Goombay fans have taken in a lot of eclectic world-beat sounds over the years, from African drums to Caribbean grooves. But here's something even the most astute world music fan might not know: The cowbell — that clunky but effective rhythm instrument — doesn't jive with the digital age. "You can take a cowbell and play with any band in any key and it works," says Phillip "Grasshopper" Pickering, leader of Virgin Islands-based reggae group Inner Visions (headlining Goombay this Saturday). "But you take a cowbell that has been digitally stripped of those nuances and the cowbell actually has a pitch. So if you have sequence with a cowbell on it, you would actually have to tune the cowbell to match the music."
He adds, "I'm not a big fan of the digital revolution by any means." But that doesn't mean that Grasshopper isn't up to date with current technology. In fact, the patriarch insists on the best recording techniques when it comes to Inner Visions' albums, and depends on the expertise of sound engineer Geraldo Lopez.
"He's in Puerto Rico now in a hideaway studio somewhere. I discovered his genius by accident, but I'm not taking him out of my sight," says Grasshopper. It seems that the band leader depends on insider knowledge (much of it his own) to craft the trademark Inner Visions sound.
That sound has been a long time in the making. "We usually date the band back to the oldest reigning member, who happens to be me," says Grasshopper. That places Inner Visions, which formed out of the band Prophecy, at the 30-year mark, and the musician notes, "Actually the band is older than that because I joined the band. Everybody else left, but I continued pushing."
Grasshopper's brother, Alvin "Jupiter" Pickering, joined the band as bassist and Paul "Osisi" Samms took over percussion and shared vocal duties. By the group's third CD release (their first — despite a decades-long history — wasn't until 1995), Grasshopper's sons, keyboardist Akiba "Mr. Snooze" and drummer Aswad "Hollywood," came aboard. That new generation, says Grasshopper, "can now come forward and lift the band to new dimensions we have now reached since that time."
Since Inner Visions is a family band, that presents its own set of challenges. The group's time away from its Caribbean home is "tough on the families, tough on the friends, tough on some of the jobs we do at home," notes Grasshopper. And, "because you're family you don't walk out the door." But that's also the upside.
"If a guy has an argument with you and you lose your temper and say something to him, he knows it's not personal," says the band leader. "If you're having a rough period of time financially, everyone will tend to understand and bite the bullet together. You take the good and share the wealth. If you're having a wonderful performance, you can share that as well."
For Inner Visions, sharing what's good goes beyond family ties. The upbeat, energetic stage show that the group has polished to a shine is about conveying both a positive message and feel-god experience to the audience. Taking a cue from '70s-era Jamaican group Third World, Grasshopper muses, "Everyone is invited to the reggae party. Everyone is meant to understand that love is the real meaning to our being—this is the bottom line."
Infusing that same Bob Marley-coined "One Love" and joyful immediacy into the group's recorded product is a bit of a mission for Grasshopper, who admits, "I spend a lot of money to make sure to get that big fat sound. Other bands don't spend the kind of money we do because they think we're crazy [but] I will not bow when it comes to the sound." He says it's his legacy. "Thirty years from now when I'm an old guy sitting in my rocking chair, if a guy picks up an Inner Visions CD, it should still sound current."
And, more than current, it should sound like Inner Visions. Second music lesson: Not all reggae is sonically the same, and much of that has to do with the mixing styles of various studios. "If you listened to an album that Bob Marley recorded and Island Records released to the Caribbean and Africa, it would have the sound the Jamaicans loved. That big, heavy bass," explains Grasshopper. "But the album you would hear in America would be mixed differently. The bass was much lighter and instruments in the mid-range department would stand out more."
Inner Visions, which styles itself after the Marley- and Peter Tosh- era of harmonies and melodies, works to find balance between the fat bass lines and gentler mid-range sounds. "It's a more progressive sound, a more music-filled sound. More color to the music," says Grasshopper. There's the danceable reggae pulse, but also influences from vintage soul and Motown, with plenty of hooks and warm, thoughtful lyrics.
"People say the world needs more love, the world don't need more love," Grasshopper says. "There's enough love here. That's what Inner Visions is all about."
Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
what: African-Caribbean-style cultural festival
where: Eagle and Market streets, downtown Asheville
when: Friday, Aug. 28, and Saturday, Aug. 29 (1-9:30 p.m. Friday, noon-9:30 p.m. Saturday. Free. www.ymicc.org/goombay2009.html)