Akai Antia-Obong was drinking beer and shooting pool at the Recovery Room on Upper King Street when he met his first didgeridoo. It was the spring of 2011, and the encounter would change his life.
By the beginning of 2014, he had given up steady gigs as a graphic designer, beefed up his garden on James Island, married and had a son, collected around a hundred discarded Christmas trees and miscellaneous fallen limbs, manufactured dozens of didgeridoos, sold a few of them, and become something of a "didge" virtuoso. So goes the twists and turns of life.
In the often weird way that one thing leads to another, Antia-Obong's didgeridooing was the result of his interest in another resonant art form: throat singing.
Don't know what throat singing is, let alone a didgeridoo? Read on.
In the inner realms of Asia, among the Tuvan and Mongolian peoples, a particular style of singing is practiced in which the throat provides a resonating chamber for low, guttural pedal tones, or steady pitches, over which secondary notes that sound like whistles are voiced by the savvy manipulation of overtones and harmonics. One voice, two (or sometimes more) notes.
Well, Antia-Obong has been interested in throat singing since watching the 1999 documentary "Genghis Blues," and taught himself how to do it. On that fated evening three years ago, he fell into a conversation about throat singing with his buddy at the bar, who happened to possess a didgeridoo.
"I can do it," he told his mate.
"No you can't," came the incredulous reply.
"Yes, I can."
"If you can, I'll give you this didgeridoo."
The bet was on. Antia-Obong did what the people of Siberia have done for ages, and he got his first didgeridoo.
Mechanically speaking, the didge works kind of like the throat of a Tuvan. An ancient instrument made by indigenous Australian people from termite-eaten tree limbs, it is essentially a long horn.
Rhythm is established in two basic ways: by tapping on the side of the didge with a finger or small stick, and by controlling aspirations in ways that create a pulse.
Good didge players learn circular breathing, which means they can fill their cheeks just before inhaling through their nose, and blow the last bit of air through the instrument.
Antia-Obong can breathe circularly, and he can make a symphony of sounds with his didgeridoo, adding vocalizations to the flow of breath and ornamenting the sonic results with notes from the overtone series. The effect is a complex texture of drone, rhythm, melody and harmony. Who knew the didgeridoo could do so much?
Antia-Obong, 33, was born in Chapel Hill, N.C., moved with his family to Rock Hill and eventually settled in Charleston. His mother was a physician with a private practice in West Ashley until she died nearly two years ago of pancreatic cancer at 63.
The loss rattled her son profoundly and hastened his departure from regular, predictable work and his embrace of creative pursuits. He has put into practice his mother's advice: "Promise me that you're going to follow your heart," she said during her last days.
His father, originally from Nigeria, lives in Goose Creek and received one of his son's didgeridoos recently as a gift. Antia-Obong also has two brothers and two sisters.
Before his embrace of the didge, Antia-Obong earned an associate's degree in graphic design from Trident Tech and worked seven years for the neighborhood weeklies West Of and the James Island Messenger.
Travis Ferrell met Antia-Obong more than a decade ago when both were working in restaurants. "We had lots in common and started hanging out," Ferrell said.
They'd cook together, just for fun; read various books and discuss them; go camping; play soccer at the Summerville YMCA.
Ferrell, who now works as a government contractor drafting 3-D computer models, said he sympathizes with Antia-Obong's recent creative interests.
Last fall they drove to North Carolina to pick up a bunch of bamboo, then spent hours cutting it down and getting it back to Charleston.
Ferrell, too, is a rookie artisan. Learning the ways of the blacksmith, making things with his own hands. Now the two men share ideas, offer one another feedback and learn together. "It's a cool spot to be in our friendship."
Today, Antia-Obong works as a bartender at Oak Barrel in West Ashley and brews beer. He likes to experiment with spices. For example, he made a Mojo Special with cinnamon, ghost chili, chocolate, sage and Columbus hops. He likes to brew with a touch of pepper heat.
Another creative pursuit is experimental gardening. Specifically, he's been building hugelkultur beds in his yard. These are raised beds filled with rotting wood and they are very good at retaining moisture, sequestering carbon and enriching the soil.
"I'm trying to create a permanent system," he said, sounding a lot like a horticulturist concerned with the future of the world.
