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Disco Legends Ottawan: ‘Difficult to Recreate the Feeling of Music We Made in the Eighties’

The “D.I.S.C.O.” and “Hands Up” hitmakers on the changing industry, staying relevant and how audiences are getting smarter

Nirmika Singh Jun 15, 2018

In the early Nineties, [singer, producer] Robert Walker (R) and vocalist Maria Hendrika Esther formed their own version of Ottawan. Photo: Keaton Talker

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Is a retro party even any good if you haven’t gyrated at least once to “D.I.S.C.O.” and “Hands Up”? And can a disco tribute gig anywhere on the face of the Earth ever be complete without the band covering these two gems? It’s incredible how some songs manage to fossilize the ethos of an era and continue to create the same thrill today in the children and grandchildren of their original audience.

At the peak of Euro disco in the late Seventies, two French record producers Daniel Vangarde and Jean Kluger formed a project called Ottawan and released their first song “D.I.S.C.O.” “I was the voice of that track in the studio,” says Maria Hendrika Esther. “But they never expected it to become such a big success, which it did.”

Much like the other Euro-disco acts of the time such as Boney-M, the producers decided to find faces to front the group for live performances. They picked Patrick Jean-Baptiste and female singer Annette Eltice. Adds Esther, “Since I was only 16, I wasn’t allowed to perform live, so I stepped in later, at the end of the Eighties. By then I had had experience with my own groups and matured as an artist.” After a series of lineup changes and internal turmoil, two factions of the band emerged. “At the beginning of the Nineties, [singer, producer] Robert Walker and I met and we formed our own Ottawan,” says Esther. The band performed a packed show at Dublin Square Phoenix Marketcity, Mumbai last month. The show was organized by KCT Entertainment, the company that previously brought down yesteryear acts like UB40, Shaggy and Vengaboys

Ottwan with Patrick Jean-Baptiste and female singer Annette Eltice

Excerpts from an exclusive interview with the band:

Is it daunting to live up to the image of that great band from Eighties?
Robert: Not really. People in their mind make their own image, you know, and you can’t live up to that. We just perform and do the best we can and have a great show.
Esther: We enjoy the atmosphere and just have a big party.

Your songs seem to remain as relevant today as they probably did back when they released. What makes them special, according to you?
Esther: To me, the times in Seventies and Eighties were not so complicated. After a week of work or school, people wanted to go to the disco and have fun – nothing more, nothing less. And they danced to our music. Maybe it’s the same these days, but to me, disco is all about that – throw away all your worries, dress up and just have fun.
Robert:  That was the era when the women really stepped up; they went out, wore what they wanted to wear and didn’t care. Men had to look at women differently—all of a sudden women had started working, they had money and all that influenced the music. Songs like Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For The Money” became an anthem for women.

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Since the original Ottawan members weren’t the studio voices, did they perform live on stage?
Esther: They were only the faces so they did TV shows and if there were any live performances, they did playback [lip sync].

Did people care whether it was live or not?
Robert: Well, that was the time when, to quote the very famous song, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” and people wanted to see the image.  It was all about the image. But it’s changing you know. Because not too long ago, Beyonce was to sing the national anthem and they found out that she taped, she didn’t sing live, and people complained. That would have never happened 15 years ago.  But now, audiences are growing up, they’re smarter. They didn’t care back then but today they’re more critical.

As artists who carry such great nostalgic value in your music and performances, how do you reinvent yourself?
Robert: We do do that, on a couple of songs. We do a reinvention of “D.I.S.C.O.” and a couple of songs we sing a little differently, because we also evolve.
Esther: Yeah, but it’s difficult to come close to the feeling of the music we did in the beginning of the Eighties.

Ottawan live in Mumbai last month at Dublin Square in Phoenix Marketcity. Photo: Keaton Talker

What’s the most rewarding thing for you as a band?
Robert: To have people just appreciate. People are very responsive, even if they’re a little shy but afterwards you see they’re so appreciative. I like that vibe.
Esther: Also when we hear stories from people saying, ‘Your music helped me during a difficult period.’ Then I think, ‘Oh my god, music is a big thing that has helped people.’

Curiously, you have a lot of fans in Russia and a part of your official website is also in Russian!
Esther: So what happened was that during the Eighties and the Cold War, there were very few international songs that were let into the Russian market, and ours were some of them, so they’re very special to the people there.
Robert: It’s amazing how music is universal and connects the world; you don’t need to have to speak the language. You know a good song when you hear it. No one has to tell you it’s a great song… We get all kinds of people at our shows. Young people, old people, children, whole familes and they all sing out the lyrics.

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What is the kind of music you personally listen to?
Esther: My musical influence is very big; I listen to soul to rock to disco and grunge, so whatever touches me, I like that.
Robert: I like some hip-hop, then I don’t like some hip-hop.

Are you planning to record some new songs anytime soon?
Esther: Maybe next year we’ll record some songs, as this year we are travelling a lot.

Do you hear from fans that want to hear newer stuff?
Esther: Yeah that happens sometimes, but mainly all they want is to watch us perform “D.I.S.C.O.” and “Hands Up.”

What do you make of the social media influence today?
Robert: You know they say now, a camera is always around (laughs).You say something and the next thing you know it’s on Instagram.
Esther: Social media is really important. To be honest, I don’t keep up with music nowadays; everything comes and goes too fast, as you mentioned.
Robert: For me, I stay current, because I do other things.  Yeah, it’s the live performances now. The record industry has passed; companies today won’t give you 250 thousand euros to produce an album. If you don’t make it through your live performance, and if the word gets out—and it takes only one or two [shows]—nobody will book you.

Is it a scary time for artists because there are no incentives, patronage to produce music?Robert: Yes and no. I think if an artist has something to say, people follow.  I’m not a Kanye West fan but people listen to what he says. Take our songs, “D.I.S.C.O” and “Hand’s Up,” these songs say something—that you’re okay and just have a good time. That’s why people liked them. And for me, that part of the music industry never changes. If a song has something to say, people listen.

 

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