It’s typical for musicians to list the venues they’ve played and name-check other artists with whom they’ve shared stages. What sets California-based performer Shimshai apart is that his list includes dates at various yoga studios, bodywork centers and the Omega Institute wellness retreat. He’s performed with the likes of kirtan leader Jai Uttal, Be Here Now author Ram Dass and New-Age guru Deepak Chopra.
But ask the multi-instrumentalist if he considers his path to be very different from that of the typical American, and he insists he’s just too close to his lifestyle to have that kind of perspective.
“I’ve never been outside my own world,” Shimshai tells Xpress. “The way I’ve lived my life up to now, I’ve never had a real job. I lived gypsy-style for a while and made what I could from music. Now I can call it a career.”
Many spiritual-music fans would dub Shimshai a leader of sorts in the burgeoning West Coast positive-and-esoteric music scene. Though he doesn’t have rock-star credibility per se, the artist is more than qualified for such a role. Born into the Judeo-Christian Love Israel Family, a community in Washington state, Shimshai studied piano along with Essene spirituality. (Shimshai is his actual name—translated from Hebrew it means “my sun.”) He spent time on the remote Hawaiian island of Kauai, collaborating with other like-minded artists such as vocalist Sasha “Butterfly” Rose, soul-tinged collective Satya Yuga and singer/songwriter Tina Malia. And there’s a purity both to his sound and his look (blond dreadlocks, beard, natural-fiber garb) that suggests his time spent serene natural settings had a profound effect on the musician. This is most apparent on his seamlessly insightful 2001 debut, I Sense Your Presence.
Still, “I definitely have a hidden side from what people know about,” Shimshai says. “Even a heavy-metal side.”
However, don’t expect anything harder than an island-friendly groove when it comes to Shimshai’s stage show. His songs are underscored by meditative repetition and unsullied acoustic instrumentation. On occasion, he offers up would-be rockers like “Be Here Now” and “Mother of My Soul,” crowd pleasers drawing on the reggae sound that first inspired his song writing.
“I do work with a full band on the West Coast. We’re able to do more reggae, verging on jam,” Shimshai says. “Even solo and as a duo, I’ve had the whole crowd shaking their booties. I pull out the Stevie Wonder.”
He adds, “I like both worlds.”
Much of what Shimshai’s musical universe entails—especially on the yoga-studio circuit—is Hindu chanting set to a rhythmic pulse. Perhaps surprisingly, the artist himself doesn’t number Eastern spirituality (from which these verses are culled) among his influences.
“I picked up the Hindu chanting through the yoga scene. It’s very popular and very easy to apply to modern music like reggae,” he explains. “That’s how it’s happened for me, but I haven’t been as fascinated by Indian spirituality. For me, it’s more South American.”
In fact, part of his family comes from Colombia, and Shimshai incorporates both South American instrumentation and Spanish language in his studio projects. Eventually, he hopes to weave this work more completely into his live show. “I’ve been kind of shifting that slowly, seeing how it goes,” he says. The leaning is clear on his most recent disc, Deliverance (Misticonatural, 2006), with the song “Promesa” sung in Spanish, a video documentary about a Peruvian orphanage included in the package, and the final track—the softly gorgeous Hawaiian “Ke Aloha”—appearing aptly in lieu of any Hindu chanting.
Shimshai’s foremost mission these days (aside from adjusting to fatherhood and less time on the road) is creating a positive setting for the spiritual-music fan base. That crowd, often put off by rowdy nightclubs, and in search of a kinder, gentler groove, is also looking for kindred souls in an uncertain social and political climate.
“People are definitely looking for answers. We’ve got a few; not many,” Shimshai says with a laugh. “Music provides a common ground for people. A common thread of spirituality can be shared. Music creates a community, even if only for that one night.”
what: Mystic music troubadour
where: The Glen at Homewood (19 Zillicoa St.)
when: Friday, May 30. 8 p.m. ($20 advance, $25 at event. www.namasteasheville.com or 252-8149.)