Valley Vibrations: Multi-genre inspired group creates ‘acoustic fusion’

Bobby Shipman

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Osiella members practice in the studio Photo by BOBBY SHIPMAN/The Shield

Theophilus “Theo” Akai and Cynthia Murray knew there was something special about their musical chemistry from the start.

Murray’s husband, Kenneth, has owned a local music studio for over 21 years and heard rumors of Akai’s musical abilities from many bands in the area.

On the way to an outdoor show outside the Alhambra Theatre on Haynie’s Corner in Evansville, Kenneth recognized Akai in an alley by Bokeh Lounge and instantly recognized the guitarist.

“I had never seen his picture before. I didn’t know what he looked like,” Kenneth said. “We have plenty of black people here (in Evansville), (Akai) is not the only one, just something about him. He had no guitar in his hand either, so he is just some random black guy, and I’m like, ‘Are you Theophilus Akai?’”

From then on it became apparent Akai and Cynthia were meant to work together, Kenneth said.

On December 30, 2013, the duo recorded their first song and shortly after became Osiella; an “acoustic fusion” band with a unique sound inspired by various genres of music.

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Theophilus Akai plays the guitar Photo by BOBBY SHIPMAN/The Shield

The African-inspired guitar

Akai’s guitar playing draws inspiration from the many places he’s called home.

“I lived in a pretty diverse neighborhood in New Jersey and I remember going to church–I went to an African church,” Akai, 25, said. “In Kentucky, I lived in seminary so that’s a lot of gospel music. Wisconsin (had) a lot of hippies–a college town–so you would see like a Peruvian flute band one day, then you would see a Reggae band the next. Then Indiana–country.”

His largest influence comes from his home-country Ghana, where he lived until he was 4.

As a child, Akai started out playing the violin, but when he was found playing songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his father bought him a guitar. Besides Jimmi Hendrix, Akai didn’t pay much attention to  guitarists, but instead listened to African music.

“African music is more rhythm driven and that’s where I take my guitar playing from,” he said.

Before Osiella, Akai was in a band called Theo and the White Guys, a band called Free Spirits and often played alongside local musician Monte Skelton.

“This is the most serious original band I’d say I’ve been in. The level of musicianship from everyone, the level of drive–we are all very motivated in getting stuff done,” he said. “I’ve never been able to work with somebody like (Murray) where I can just spit out some chords and the next thing you know, she’s got a song written. From the music end, it all works like a greased wheel.

The funky lyricist

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Cynthia Murray belts a tune during an Osiella practice session Photo by BOBBY SHIPMAN/The Shield

Cynthia, 27, has performed many times in her life.

“In the third grade, I was in the car with my mom and she noticed that I started memorizing the words to all of the songs on the radio and that I could hit the notes,” she said.

Her mother then signed her up for the school talent show where the aspiring songstress sang “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas.

“It just took off from there. I did 4-H fairs, I did river fests here in town, I did the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival every year until I was 13,” she said. “I did UE Solo and Ensemble until I was in junior high, Star Search–you name it I did it.”

Murray also did theatre and marching band in high school, which gave her a better understanding of music, she said. She grew up listening to David Bowie, Queen, Eddie Money and Huey Lewis and the News.

“I was kind of the odd man out in elementary school and junior high because I listened to all that era of music and none of my friends did,” she said; “nor did they really care about it.”

After Murray graduated, she joined Missionary Baptist Church and sang in the choir and on their praise team.

“They are predominantly black, so that taught me really how to sing gospel music,” she said.

At the age of 20, she met her future husband, Kenneth, who taught her how to record. After several failed musical projects, she met Akai.

“I just loved it. I loved writing with (Akai). I loved clowning with (Akai). I knew there was something there,” she said. “It was something that I couldn’t just walk away from.”

The street violinist, the church pew basher and the talent scout

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Brandon Summers, a former Las vegas street performer, plays the violin. Photo by BOBBY SHIPMAN/The Shield

On a trip to Las Vegas, Osiella met a street performer with a knack for playing popular hip-hop song covers on his violin. While in Vegas, they asked the violinist, Brandon Summers, 27, to play an open mic night with them. Just three months later, the band invited him to go on tour.

“Osiella feels like a super-group. I mean, everybody in the band can stand on their own two,” Summers said, “and have already done some really worthwhile projects on there own.”

Summers started playing violin at age 6 and is classically trained.

“Now that you have the best of the best coming together it feels like something magical is happening,” he said.

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Dekar Baker keeps the beat alive in the studio. Photo by BOBBY SHIPMAN/The Shield

Dekar Baker, 19, said Osiella is a band that never stops working.

Since December, The band has released and EP and already has 21 songs to pick through for their upcoming album. As a child, Baker’s mother grew tired of him bashing various objects with pens, such as church pews and his own head, so she bought him his first drum set at age 2.

Now he drums for Osiella.

“(Akai) is always challenging me rhythmically with his African craziness,” he said. “His rhythms and stuff are more challenging than any other guitar player I’ve ever played with. To add fuel to that fire you’ve got (Summers) that’s crazy–the best violinist I’ve ever heard. It’s a good unit, it’s pretty tight for the amount of time we spend together.” Kenneth, the band’s manager, has sat behind the glass in his studio for 21 years watching bands with platinum record potential pass through.

“Akai and Cynthia were the catalysts for something I knew could be something greater, because their drive matched their talent. The band is constantly evolving,” he said. “I see nothing in their future that says they’re not going to make it.”