronic music festival, on an Internet radio station -- really cool, soulful and beautiful mix. What kind of feelings do you want people to get live from your sets? Do you improvise a lot?

O: I only play my own music, so I'm trying to get the listener's attention to go and appreciate the different styles of beats I do. Basically, I want them to get into my universe and appreciate the music.

I improvise on some songs with the samples, but most of my stuff is pre-sequenced with my drum machine and computer, so the listener doesn't get lost too much.

LM: Around the world people seem to have embraced your sound quicker than your own folk in France. What do attribute that to?

O: That is very true, but I don't really care anymore. I guess my music is more appreciated abroad because France is always a little bit late on music.

LM: I guess I wouldn't be too far off saying that Chinoiseries was an underground sensation. How do you feel about the attention that it got?

O: I wasn't expecting it at all! I thought I was gonna release this album, and then try to get a regular job [laughs]. At first, I didn't know if I was gonna be able to make an album with Chinese and Vietnamese music samples. I only got the idea after listening to these records, really. I felt fortunate from the start just for the fact that I found enough material to make a whole album with it. But to my surprise, a lot of people started talking about it, and it spread out really fast all over the world.

LM: Like you said, the album was made with a lot of samples from Chinese records you found while traveling in Vietnam. How much of those sounds do you think Chinese people can relate to?

O: I'm not sure if Chinese people can relate to these sounds. Maybe the older generation can, ‘cause all the music I bought is from the late-60s and early-70s, so I don't think youngsters can really relate to what these sounds represent. I could be wrong, though!

LM: So what do you think are the most interesting elements in the sound of these old Chinese records that you have in your collection?

O: Different types of melodies to what we are used to hearing, different instruments, different sound recordings, different voices. It was something that I had never heard before. Everything was new to me, which is also why I was so inspired by these old crackly albums.

LM: Your new album 1.0.8. is much darker and has a more subtle soul to it. What do you think sparked this different approach?

O: I just wanted to get off the happiness and cheesiness of "The Anthem," which was the single that caught the attention of most listeners, for a bit, and show to people my darker side. I didn't want to be considered as "funny" or "cute" for too long -- that's why I gave it a harder punch.

LM: You played in Vietnam last year. How was it going back to the place where Chinoiseries started?

O: That was great! Playing those tunes in Saigon in front of Vietnamese people was a huge achievement. I'm really proud of it!

LM: So do you think your six-city tour in China is going to be similarly-special in any way?

O: Yeah. I expect a lot of intense sensations out of this tour. I always wanted to go to China, and I hope to make people discover more about hip-hop and beats. Also, I am going there to find more old vinyls. I have started to compose a second Chinoiseries, and I got half of it done. I hope that this trip can help me finish the album!

ONRA will perform live on Thurs, July 23 at UCCA/SuperGanbei. It's free, and kicks off at 7pm sharp. You can listen to ONRA here.

Photo courtesy of Syukakusai.


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