In a year like no other, the pandemic has wreaked havoc with our health, the economy and our day to day lives, but with the release of The Light Will Come – Omar Akram’s first ever solo piano album – the Grammy Award winning artist, producer, composer and pianist offers us beautiful hope at the end of the proverbial dark tunnel while reminding us that nothing can stop the flow of creativity and determination to bring fans together to experience collective musical joy.
When 2020 began, Omar was looking forward to a whirlwind year of international touring in support of his 2019 album Destiny – an epic collection co-produced by legendary pop producer Walter Afanasieff and featuring the 80-piece Slovak Symphony Orchestra conducted by Shardad Rohani (Yanni: Live at the Acropolis). The culmination of his nearly two-decade journey as a recording artist, the years in the making project assembled an ensemble of some of the industry’s top musicians and arrangers, including Steve Oliver, (guitar, bass and arrangement), Ramon Stagnaro (guitar), Joel Taylor, (drums), Navid Kandelousi (violin) and Ramon Yslas (percussion).
The album was mixed by four-time Grammy Award Winning engineer, Dave Reitzas at the iconic Westlake Studios in Hollywood, and its cover was designed by Award-Winning artist and photographer Glen Wexler. After many years of releases on Real Music – including Echoes of Love, winner of the 2014 Grammy for Best New Age Album - Destiny also marked the launch of Omar’s independent label Twinbrook Entertainment.
When COVID-19 hit and cancelled, among other things, Omar’s impending 35 city tour of China, Omar quickly regrouped and, starting in April, transformed his popular behind the scenes YouTube docu-series “Omar’s Music Chamber” into a popular weekly performance platform featuring him playing established hits and new compositions on his Yamaha grand piano or keyboard. The Light Will Come features ten highly improvisational solo piano pieces that Omar composed and debuted during on YouTube during this time.
“The time in quarantine forced me to step back, reflect on my life and think back to how everything started for me, playing piano at the age of six when my family lived in Prague,” says the NYC born, Los Angeles based artist, who grew up the son of a UN diplomat and grew up everywhere from Washington DC, Czech Republic and France to Cuba and his ancestral home of Afghanistan. “In many ways, the songs on The Light Will Come bring everything back to primary elements, and remind me that no matter how large the productions of my albums have been they all start with me playing melodies on the piano.”
When he first started the weekly single performances, Omar drew from his ample discography, which extends back to Opal Fire (2002) and Free as a Bird (2004) – both of which hit the Top 15 on Billboard’s New Age Albums chart. But soon, inspired by the events and effects of the ongoing pandemic and social/racial justice issues, he began composing and playing new works. He had an engineer record the audio of each performance separately, then once he put together the “playlist” for The Light Will Come, he sent it to the legendary Bernie Grundman for mastering.
“The incredible fan support and feedback that I received from my weekly YouTube performances inspired me to gather my favorite of these performances and release them as an album that could bring a bit of lightness and optimism to people as we all struggle through this challenging time,” says Omar. “The process was the complete opposite of Destiny, going in without much pre-production or a lot of forethought. The songs fit the moment nicely because they all reflect me going with the feelings and emotions I had at that moment. I was deeply impacted by everything that was going on in the world, and wrote pieces that captured what was going on with me personally and all that was happening politically in this country.’ I would come into each performance with a simple thread of a melody and an idea that I developed and then improvise around that for the most part.”
Two of the tracks that convey immediate references to events of 2020 are “For George,” a powerful, dynamics filled 8 and a half minute composition dedicated to the memory of George Floyd; and the graceful ballad “Merry,” penned as a thoughtful tribute to Omar’s wife, a doctor who became one of the first frontline professionals to manage and direct COVID-19 sites for homeless people in Los Angeles.
The titles of the other tunes – from “The Light Will Come,” “Hear My Heart” “Waterfall” and “Since I Met You” through “Wish I Could See You,” “Pressing On,” “Caught Dreaming” and “New Morning Sun” – all convey Omar’s various emotional states of mind at the time of composition. Yet each one in its own way, shares the pianist’s overall sense that we’ll get through this, learn the lessons we’re meant to and ultimately feel a sense of exuberance and renewal when that light comes.
During this past year, Omar also launched a new talk show series on his YouTube channel titled Composing Culture, with pop culture influencers engaging in fan-friendly conversations. Thus far, his guests have included actor/director Bill Duke, actor/comedian Maz Jobrani, E! Entertainment co-founder Larry Namer, celebrity trainer Grant Roberts and #1 Billboard charting saxophonist Eric Darius. Omar also wrote his first feature film score for the upcoming political comedy “Lee’d The Way.”
Growing up a true citizen of the world, Omar recalls, “I was always fascinated by musical instruments as a child, so I began taking piano lessons from a member of the Prague Symphony Orchestra, who was one of the top music teachers in the Czech Republic.” Attending many symphonies and ballets, his natural early influences were classical -- first Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and later, the “Russian School” of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Shastakovich. Living in Cuba at age 14, he had the opportunity to chat with none other than Fidel Castro at a diplomatic reception. Omar’s resulting curiosity for Cuban culture led him to local clubs where he talked the musicians into letting him sit in and play Cuban music with them—an experience which resulted in a lifelong love for Latin rhythms and Latin-styled acoustic guitar sounds.
Returning to the U.S., Omar was introduced to the international electronic music of Jean Michel Jarre (France), Kitaro (Japan) and Vangelis (Greece) “which got me into synthesizers and electronic music. That shifted everything and I knew I wanted to try that type of music so I started composing.” Other influences that played key roles in Omar’s musical development include Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Prince. Settling in L.A. in 1993, he began performing everything from solo piano gigs to bars with Top 40 bands, but his wanderlust never ceased; he traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and also jaunted frequently to England and France. He traces his evolution from rigid classical pianist to creating his trademark brand of instrumental pop and world music to the music of George Winston and David Lanz, whose success showed him that he could play the piano but still relax a bit.
“For The Light Will Come,” Omar says, “I chose pieces I felt best shared my sense that, even with all the struggles, shift and changes in our country throughout 2020, I feel optimistic that we will find our way out. One of the silver linings is that so many of these important social issues that were swept under the rug for so long are out in the open, and as long as we confront and deal with them honestly and thoughtfully, we can hopefully get on a path towards more enlightened thinking and important changes that can make life better for everyone. On a personal level, creating the music for this album forced me to return to the essence of who I am as an artist. There’s something magical that happens when you go back to basics.”