He digs a trench then fills it with logs, sticks, leaves and compost. The mounds reach eight feet or more at first but eventually settle at about five feet, he said. "It creates a sponge under the soil cap, so you never have to water your plants."
"The garden is an extension of my brain," Antia-Obong said.
At the "HomeGrown" Johns Island Farmers Market recently, Antia-Obong set up his didgeridoos, battling the wind. It was a clear, sunny day, and meandering patrons stopped at the didge stand to admire the handiwork and listen to a sound sample.
He's sold around nine instruments since the market started up in January. With each didge sold, Antia-Obong provides one free lesson. (He charges $25 for each subsequent lesson.)
The didgeridoos are made mostly of pine, but also pecan, oak, crape myrtle, maple and bamboo. They are hand-carved, often painted and decorated with various natural substances like garlic and onion skins that add color and texture.
"It's my way of upcycling," he said.
Frasier Block, founder and manager of the HomeGrown market, said her farming experience and interests prompted her to start a public market that promotes local growers and artisans.
"It comes from nothing but my passion to pull people together in a sustainable way," she said.
"There are a lot of like-minded people hidden in the woodwork, especially in places like Johns Island."
She met Antia-Obong at the Sunday Brunch Farmer's Market on nearby James Island and immediately recognized the good fit, Block said.
"He was really excited to come on board," she said.
The response to his didge-making has been good. He plays at the market, helping to create a great vibe, Block said. And patrons are as fascinated by the creative use of materials as they are by the music.
"He has got some of the most positive energy of anyone I've ever met," Block said "He's always smiling, always joyful. He's just a really good guy."
Finding the groove
Antia-Obong has been practicing a lot.
"The first note on the didge made my lips tingle like the first time I was kissed," he said.
Now, he's gotten pretty good. It might take 30 minutes or so before his lungs are flexible enough to work like a bagpipe's bellows, but once he's warmed up, he can go for hours. Circular breathing came naturally, he said.
"It really happened before I knew I was doing it." He said playing the didgeridoo can change one's default physicality and cause a transformation that impacts both mind and matter.
He plays for his son, Caleb, not quite 1 month old. The didge calms the boy down. He plays for his wife, Tamara (they married in the fall) in exchange for massages. Tamara is a massage therapist and trainer who works at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. Antia-Obong also continues to cook.
Lately, he's been thinking about offering his musical services to yoga practitioners (sound healing is a veritable phenomenon) and to area schools where he might stimulate the imaginations of young students.
He also wants to take his didgeridoos to nursing homes and cancer wards, "to go around to where people are hurting."
Antia-Obong is most interested in the ways his didgeridoos can make people feel better, including himself.
And when he finds the groove, it puts him in a quasi-spiritual trance.
"That's when the music's playing me," he said. "That's when it really gets good."
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
To make a didgeridoo, Antia-Obong slices the wood branch lengthwise and carves out the inside, then puts the two pieces back together. This process is a lot easier than trying to drill a long, wide hole or otherwise removing materials from an intact branch.×
A beer shelf made from a discarded bunk bed headboard. Akai Antia-Obong likes to recycle materials.×
At HomeGrown Farmerís Market on Johns Island recently, Antia-Obong demonstrated the didgeridoo for Jay (dad) and Rowan (son) Keck, visiting from Lexington.×
Travis Ferrell sometimes helps his friend Antia-Obong collect materials used in didgeridoo-making. Here, he carries bamboo.×
Antia-Obong sets up his didgeridoo stand at the HomeGrown Johns Island Farmerís Market on a recent Saturday.×
Akai Antia-Obong takes his beer brewing as seriously as his didge-making. Here, in his brew room, beer and cider ferment in their glass jugs.×
Bamboo stock awaiting Antia-Obongís handiwork.×
Each January (and ocassionally at other times of the year), Akai Antia-Obong collects discarded Christmas trees from curbs and yards. He uses the trunks to make didgeridoos. Why waste?×
Akai Antia-Obong holds a handmade didgeridoo at the Johnís Island Farmers Market on a recent Saturday.×
Antia-Obong uses pine, magnolia, pecan, bamboo, oak and crape myrtle to fashion his didgeridoos. The pine comes from discarded Christmas trees. Each type of wood produces its own unique sound.×
The didgeridoos are hand carved, painted and decorated. Antia-Obong sells them for about $150 and up, depending on the size and extent of the labor.×