It is common knowledge throughout America that the American Buffalo is making a comeback from having once been a species endangered by the greed and excesses of the white man. Once again the buffalo roam free in our country, thanks to the love of modern America. What is not so commonly known is that there is a different kind of Buffalo sweeping the Eastern United States, this one out of upstate New York: a band, a unique band named Donna The Buffalo. This band plays songs of love to encourage us all to roam free alongside the buffalo, as members of the herd. The band recently played in Key West, so I came too, to spend five days and four nights with them and people from all over the country. I came to find out for myself what this phenomenon is all about and to see how my experiences of nearly four decades ago would compare to the here and now.
I first experienced Donna The Buffalo in September 2003 at the Harvest Fest in LaFayette, Georgia. I had not been to a music festival in nearly 35 years, and, at age 64, I had been missing that part of life, because I love all sorts of music. My daughter Dottie and her husband had invited me to go to the festival with them and their friends, and I had eagerly taken them up on the offer, with visions of Woodstock in my head. Well, it wasn't Woodstock, but it wasn't all that far off, either.
We had gone to HarvestFest to hear the likes of John Prine, moe., Yonder Mountain String Band, The Radiators, and many others, and to spend three days camping in a wonderful meadow lined with pinewoods. Donna The Buffalo had also been on our "must see" list, but I must admit that the band turned out to be, for me, one of those wonderful surprises that I could not get out of my mind--or heart--after the festival. So Dottie suggested that I check out the Donna The Buffalo web site. I did so, saw the advance notice for the Key West show, and immediately signed up.
And so here I was at last, among the palms and balmy breezes of Key West, a place I had never visited before, but now had the perfect reason to visit.
Nestled in a residential section lies the Wyndham Casa Marina Resort, originally built in 1900, the venue for the show. Each of the four evenings was beautiful: warm, and a bit of ocean breeze, a full moon high in the sky over very light clouds. The band was advertised to start each evening at seven p.m., but the shows started after eight each night. No one but me seemed to mind. By the third evening, I did not mind, either. Instead, I paid attention to the little things that were going on around me, things that I had not seen or felt in over 20 years.
Wyndham Casa Marina Resort
One thing that struck me was the way the band seems to appear out of nowhere each time they come on stage. One moment the stage was empty; the next moment the six of them were there, instruments on, plinking and plunking, friendly, smiling, acknowledging and saying hello to a few people up close to the stage, chatting with each other as though they haven't seen each other for some time.
Then the band sort of slides from a few tuning notes into a short series of seemingly unrelated chords, and, bing, into their first song, usually one of their well-known upbeat rhythm pieces. Just smooth as silk, often catching all but the most dedicated fans by surprise. The artists usually play lead guitar, fiddle, scrub board or accordion, guitar, organ/keyboard, bass, drums, and vocals. The rhythms are always clear, even when the artists get into the funkier little riffs--and there are plenty of playful, serious, and (in the word of my day) far-out excursions by each of the four lead artists.
The fans quickly catch on that the set has begun, so the area between the stage and the sound control platform quickly fills, perhaps as many as 250-300 people in all, moving to the beat of the music. The area will stay full for the entire three-hour show as people sway, boogie, dance, and otherwise move their bodies in all manner of natural and unnatural ways.
The music's energy is highly reminiscent of both the late '60s and the Grateful Dead, and most people who hear it for the first time make that connection. But it is very different: in addition to their own creations, they are as likely to play music with rock, reggae, folk, country, or zydeco energy; however, the music always has Donna The Buffalo's unique signature sound.
Donna The Buffalo
And although the band's lyrics do take business and government to task for the messes they have created in the world, most of their work seems to me to be aimed at self-responsibility and self-accountability. The lyrics are often beautiful, sometimes poignant, and occasionally downright funky. They are about the soaring moments and heartbreaks of life and love. They are about how easily we can be misled in life, yet how easily we can find the right track again. And they are about how misled our business, government, and political institutions have become. Unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately--I heard no proposed solution to issues on these institutional levels.
The first two nights, the band played mostly tunes from their albums. I wondered what they would do for the third and fourth nights. Well, what a surprise I had! On the third night they played original music of their own that had been written as long as ten years ago (and some of it could have been older, I don't really know). One of the fans had a notebook containing the lyrics, and the year each song was written. This band was playing quality music of its own--moving, meaningful, uplifting music--that it has yet to publish! Nearly all night long! Sure, they played a few Dylan pieces, an Elvis piece, and others, but it's not whose music they played that mattered, it's the way they played it. Playfully, seriously, happily, reverently, joyfully: the whole range of meaningful human emotions--and that is what "the herd" (as they call themselves) gets, under the words, over the melodies--the stuff they really came for, the stuff of the heart.
