2:30 a.m., August 6th, 1998. Great Plains Inn, Lincoln, Nebraska.
After an incendiary set of music at an overpacked Zoo Bar, the
members of Boom Shaka meet me for a long planned conversation.
Unfortunately, I'm burned-out and not completely in top form for
q & a. Nonetheless, the four group members gathered for the
reasoning session are intent on telling their story. The seriousness
of the group's attitude was apparent as soon as the first notes
erupted from their instruments during the Zoo Bar set, but is
even more apparent as the members talks about their work. While
the word 'militant' is overused in describing reggae bands, Boom
Shaka travels with an Africentric world view and a spirituality
based in Rastafari that invokes the spirit of the late Peter Tosh.
Boom Shaka's message is aurally linked through the roots reggae traditions of Jamaica, but the band is trying to take their music to a level that defies commercial definitions. "I'm concerned when people say 'roots music,'" says lead singer Trevy Felix. "They just put you in a category that you're coming from the 70s or the 60s. In my thinking, roots music is music that has the ability to make you change, create a revolution inside of you -- music that affects your soul, so when you hear it, it make you feel a [certain] way. To me that is roots music, so trying to label it . . . no. We're playing fresh things . . . but [roots reggae] is where the cry come from. That's the means that [we] send this message through."
Reggae bands in the United States are a dime a dozen, existing in nearly every state and city, but few have separated from the pack over the last ten years as convincingly as Boom Shaka. Their fourth album, Rebellion, was released by Shanachie Entertainment last year. Shanachie, one of the leading labels for classic reggae reissues, rarely takes chances with US-based reggae bands. According to label proprietor Randall Grass, his confidence in Boom Shaka is based on years of watching the group deal professionally with touring and self-promotion.
While Boom Shaka has only one American member (the rest hail from around the Caribbean), Trevy Felix recognizes the stigma associated with being US-based. "It could be detrimental, or we could use it to work in our favor, since we come from such different places. We realize that reggae music is a thing that is identified with Jamaica, but Rasta is an international thing."
Drummer Wadi Gad echoes Felix's sentiments. "Reggae music has been demonstrated to be a cry of the people, not just [by] Jamaicans or Caribbeans," he says. "Spirituality don't belong to no nation per se, it's an international cry. It's an international struggle. We just happen to be at a certain place at a certain time, and we come together to do this work. . . It's the same life we're living, it's the same air we're breathing as the people everywhere."
"We're fighting to keep a certain identity and a certain sound," says lead guitarist Lesterfari. "There's going to be prejudices against us because we're not Jamaican, but with Jah, anything is possible. We don't look at boundaries. People have the boundaries in their minds, and this music is trying to wipe away those boundaries."
Felix explains that the group wants an international audience, both within and outside the core reggae market. "We need to expand on that -- the true reggae fans and the true people who are into the music. I think we've kind of been missing them. Right now, we want to expose this music to as mass an audience as we can."
The Shanachie release was produced by the band with long-time associate Fabian Cooke, who is known for his commercially successful work with Born Jamericans. The thirteen tracks on Rebellion are original compositions with the exception of a cover of "Sign O' the Times" by Prince. "We went back to making the songs really singable," says Felix. "So that the conversations we have with the people [through the music], they could better understand. It's a more song-oriented vibe, more than just rhythms. It's songs, melodies, and structured forms."
While the band seeks an international appeal, the album is a notably Africentric statement of self-determination, self-respect, and self-reliance. At the same time, the members of the group feel that within those principles, the unity and equality of all humanity can be found. "Sometime we all have to realize that there's one God," says Fari. "That's our common ground [as human beings]. We're not pushing black supremacy. We [as Africans] have a royalty and a certain lineage in us, and we're upholding that. We're glad to do it, and we're proud of it. We want it to be recognized as being legitimate and being real -- not as being a fad, or something someone can market. I ain't living to see this music reduced down to a little baseball cap with dreadlocks hanging off of it. That's not what we're dealing with -- something you can put on today and take off tomorrow. We live this everyday. People have to realize that."
Keyboardist Binghi is one of the most reserved in the group, but after an hour of silence during the interview, he chimes in and reasons in his raspy voice, driving home Fari's points. "You're not waiting for me to recognize your existence. Your life go on with or without me -- same way with our life as [African] people. We can't wait on the rest of the world to recognize our existence. We have to keep doing what we're doing so people can catch up. Even though [some] people think they're ahead, they still have to catch up. No man know what you know, like you know. As a people, we nah wait for nobody to recognize we. We got to continue our work, so when it bust through you recognize it, but you knew it was there all along. We've got to keep building ourselves to a heights."
Boom Shaka has known and survived the type of music industry adversity that has devastated many groups. In 1992, Liberty Records, a subsidiary of Capitol Records, released the band's third album, Best Defenses. After the first 15,000 copies were pressed, the album was pulled, and the band was dropped. "It ended up being like a fiasco," recalls Felix. "Other people have done it and had different results, but for us it was not something that worked. Those things have a tendency to destroy a lot of bands."
Lesterfari sees a silver lining in retrospect. "Blessings come in so many ways, especially through adversity. Sometimes it looks like there's a brick wall in front of you, but there's a reason for you to have that wall in front of you at that moment. [The Liberty deal] gave us the opportunity to do that music at that time -- to document that era. The riots were going on in LA, and we were caught up in that moment. So it was a blessing to get that message out at that time. It was a tax write-off for the company, but the record got in certain places that we couldn't get to."
Members of the group recognize the struggle for credibility that reggae endures but feel certain that the grassroots of the music are immutable. "At this moment in this time, reggae needs help in so many different ways, not just commercially, but to be taken seriously, [given] more respect. This [American] culture is predicated on money. So it's because [the industry] feels like there's no real spokesperson for the music like a Bob Marley, they [feel] they can't sell it, or it's not selling itself, so they're not behind it. But the minute they feel like they have somebody they can market, [someone] they can pigeonhole and put up on a pedestal, the music will go through the roof. But when Bob left in the flesh, they just felt like the music lost steam. But it hit number one with Maxi Priest, and there are still artists out there doing legitimate things. But because they can't market it and control it how they want, they won't get behind it. But you look around the world and everybody identifies with the music. It's a fight for us, but this is reality music. There's no gimmick to this. The paradox of the music is that you can't reduce it to a commodity like soap or potato chips. This music don't stand for that."
The band's outlook is encapsulated in many tracks on their latest album, but particularly in the hook-laden "Dis Dem A Dis," which uses the image of a reggae selector and his struggle to have the music and message heard as a metaphor for a greater movement among people. Felix elaborates, "The kind of fight reggae go through, people just dis it all the time. You gotta fight everyday for your sound to be heard. . .The people going to hear the song still, them going to hear it and hear the word. People have to realize that this thing we have is something great. Anything can happen, but we wan to strike while the iron is hot."
The writer, of Lincoln, hosts 400 Years: Radio Free Mondo on KZUM 89.3 FM and can be found on the Internet at http://incolor.inetnebr.com/cvanpelt. Boom Shaka's webpage is www.boomshaka.com.
Copyright 1999 Carter Van Pelt
first published in The Reader, Omaha, Nebraska