Legendary Harmonica Player Lee Oskar Wants You to ‘Never Forget’

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Videos by American Songwriter

Sometimes, it’s really hard to remember. That could be because the subject at hand is so difficult you don’t want to embrace it again. Or it could be because the subject is so far in the past that it’s unclear in its details all these years later. But what if the subject is so important that a people—the world, even—must remember it as it gets more and more distant in the rearview if only to ensure it doesn’t ever pop back up again in real life. For musician Lee Oskar these questions are paramount to both his life and career. Oskar, the son of a Holocaust survivor, is also a co-founding member of the band War (of “Low Rider” fame). Oskar also has a new LP, Never Forget, which is set to release on Friday (January 28). It’s an album born from his mother’s and her sister’s experience as two people who escaped Holocaust death marches.

“My mother and her younger sister,” the 73-year-old Oskar says, “they escaped the death march when the Nazis wanted to get rid of the rest of the evidence… My grandmother got the gas chamber.”

In an era when it’s easy to turn to myriad other options that are more palatable than to stare hard at a fact that certain people wanted to exterminate another group of people, it can be hard to remind people how the Holocaust both existed and can exist again if the wrong ideas are indulged. Today, the phenomenon known as “Holocaust Denial,” feels as strong as ever. This keeps Oskar up at night. And this is why he decided to write and record his new LP.

“If I was going to the grave,” he says, “and I hadn’t done this, I would have been ashamed or regretted it or felt angry at myself.”

Oskar knows the potential for another event like the Holocaust is more than possible. In reality, it’s a fine line between tolerance and using another group as a scapegoat. So, to avoid another catastrophic event like that means to examine the politics and philosophies that led to it, not to forget it. Humanity always has the capacity for ugly behavior. Avoidance of that fact is not the solution, therefore.

“My mother was devastated from [her experience in the holocaust],” Oskar tells American Songwriter. “And on top of that, in her last years when she’s learning the news that [people don’t believe it happened]—it’s unbelievable.”

Oskar says he worries this could easily happen in the United States, a country he sees as moving more and more to tribal sensibilities.

“No one man, no matter how bad and evil—one man couldn’t do this without humanity,” Oskar says. “So, the blame is not on them [Hitler, Mussolini]. The blame is on humanity for buying the bullshit. Buying the propaganda that makes them feel like they’re right and somebody else is to be blamed.”

Oskar has always loved music. He was six years old when he got his first harmonica, the instrument he is now known for. The musician was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and at six, got his first instrument after an American family visited. He loved the radio and imagined himself as the conductor of great symphonies. And when he got the harmonica, he carried it with him everywhere, playing it, using it as an extension of his own voice. He was able to develop with it at his own pace. If it wasn’t for the harmonica, he says, he would have been considered one of the “musically hopeless,” despite having a great love for songs. Oskar notes that early musical education is bent towards scales and memorization, not necessarily for artistic expression.

“If it wasn’t for the harmonica,” Oskar says, “there would not have been any window for me to create music.”

Later, Oskar became a master of the harmonica. Despite the fact that many times in his development, he felt academically inept, it was his personal connection and artistic expression that later had people describing him as a virtuoso. In 1969, he founded the funk-rock group War with singer Eric Burdon. He’d moved to the United States wanting to make it in the big music industry. When he met Burdon and the two began putting War together, it felt like a dream come true, Oskar says. Within War, he had a creative mission.

“I told Eric,” he says, “that my dream was to be a part of a horn section. I always loved the idea of the harmonica playing melody lines with another instrument in unison like a saxophone or flute. It was part of my vision being a part of the band.”

For anyone who’s heard “Low Rider,” it’s clear Oskar achieved his dream (you’ve probably sung along to his harmonica hooks). Now, with Never Forget, he’s achieving another. On it, tracks like “Song From Mom” and “World For Peace” shine thanks to his melodic, rhythmic, and even at times-fluttering harmonica playing. The record is largely instrumental, but it also features vocal recordings and other overdubs chosen by Oskar. He remembers his mother bursting into tears at random moments. Say, if a bottle broke by accident, she could crumple. These were the things on his mind when making it.

To underscore these messages, Oskar took extra time for the album’s liner notes. He took real care with the LP and all its contents—it matters that much. And his hope now is that others look up and take special notice. Music, after all, is just another way to understand the world around you, no matter how difficult it can be to take in at the time.

“I would tell the world to support the arts,” Oskar says, “not because it makes people feel good, but because it’s a great way to see how people are thinking.”

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