The music seems to have a wave of energy riding through it that brings peace to even the most active dancers. It affects each person in a different way. As for myself, I suddenly found myself in the middle of this group of people, of whom I knew not even a handful, and I felt as though I were in a tropical paradise, being carried along gently and caringly, nurtured by these strangers. I wept openly. The moon shone down on us all. Not since I was in a cult have I felt so close to who I am.
Donna The Buffalo
Speaking of cults, I did notice many similarities to cult behavior, especially concerning volunteer behavior and the adoration the herd gives to band members. But there are some very important differences between what goes on in cults and what goes on within this group. In cults, a newcomer would never be allowed to remain "on the outside" without numerous cult members encountering them, welcoming them, explaining things to them, getting them to "take a next step" and so on.
Another difference: as I mentioned, the band proposes no pat solutions to the terrible injustices of our businesses, governments, and politics. Whereas cults typically offer solutions as to how things should be resolved (and how things should be), this band instead merely shines a clear spotlight of the heart on the issues. Perhaps, as appears to be the case with their approach to personal responsibility, they feel that heartfelt awareness of the issues will lead to eventual healing. The simple fact that they don't say what you or I should do, or how we should be, speaks volumes.
Furthermore, the members of the herd do not proselytize. I have been unable to detect any urge by fans to proffer anything but the most casual information, such as how to get on the emailing list. And even that simple information was not very clear.
Most of the people present went to a lot of trouble to be here: they came from states all over the country, as far away as Alaska, as well as from Florida. And staying at the Casa Marina is no small matter financially: the least expensive accommodations, when all the fees and taxes are added up, come to a minimum outlay of $700-850, not counting the entertainment fee, meals, drinks, and other costs. In any event, the point is, the herd here consists of middle-income Americans who are dedicated enough to what they need to do and to spend what it takes to get here and to be here with each other and with Donna The Buffalo. And many of them travel on to follow the band.
No, the herd is no cult. It is just that: a herd, a wonderful gathering of buffalos.
The space right in front of the stage was a very special space. There was a woman who was there every time I went up in front (and as far as I know she was always there, the lady with the lyrics book), and her face looked the way the faces of cult trainees and facilitators used to look at the end of extensive self awareness trainings--soft and healed and at one with herself. Despite the fact that the music was the loudest there it also was the quietest place on the lawn. Or perhaps I should call it the most peaceful place. The first time I went up there I asked if it was cool to take photos of the band. "You are welcome here," the woman said as she continued her gentle boogie, "Everyone is welcome here. You can do what you like here." When she said that, my heart damn near jumped out of my throat. And every time I went up there, she welcomed me, and made room for me.
The fourth night was just as special as the first three. The band played some of their best tunes, and some other artists' work as well. But it was hard to discern among artists, because the band so skillfully wove in songs according to their energy, working with the energy of the herd.
The sound was awesome, especially since I was right at the stereo point of the system. Soon I started drawing Qigong circles with my hands in the air in front of me, then to the sides, and followed up with some very slow tai chi moves that do not require moving the feet. Wouldn't you know: later, on my way to a crash landing in my chair, one of the video taping guys came up to me, saying, "Wow, what's your name? I couldn't help noticing your karate moves there! They were really beautiful! So I taped them for the video!" Isn't that the darndest thing? Any other time I wouldn't be able to pay them to tape me!
Jeb Puryear & Tara Nevins of
Donna The Buffalo
Then the band played "Margaritaville." What a hoot. The refrain was truly wonderful for me personally, as I caught on. Despite all my underlying convictions that somehow there's a woman to blame for all the stuff in my life--both the good and the bad--it's is my own damn fault. The truth shall set ye free. It certainly isn't the first time I have "caught on" and it probably won't be the last, but it was truly freeing to catch on again in this way.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed bicycling around the town buying souvenirs, drinking beer, eating key lime pie, having lunch at the Hog's Breath Saloon, and ogling the cruise ships, and I enjoyed parasailing at the resort. If I'd had a partner with me, I probably would have gone for a half-day fishing boat trip just for the fun of it. And if I'd had my younger daughter with me I probably would have gone for the glass-bottom boat ride and a visit to the butterfly farm and Monkey Island. Key West offers much, much more to do for fun and R&R, all of it worth doing, and I hope to go there again and do some or all of it.
But there is no substitute for rejuvenation in Key West under the full moon with Donna The Buffalo and the rest of the herd.
Words & Images by: Walter Ligon
JamBase | Florida
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