On the back of Michael Franti’s newest record All Rebel Rockers (2008), a photograph shows three hands raised in peace, each decorated with a different religious symbol: A cross, the Star of David and a crescent moon and star, the symbol of Islam. For Franti and his band Spearhead, music has the unique power to unite.
Though the band”s albums are mostly absent from mainsteam media, Franti has earned global accolades. An activist, poet and musician, Franti gained international attention for his documentary I Know I’m Not Alone (2006), where he traveled to Israel, Baghdad, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in an effort to explore the cost of war on all people in the Middle East.
Franti is touring following last year’s All Rebel Rockers, which was recorded in Jamaica. After his Orange Peel show quickly sold out, the band added an early show to accommodate Asheville fans.
Mountain Xpress: You played at the Orange Peel in 2007, have appeared as a headliner for the LEAF festival in Black Mountain and recently performed in the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. Can you share a story or memorable experience from one of your shows in Asheville?
Franti: Well, the first one that comes to mind was the last show, the Christmas Jam, Warren Haynes came up to me and he says, “Michael there [are] a couple folks that would like to sit in with you, are you interested?” I said, “Yeah, of course, I’m always interested.”
He said, “Mickey Raphael, who plays harmonica with Willie Nelson would like to sit in.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, of course, that’d be awesome.” And then he said, “And John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, would you mind if he played on a song?” My mouth hit the floor and I was like, “You kidding me?” So we went backstage and we just started jamming.
At the end of it, somebody said, “Hey you’ve got five minutes before you go on!” So I turn to John Paul and said, “Is there a song you want to play during the set?” And he said, “Yeah, I think I’ll play bass on that last one,” and I said, “Okay great.” And then he goes, “Do you mind if I play the mandolin on all the rest?” I was like, “You kiddin’ me!” Come on let’s go.” … So, instead of just sitting in for one tune, which I would have been just blown away by, he played the whole set.
Why did you and the band decide to record All Rebel Rockers in Jamaica? How did working with reggae producers Sly & Robbie influence the album?
It was kind of like when they said John Paul Jones wants to play with you, it was like… “Sly & Robbie want you to record in their studio in Jamaica!” How do you turn that down? Recording in Jamaica is a very unique experience because the studio doors are always open to the streets so people can hear the music. People would just come in and stand in the doorway, folks you have never seen before start commenting on the music. The people in Jamaica are so in tune with music cause it’s such a part of the daily life there.
Yell Fire (2006) was inspired by your trip to Israel, Baghdad, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while making the documentary I Know I Am Not Alone. Can you tell us a little about your experience traveling through the Middle East and about one of the greater challenges that you confronted on the journey?
You want to keep your heart open to everybody who is their, cause everybody is facing the challenges of this war. I’d go and visit a hospital filled with Iraqi children who had their limbs blown off, and spend the afternoon with them and then later that night
I would go and I’d spend time and sing songs at a bar to U.S. soldiers who are off duty. You know, these could be the same soldiers who did this to these little kids, and then I would try to keep my heart open to the experiences of these soldiers and hear their stories. I guess it made me realize that I’m not on the side of just America, I’m on the side of the peacemakers, from whatever country they come from.
[In the song “Hey World Don’t Give Up” a man struggles to find beauty in an imperfect & turbulent world.] When you get overwhelmed by the many social issues you address in your music, what do you do to hold on to the sense of hope that inspires so much of your work?
Well, one thing is the music itself. For example, “Hey World,” that’s a song that I sing to myself in times when I feel frustrated, times when I feel worried or scared, or when I feel that I can’t do go on. The other thing is that I practice yoga almost everyday. I just came from a three-hour yoga workshop here in Cincinnati. So, everywhere I go I’m on my mat, quieting my mind, going into my body and seeking my truth for that day. The final thing is that I surround myself with amazing people, my manager, band mates, my friends and family back home: and when I get down, they keep me up. And if all else fails, chocolate.
who: Michael Franti & Spearhead
what: Hip-hop, reggae and funk band perform a double bill
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Feb. 26. The all-ages matinee begins at 5 p.m ($17). The 9 p.m. show is sold out.www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)