Interview: Jalani Horton of Bambu Station
Jalani Horton is the leader and founder of Bambu Station a roots reggae group founded in 1999 and based in the United States Virgin Islands aka, "the V.I." Bambu Station are an interesting mix of musicians and vocalists who are also multi-instrumentalists which lead them to the studio to create complex melodies over deep roots rhythms that maintain the integrity of reggae's original analog recording process. The poetry of this band's lyrics is drenched with imagery and wisdom, the cumulation of many years of experience and teaching. Here we explore Jalani's background as a songwriter and his band's intention to make a positive impact on this earth both through music and deeds. We also explore the cultural position that the U.S. Virgin Islands plays in this form of reggae music and culture. Global citizens, Bambu Station take in all that many styles of music have to offer while recognizing its healing powers and the significant part it plays in everyday life. The band plays a frequent part of the worldwide reggae festival circuit, most recently performing at Northern California's Reggae on the River festival where a few other artists from the V.I. also performed. Their latest album, Children Of Exodus [released April 2012] is available on their own Griotlife Music label.
What is the origin of your band's name?
In a nutshell, as an infant my name was Bambu. When I was trying to decide a name for a band that didn't exist, I didn't even have one member with me, I was just making up a name of a band and then I would find the players. I thought that if I am going to play roots music, let me go back to my roots name, my first name it was Bambu and station was of course to broadcast, that we use to broadcast positive things.
You sing about the lives of those less fortunate and issues of social justice how did you grow up, what was your life like as a youth for you and your family?
(Laughs) I thought life was great, the way I grew up, I was never hungry, my clothes were always clean and I didn't know that we were poor until my aunt told me at a time when I asked her if we were rich and she laughed and she said, 'Na, actually we're poor'. But I had nature around me, so growing up with nature and in my neighborhood. I played baseball with sticks and tennis balls, we were in the woods and there was just a childhood filled with happy vibes. In that also we were listening to the powerful music coming out of Jamaica, so that was like the soundtrack of my childhood. If you are in a small place and once something happens, it has a big impact for the most part, life is peaceful and life is tranquil and you are close to god because there is not a lot of concrete. There's trees and ocean all around, so we had the opportunity to ingest positive music and live a lifestyle that was very involved with nature.
On songs like Contradiction on the new album, you point out the class warfare we are living under, what do you see that exhibits this warfare in St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John as part of the U.S. protectorate?
Well we are a U.S. territory, and we are not allowed to vote for president. If we are born here in the V.I., we can't vote for the president, even though we are U.S. citizens, so just that basic fact, you are a second class citizen your whole life. I was born in New York, so I don't fall under that, but its just basic things like that. And even in the little islands, you have old money trying to keep authority and control of power and access to power. It is the same game all over, its not something that is specific to the U.S. but it is magnified in the U.S. with the capitalism and how that flows and money is the bottom line of everything. And so you know the song Contradiction is also to keep ourselves in check. As righteous as we might strive to be, want to be or is, you know many times folks have pointed out contradictions that exist in me, I have to respect that and learn from it and grow. And in the most basic sense, when you work on those contradictions, you become a better person, and when you become a better person, you help your family, help your community and it helps all the things you are dealing with. It's real, its a real dynamic in people, that we all have contradictions, and sometimes we are very unaware.
On the song Bambu Elektricity you collected audio quotes from many people, how did you do that?
We actually happened to be on the West Coast of the U.S. and you know folks was coming up to us after the shows, so we just decided to keep a camera running and we pulled the audio from the camera. So that is like Seattle, Oregon, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Diego, we collected it from different places and just let the people speak. They come up to you and they say this, and they say that, and you tell them give thanks for sharing and you know it is not to burst our ego, for certain, but it is an affirmation that we have to keep fighting the fight to play this music in a commercial world. It is not as commercial as it used to be, so it is more difficult, to make a living doing, but it is so important and it is so meaningful to people and it has so much a healing effect that we who are playing it, every little affirmation we get helps to push another day. So Bambu Elektricity is really to let one speak freely.
Who is playing mbira?
