Lee Oskar is best known as the harmonica player and an original member of the group War. The California group initially backed up former Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon before breaking out on their own with a series of funky hits, including “Slippin’ Into Darkness”, “The Cisco Kid”, and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” during the early 1970s. Their album The World Is a Ghetto was Billboard’s highest-selling album of 1973. The band was celebrated for mixing racial and ethnic styles, especially Latin and reggae-infused themes, with R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. That blend matched the act’s professed message of social harmony for all people.
Oskar left War back in 1992. He has released several solo records during the past five decades, and his music has appeared in numerous movie soundtracks and TV commercials. He also started his own harmonica company (Lee Oskar Harmonica) that recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. But according to Oskar, the thing with the most significant impact on his life happened before he was born: the Holocaust.
Never Forget is a (mostly) instrumental album inspired by his mother and aunt’s experiences as Polish Jews during the Second World War and afterward, the desire for global peace, and ensuring that the world doesn’t forget past horrors and repeat them. The music is rich and lush. Oskar’s harmonica playing is front and center on every one of the nine tracks. He’s accompanied by cello, viola, and violin on eight of these as well as a host of strings, brass, drums, piano, choral vocals and such on individual cuts.
The songs’ titles reflect Oskar’s family history, sorrows, and reveries, such as “Last Moments (Saying Goodbye)”, “Miracle Children”, “Far Away Dreams”. Oskar uses his harmonica to paint the mood and set the scenes as the tracks have no words. These are dramatic but not necessarily melancholic. Despite the inherent heaviness of the topic, there is a certain amount of joy expressed. After all, his mother and aunt lived and prevailed. As the son of Holocaust survivors, I understand my parents’ pleasures at just being alive after all the terrible experiences they endured. Oskar captures those connections in the heart.
The loftiest moments can be found on “Liberty (An American Waltz)”, “World For Peace”, and “My Road” that point toward the future. The music is purposely uplifting. “Song for Mom” offers a more sublime sensibility. The song begins with Oskar’s harmonica lines lingering over the phrasing as if he doesn’t want them to stop, just gently fade into memory. There’s an almost martial beat (perhaps recalling his mom and aunt’s death march to escape from Poland to Denmark) laced with sadness. The music swells before finishing with a solo violin soaring and the pace quickening until it just finishes.
The title track reminds one to “Never Forget”. It comes smack dab in the album’s middle to show what comes before and what follows such tragedy. The genocide of European Jewry offers a lesson. Oskar wants us to remember so that it doesn’t happen again and to remind us that life can go on even after the worst. In these pandemic times, hope is a valuable commodity.
By the way, Oskar is also a talented visual artist whose paintings provide the cover art and pictures of family members inside. They are well worth a careful look. The 24-page booklet is also available as an individually signed and numbered, large-sized limited-edition release that includes a 180-gram audiophile-quality vinyl record.
The band War initially took their name as a way of declaring war against war and hate. Oskar’s personal history showed him the damaging effect actual war can have on civilians. His latest record shows he has not given up the fight against aggression.