By: Jason Turgeon
GreenBase is a feature and news section of JamBase that focuses on the intersection between music and the environment. In GreenBase pieces, you can keep track of what your favorite bands, festivals and venues are doing to help the planet. You can read more green music news on the GreenBase blog.
"Considering that I was just out [listening to Snoop Dogg] there and he was saying, get stoned, get drunk, and fuck, and he had like thousands of people singing with him, I think maybe the political lyrics might not be as popular, but it's not going to deter me. I have to feel good about what I'm singing when I'm out there and the band has to feel good about what they're playing behind," says Chris Berry, leader of Panjea. "It's what I have to do; it's not a choice. It's not whether or not I even contemplate whether it's making it successful or not, it's just what we have to do." Berry is ruminating on the difficulties of being a political band in an era where politics and music don't always mix while Snoop Dogg finishes up his 4:20 p.m. festival set.
It's not often that you run into a band like Panjea that has a mission statement. Sure, past decades have yielded still-touring acts with strong political overtones going back to Bob Dylan, U2 and Rage Against the Machine. But the more recent wave of acts, with rare exceptions like Michael Franti and State Radio, have opted to leave politics out of their music. Enter Panjea, an Afro-pop collaborative with big goals. Specifically, the group is a "project set on healing the world." The band takes its name from the supercontinent Pangea, and their goal is to use music to unite people as closely as the continents were once united.
GreenBase was lucky enough to catch up with the band over the summer at Rothbury (read the Roth review here), where for most of the weekend band members were scattered all over the giant festival, sitting in with Railroad Earth and State Radio, assisting with the art installations and even teaching the crowd how to play a giant flying monkey drum set. With band members living in New York, Boulder and San Francisco and constantly on tour with their various other projects, it's not often that they all get together in one place. Over the course of an hour, we talked about the fragile political situation in Zimbabwe, the challenges facing the next U.S. President and the opportunities for music to have a positive impact on people and the environment.
The collective, made up of a core group of about six musicians but often exceeding a dozen people in its rare stage appearances, blends political sensibilities with insanely catchy African rhythms and instruments. Listening to the group perform at Rothbury, it was hard to believe that anything this melodic and danceable could be a song of protest. That's partly by design, according to trumpet player and keyboardist Danny Sears.
"I read a lot of the fan mail that comes in, the forums and the MySpace page, and I can tell you that seeing what people write in, they're very moved by it," says Sears. "I think the people that we do affect are affected in a very positive way. The people who want to be reached, are reached. Some people are swayed in the right direction, but you're always gonna have people who are just not into it but maybe they enjoy the grooves and they feel the music and we can reach them that way."
Sears, like everyone in the band, is truly a musician's musician and definitely knows a thing or two about grooves. Casual music fans might not know these names, but they probably know the bands that Panjea's members have played with. When he's not jamming with Panjea, Sears frequently appears with Railroad Earth, Guster and The String Cheese Incident.
The String Cheese Incident, not coincidentally, is one of the reasons for Panjea's initial success. SCI mandolin and violin player Michael Kang is the most famous member of Panjea. Like almost everyone else in the band, the South Korean-born artist has spent plenty of time outside the U.S., and these experiences have informed both his politics and his music. SCI fans accustomed to the apolitical nature of that band might be a bit surprised to hear Kang speak so passionately about issues like globalization and its effect on the environment.
"Our way of life transcends national boundaries. It's coming to the time where we are not going to have to look at what's going on in our backyards but recognize that the planet is our backyard," says Kang. "It's a matter of just recognizing, being grateful for what we have. The first thing that we all have the power to do is just conserve the stuff that we use."
Continue reading for more on Panjea...