A brother by the name of Manatho Masani from Washington, D.C. and the mbira he is playing, was actually gifted to him by a dancer from Zimbabwe and it turns out that piece happens to be a cultural icon. So he was told that if he enters the country with it it would be taken from him.
So it is like a cultural artifact?
Just an artifact, its from the royal family. When I heard him play it I said, 'Yo you need to let me record that'. It sounds so soothing and so beautiful, and he explained, if you listen really closely, there's a slight distortion in their playing. And it is a foil that is on the mbira, to ward off evil spirits. He was breaking it down, it is a blessing you know, just for all of that to come together. For people to share how they feel about the music, for this brother to come forward with beautiful works on mbira and for us to be able to use it on the album.
Who else is speaking on there, in the portion that is more like a lecture?
A brother who is a member of the Hebrew Israelite community. We were in a store reasoning, and he was like when is the new album coming out and he was just going on and on and I just hit record on this little recorder he had and he didn't even know I recorded so whenever I see him again, to see if he recognizes his own voice.
Your band performs on stage and in your recordings like a true collective, what is your songwriting and recording process like?
Songwriting can come from anywhere. I don't think I have ever sat down and said I am going to write a song, maybe in the initial stages of writing music maybe I tried that, but really it comes from inspiration, in any regard. I could simply be walking, you know I have written a lot of songs where I walking. I could be standing up eating a fruit and just a phrase come into your head and it moves you and you let it flow and you let it come, things like that. I know some writers, some singers, they sit down and write a song, and they don't have music for it, they just write something. When I write I am hearing the music and everything like that. As far as recording, sometimes I create something on guitar or piano or I might have a bass line in my head. Or other times I might ask the drummer to give me a beat, you know and see what speaks to me from that beat. Sometimes another band member might play bass, cause we play different instruments so someone might be on the keyboards, someone might be on the bass and they fiddling around and noodling around and ideas just come. Sound check, when we are actually on tour, a lot of ideas come forward cause you are on the road and you are dealing with different little challenges and things, so at soundcheck we have a lot of fun. Those playful moments in sound check turn into songs. It is a very organic process, we don't just say 'Hey we are gonna go do an album now'. Things just come to us naturally and as it grows we say, 'OK let's sit down and think about the album,' because we get quite a bit of material. That is generally the process, we opened our new studio in St. Thomas here in the V.I., a little humble studio, just to get the job done. Its a place where we get to do our thing and we have started to produce some other singers here in the V.I. that are new on the scene.
Tell us about the singers you are recording at your studio.
I have been working with Dezarie's sister named Kenya, Kenya is a phenomenal, phenomenal songwriter and a phenomenal voice man, so if I say like Kenya's voice might be stronger than Dezarie's some people might say, 'you know you crazy.' But after you hear Kenya, you'll understand that they are a singing family. I think it was like 6 sisters and you know it is a powerful family, the songwriting out of their family is tremendous. I have been working with Kenya, working with a brother named Akin, Empress Ruth from Tortola, a brother named Afreecan Southwell. Been working on a spoken word project by a phenomenal artist a brother named, Heru. So quite a bit of stuff has been going on. The end of the year will see a completion of a lot of those projects. And 2013 will see a lot of releases from the new studio. The studio is called Griot Life. Its just about telling the stories of the griots and of course the griots are the ones that carry the tradition and histories of the people. Just humble vibes, just keeping it humble and rooted in the natural sound. We are not departing from the signature sound, so folks can look forward to hearing the natural sound.
What is the concept of Rockas to you and the band?
