If Bruce Lee had a trumpet, he would probably sound like Owuor Arunga; the man behind the horns in Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop and Can’t Hold Us.
Owuor, who says he is 29 for life, approaches his instrument with as much Zen mastery as he can muster and of his three trumpets, the Elkhart is his chosen one.
“Every trumpet I owned was given to me as a gift by someone. My favorite trumpet is an Elkhart that was a gift from my Mentor Doc Rhodes. It’s a tiny horn with a lot of spirit… however I believe it's the man behind the trumpet that matters, not the trumpet itself.”
So who is the man behind the trumpet?
Owuor was born and raised along with his four sisters in Kisumu, western Kenya. He often dreamed of making art life, and life art, and actively pursued this vision.
“I grew up listening to Kanda Bongo Man, Kofi Olomide, Bob Marley and Papa Wemba. I never forget my roots; it’s the wellspring of joy that allows me to be imaginative, free and creative.”
Using this creativity, Owuor opens himself up to audiences whenever Macklemore and Ryan go on tour to perform off their insanely successful album The Heist.
“For me music is about unity, healing, love, joy, all the beautiful faculties of the mind even sometimes anger, or haughty behavior, drama, fun, and adventure. I try to be present in the moment so I can be a channel. My old band director would always say how do you keep the attention of the listener’s ear?”
Family and school
The captivating musician also says that his family plays a critical role in his music: “I take after my (2) daughters ‘cause they’re always hip to what’s hot. They just have these ‘Golden Ears’. I’m always checking to see what they like; from old school to new school they have timeless taste!”
Owuor’s path in life began at an unlikely place – an advertisement on TV.
“Tusker had a commercial with a Trumpet player playing "Take 5". That’s when I knew I wanted to play the Trumpet… I realized this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life and that blew my mind. I worked hard at it.”
Fascinated by Jazz, Owuor made his way to New York music scene in the early 2000s learning from his idols and immersing himself in the history and culture of this brand of music. His trumpet teachers were Jimmy Owens, Olu Dara (father of Nas), and Ahmed Abdullah.
“I learned under the Apprenticeship system at The New School University. I also frequented countless sessions and spent thousands of hours practicing with my peers and picking up secrets from those young and old.”
And as is done with anyone worth their gift, Owuor was soon blessed with a nick-name by the elder musicians that he looked up to. He was named The Pied Piper.
How did The Pied Piper and Macklemore cross paths?
Macklemore went to Garfield High School, where he would often be spotted with a pen in his ear and a pad in his hand. Beside him was a lanky African boy with a trumpet slung on his back - Owuor.
After school, they still hung out in the same circles and as fate would have it, in 2009, the pair kicked up a creative collaboration. By then, Macklemore (or Ben Haggerty) had already teamed up with Ryan Lewis.
“We did our first show together at the Bumbershoot Festival 2009… Since 2009 I have been the only other consistent member of the band besides Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, I record on the records and I perform 100 percent of the shows. We have performed 150 shows since New Year’s alone!” he explains.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have managed to bag six MTV VMA nominations this year, the same number as Justin Timberlake, and they’re trying not to freak out about it.
“It has not really registered yet. I think you have to realize how fortunate you are, but also not psyche yourself out. The world of high stakes live television can make one’s mind wander in to a debilitating form of anxiety called a 'Bure Kabisa' (completely useless) performance. When I hear stuff like that I try to remember that it is not the Award but everything you did before you got it that is important. Can we win it? Justin Timberlake is really doing his thing right now, we'll have to wait and see.”
While it’s easy to miss him in the Thrift Shop video, Macklemore introduces Owuor in Can’t Hold Us, riding on a camel.
The MTV Video Music Awards will broadcast live across Africa on MTV (Channel 130) on Monday, 26 August at 03:00 CAT, with the prime-time premiere at 20:30 CAT. The show will air on MTV Base (Channel 322) at 16:00 CAT on Tuesday, 27 August.