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PULSE: Onyx Ashanti, robo-musician
This year's festival headliner creates an organic form of electronic music

The concept of a one–man band is not new. Think of Bert the Chimney Sweep from Mary Poppins, plug him in for the 21st Century, and you get an idea of what Onyx Ashanti does.

Instead of twin trumpets, a ukulele, knee cymbals and a kickdrum, Ashanti wears a headset attached to a wireless Midi controller. With a combination of breath, and dancelike movements of his head, hands and fingers, he makes electronic music that’s hypnotic, entirely improvised —  and entirely original.

With key elements of jazz and hip hop, he calls the music beatjazz.

Here's what it looks and sounds like:

Ashanti, who’ll perform Feb. 1 and 2 as part of the PULSE Art + Technology Festival, is a native of Iuka, Miss. In college, he learned to play saxophone, and when he moved to Atlanta, he worked as a street musician in the underground station near his candy store job.

“I get bored pretty easily,” he says. “For a good solid year, I played cover tunes and made $70, $80 a day, which was really great then. So I was able to chill. But the following year, they got another sax player in — and this guy had technology. This guy had a tape machine and Karaoke tapes. I didn’t even know what Karaoke tapes were.”

The new guy stole Ashanti’s thunder.

“He murdered my thunder,” Ashanti laughs. “And I really had to think about it, because I didn’t want to just have battle of the sax players, you know? I wanted to be able to have my own voice, but I loved the freedom of playing down there. I didn’t want to stop.”

In stepped fate.

“In a pawn shop, I found a Wind Midi controller,” he recalls. “I’d seen them in a magazine, but I’d never seen one in person. And I’d never played one. I didn’t know much about synthesizers at that time. But I knew I had to have it.”
Immediately, he wired the wind controller to a synthesizer, and went back underground to compete. “And my tips just completely disappeared, for a really long time.

“But the thing was, even then I could see the potential in using the techniques that I’d learned from playing sax to play synthesizers. I was into hip hop and R&B at that time, but I didn’t really understand synthesizers and technology that much.”

Ashanti’s unquenchable thirst for learning led him to read all he could about synthesizers, electronics, wiring and programming. He built himself into a musical Robocop, and shaved his hair into a mohawk to complete the futuristic image.

Incorporating accelerometers, a gyroscope, joysticks and pressure–sensitive buttons, his arm–and–hand gear creates and controls beats, sounds, tones and octaves. His most recent addition to the power gear is a lighted neckpiece with lightsaber wrist–wraps, all of which change color and tone with the electronic ebb and flow of the music he’s making.

At its core, he says, the music is most similar to acid jazz. But he’s an innovator, and when he couldn’t locate a pioneer in this new field — “someone to learn from and emulate” — he created an “imaginary role model.” He created himself. “I just wanted to do it because I thought it was cool,” Ashanti says. “And if I did, maybe somebody else would think it was cool.”

And that’s what got him out of the Atlanta underground, where he’d begun to feel like a curiosity, a performing flea. “That,” he says, “was the first of many times I had to think ‘OK, who am I doing this for? Am I doing this strictly for money, and being an entertainer?’”

His pursuit of pure art took him to London, to New York and to California, where he began to amass a following. He doesn’t sell his music, but gives it away via his website, onyx–

“Once I do something new, the old stuff is gone,” Ashanti explains. “It doesn’t exist any more. I just got rid of the sax and said I’m gonna be a wind controller player. I started playing this as its own instrument.

“Once you start seeing it as an instrument that is its own thing, you start to approach it with a new type of a mindset. From that point, it became a matter of exploring where this was going. And figuring out if I sucked at something, why did I suck? And to find a method of how to break that particular suckage.”

He’s currently living in Berlin, where he was granted a temporary artist visa by the German government.

“That’s amazing to me, ” he says, ‘cause art is considered a profession here. I didn’t have any money, or any acclaim, but I had 15 years of work that I could show them, and they could reference it. And they said ‘OK, this guy is actually doing art. Here — we give you permission to stay in our country to do your art.’

“That really kind of affected me. It felt really good that there was a place that said ‘You’re an artist. You’re contributing to our culture.’ Whereas in the U.S., there was a lot of pressure to monetize and focus on commercialization.”

PULSE: Onyx Ashanti

When & Where: Feb. 1, 6 p.m., Jepson Center; Feb. 2, 2–5 p.m., Jepson Center

Cost: Free & open to the publicThe