Great question, really in the simplest way, its really defining music. Nowadays there are a lot of reggae bands. And we see a lot of music and performances that devalue the music and so everything we do, everything we produce we try to make sure it is compelling. When Peter Tosh step on stage he was compelling, when need I say, the original Third World, when they step on stage it was compelling. When Bob Marley step on stage, it wasn't just a performance, it was a compelling nature, and so basically we don't want to be affiliated with what is being modern, contemporary roots reggae. Because it is without purpose, it is without compelling nature. And in all honesty, at the end of the show, it compels us to do nothing, it has no feeling other than 'that was a great show, I had a great time.' And so for us, Rockas means something that moves you to your bones, down to your soul, its compelling, its profound, its a life experience. Reggae is a reality, reggae can be happy and reggae can be easygoing vibes and all of that and that's great. And so we are simply making the differentiation, that we do not play reggae while some of our stuff may be easygoing and nice vibes, even in that even if we create that track like that which is easygoing, the song is going to be compelling. We have a song on the new album called Times Is Dread, and the music take over the lyrics, its a beautiful jazzy groove, but put the lyrics to it and you can't get more poignant and compelling than that song. Junior Marvin from the Wailers played lead guitar on that song and the guitar he put on that is by itself compelling, not because he is Junior Marvin, but because he listened to the lyrics and he played for the lyrics not the easygoing music and so that's rockas. That is the rockas we play.
On Children of Exodus the title tune features the spiritual leader Ben Ammi, can you explain how you came to know him as the leader of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem?
While in college I came across a book called, God, The Black Man and the Truth a very, very powerful book. And just to give you some background, in 1967 Ben Ammi, his name was Ben Carter at the time, said that the angel Gabriel spoke to him and that the instructions were to go to the Holy Land and build the kingdom of god. This is 1967 and 400 people were so moved by this that they dropped everything and left Chicago and went to Liberia and they lived in the Liberian desert for two years and then migrated into Israel in 1969 and they have been there ever since, without citizenship I may add. And they were granted citizenship like three years ago, so in the context of that and reading that book, in 2005 we got an opportunity to travel to Israel and we performed at the Passover festival that they hold every year. Powerful, powerful to see people who grew up in the American system, was born in the American system, and now in the desert of Israel creating an oasis for themselves and the community there. And so the book God, The Black Man and the Truth what I got out of it was the concept of the power of definition. If you let others define for you, anything, you are then subject to their control because they are doing the defining. I wrote a song on our album Break the Soil called Who, and the song Who came directly from that book and that understanding. Don't let them define who you are, you know. And so you know I came across that book while in college in Washington D.C. so that has been a part of my consciousness for some time. So while doing this album we came up with the music we call Exodus Dub. I said to myself this would be a great track for someone to speak on, and I do poetry too, but I wasn't feeling it for myself to do it. So it came to mind that hey, let's invite one of the leaders in the Black community to speak to our listeners who wouldn't normally hear them. Its not that we are part of their community, we are part of the African Diaspora for sure, but we are not Hebrew Israelites, but it is still very relative, it is a relative conversation. And so we sent an invitation for him to appear on the album and after some time, he agreed.
Consciousness and culture, knowledge of ancient practices and our origins appear to run very deep in Virgin Islands' roots, Rasta culture, can you explain what the basis is for this, any reflections that you have on your path.
I live in St. Thomas and I was sent to school in middle school to the states and at that young age, I got to see the difference between the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and in the United States. And then I went back to the islands to finish high school and went away to college which was again another indoctrination, being able to compare the African Diaspora in different places. I have come to realize that the yoke of slavery had a very heavy, devastating impact on the psyche and the mentality and the existence of our brothers and sisters in America. In the islands, even as enslaved people, we outnumbered the enslavers by great numbers, 75 to 1, 50 to 1, 100 to 1 so there was a lot of freedom, a lot of freedom to continue traditional practices. There was a lot of freedom to learn how to communicate, even though we are from different regions of Africa. The first rebellion of enslaved Africans was in St. John (Virgin Islands), led by a woman. So there is a lot of history here, so much and for ones who develop the consciousness, now in our high schools they teach V.I. history, Caribbean history, World history, American history. So here, growing up everything was black, black governor, black doctor, my black teacher, my black policeman, black fire person, everything was black. So without trying, that gave we as youths a sense of being able to do anything. And then here I am going to college, and I have this attitude that I could do everything and I realized this wasn't a shared mentality and there is a difference and you have to resolve those differences because we are still one people. So the culture is all around and it exists, and it is very prevalent, and the V.I. is a serious melting pot of different islands, Antigua, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Dominica, Barbados, Trinidad, there's a lot of people here from different islands and that melting pot is what makes up the V.I., we are a collection of a bunch of different islands in population. So there is a lot of traditions we might not even recognize that is from different islands but in the big picture, we all came from Africa and we all still have those practices that we live with and that will live on and so its quite a story and quite something to behold, that things last for generations.
