.The Return of Oganookie at Kuumbwa

Legendary but mysterious, pioneering 1970s Santa Cruz Americana band stages rare reunion

In covering an Oganookie reunion show that sold out the Cocoanut Grove in May of 1975, John Selby wrote in Good Times that “George Stavis’ happy, electric banjo is a symbol of the Oganookie phenomenon.”

Phenomenon. That’s a pretty intense word to describe a band that most locals who weren’t in Santa Cruz half a century ago have probably never heard of. But a phenomenon was exactly what Oganookie was at the time, and a good part of the reason was an Americana sound that was ahead of its time. Ironically, a good chunk of their repertoire was from the bluegrass and folk songbook of the early 20th century or before. While other bands in the ’60s and early ’70s like the New Lost City Ramblers were also rediscovering and reinterpreting that music, Oganookie set themselves apart.

“What was different about Oganookie was we electrified those tunes,” says Stavis now. “And sometimes we butchered ’em.”

In particular, he remembers one reaction to the band’s interpretation of the 19th century folk tune “Sweet Sunny South,” many years after the band broke up. “Somebody said it sounded like punk music the way we did it,” says Stavis.

But in general, they were what he calls a “friendly” band, putting a rootsy and sometimes totally psychedelic spin on traditional folk songs like “The Cuckoo.” They also played original songs written by keyboardist Jack Bowers.

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From the time the group—which also included vocalist-guitarist Bruce Frye, drummer Tim Ackerman and fiddler Bob Stern, with manager Peter Troxell later becoming a key component—moved to a communal farm in Brookdale together in 1970 to when they broke up in 1973, Oganookie amassed a huge local following, and were regulars at venues like the old Catalyst, the long-gone Town and Country in Ben Lomond and the famous Chateau Liberte. The Chateau’s iconic Captain Whizzo was also in charge of Oganookie’s light show.

The band has only reunited a few times, most recently in 1993. But on the heels of putting together a website definitively chronicling their story, and restoring their work for Apple Music and Spotify, they will play together again at the Kuumbwa this Saturday.

Oh, and the name? Stavis admits that—despite what mythological origins people might try to convince you of—it started as a dumb, drunken play off of the seminal Michael Olatunji album Drums of Passion, originally “Oganookie and the Drums of Apathy.”

“Let me say in our defense,” he says, “that picking a band’s name is a horror show.”

Oganookie performs at 7:30pm on Saturday, April 23 at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz. snazzyproductions.com.


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