Michael Kang 12.31.05
By Swell Hatcher
You likely know Michael Kang as the multi-instrumentalist for the wildly successful String Cheese Incident. And you may have heard of Chris Berry and his band Panjea. Born in LA, Chris learned to drum under the tutelage of Titos Sompa, who eventually took Chris to the Congo to learn traditional rhythms. At age 20, Chris chased a dream (literally: he had a recurring dream of a woman from Zimbabwe singing and playing the mbira, calling for him to come) that brought him to Zimbabwe. Chris went in search of master mbira players, which led him to Monderek Muchena. After studying for a year, Chris was able to perform at ceremonies and became one of the first Westerners to be accepted among the elder mbira masters as one of their own.

Chris didn't just go to Africa to learn, he went to live. Like the other mbira students, Chris lived in the ghettos of Zimbabwe where he formed a band with local musicians called Panjea. The group recorded an album that soared to #1 and sold over a million copies, but due to widespread corruption, Chris never saw a dime.

After marrying a native Zimbabwean, Chris had made a life for himself in Africa. Returning to America was not the plan, but life doesn't always follow our plans. At a traditional ceremony, an ancestor took Chris aside and told him that his work in Africa was done, that he needed to go back to his own country and share his music and his message with his own people. Chris and his wife soon relocated to New Mexico where he would re-form Panjea. The band took off, eventually performing for crowds of more than 40,000 in Australia and even being featured on the main stage of the 2000 Olympics.

Chris Berry
Chris has already done a remarkable job of bringing different cultures together through music. His goal is to continue bridging this gap and to create music that will allow people of all walks of life to dance, feel good, and to empower them with the knowledge that we can all make a difference.

This is where Michael Kang comes into the picture. After having Chris Berry open a string of shows for String Cheese, Michael and Chris developed a strong bond, both personally and musically. Kang says, "Chris Berry picked up where Paul Simon left off. Chris's music glides across all racial and ethnic lines, making everyone feel at home within the music. The conscious lyrics are a road map for humanity, and Chris is one of the few people able to carry this message to a wide audience."

This connection, along with Kang's love of African music and both artists' socially responsible ethos, has led to a very interesting project. As you are reading this, Chris and Michael have already met up in South Africa and are beginning what can only be considered, "the journey of a lifetime."

As Michael says himself over email:

I am traveling to various countries in Africa with Chris Berry from the band Panjea with the intentions of building musical and cultural bridges with a strong emphasis on co-creating some positive social programs with music as the catalyst. In essence, we will be traveling and recording in the field with various different performers in many different remote locations. Our hope is to record and write music to bring awareness to Chris's multiple philanthropic projects in Zimbabwe, where he is a celebrated artist and performer. Our intention is to record many different musicians in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and possibly the Congo and Mali. We will then use these tracks either as guide tracks or samples in an undetermined future project that will hopefully bring about more awareness of African musical traditions as well as Chris's various social projects in Africa.

Traditional Mbira
While the itinerary is in flux and much of it will be developed on the fly, they are set to start in Ghana, then move to Mozambique, and eventually to Zimbabwe where Chris and Michael will host a four-day ceremony that will include more than twenty tribes. They will slaughter two cows (a very big deal for Africans), play music, and dance for four days. This will all take place on a sacred mountain "given" to Chris by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. As far as anyone knows, this will be the first ceremony of its kind.

Chris and Michael have already embarked upon this once-in-a-lifetime journey that will take the two of them through Africa playing with some of the world's greatest African musicians while recording this trip in both audio and visual formats. Chris has lived in Africa for many years perfecting his trade, and he will now take Michael into that world to meet the critical African players.

Upon returning home in late April, Michael will then join Chris and his band on the road for a tour through major markets. This will be one of several chapters the two of them will write together throughout the next few years.

JamBase is in the fortunate position to receive updates from Michael and Chris as their journey unfolds. We plan to feature emails and photos from their trip, while also asking questions and digging for meaning, helping to bridge that gap between America and Africa and between music and consciousness.

What follows is a direct email from Michael Kang. Be sure to stay tuned to JamBase as we'll be updating this ever-evolving story over the next month.

Continue reading for the first installment from Michael Kang...

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