How does jazz or other music styles influence your sound for example when you use sounds of horns, flutes, what are the influences that you and the other musicians have had?
We all grew up in a time where rap music wasn't so prominent as it is today. When I was in high school, you really couldn't hear rap on the radio, it was still an underground movement, so a lot of our upbringing was on Soul, was on R&B, a lot of music, Jazz, the protest songs of the '60's, that our parents were playing. I used to listen a lot to this group named the Last Poets, I think they were from New York. Tremendous, tremendous group and so, down here in the V.I., there are as many Spanish channels as there are English radio channels, so you are hearing a lot of Merengue, Salsa, Bachata, you know, my family is from Dominican Republic, and not just the Virgin Islands, so its a whole melting pot, a whole stew of music that you are around. Whether you are trying to listen to it or not, or understand it or not, you can't help but be impacted by it. And so the music, really and truly is just an expression of what we are feeling in song. We are not afraid to let those feelings come out, even if it is not a sound that you would typically hear in roots music. So we don't try to be Reggae-Jazz or Jazz-Reggae. If something feels a little jazzy, that is what it is. If something feels a little funky that is what it is, I love a funky rhythm. It makes me feel good, and it helps emphasize when you are singing. So wherever the music goes, we just did a track for Empress Ruth that is very soulful, very R&B-ish, but very rootical, and can still have a roots foundation. We listen to it and it's refreshing you know, because we are not trying to steer the music, we are just letting it flow. And it its what it is, at the end of the night.
There is a website is cited in this song, BambuStationRadio.com, do you intend to develop a station 'where vibes is everything' like the song says?
There is some talk of us going ahead and putting together a little Bambu Station radio where we would put playlists together of things we are listening to and things people might want to hear. And like just music from all over the world. Music that is not readily available or readily published, just great music, because when we travel, we just see all kinds of bands play and hear all kinds of music and it is just great, and it enriches your life. I really don't think people realize how important music is to our everyday lives. They are developing a concept for us to do Bambu Station radio, they already reserved the name and everything, that might be coming next year.
Your projects are so well produced and mixed, it feels like you take time, like in the days of old where the analog process was in play and musicians were together in studio.
Sometimes it doesn't allow for us all to be together, sometimes maybe two of us will be together and put down some tracks, but in the overall process, it always has to be a natural feeling and a natural flow. Because the goal is to come out with a organic, naturally feeling album, like what we grew up listening to. And in this digital realm, a lot of musicians and producers get caught up in using the best aspects of the digital realm, but they lose the feeling, and we really striving. I was fortunate to sit with B.B. King staff two years ago when B.B. King was recording at XM Radio. I sat with his personal assistant and he just talked about music that is a legacy, legacy music transcends time and that is our goal. We are not trying to be a trend of the day, we really, really, really trying to be a part of people's lives, and music that they can share with their children, and grandchildren and etcetera. But this album though is mixed, we have mixed every (other album they released) one ourselves, but this new album was mixed by Jim Fox of Lion and Fox studio. Jim is a real engineer, he actually builds machines, you naw mean? That kind of stuff, he knows what kind of sound we are going for, he didn't try to push the sounds of today on us. He let it be what it is and just added his expertise to it, and we were very very satisfied with what he did.
You were a mediator for several years and followed the law path, what do you see as parallels in your life there in terms of being in a band and in the music industry?
Well the blessing is I was specifically a family mediator, so for years I sat with families, fresh out of college, I sat with people that were old enough to be my parents, talking about issues I hadn't personally experienced yet in my life. But that experience was great because it gave me a first hand view of the issues and dynamics of so many families, and how it impacts children and how we walk with scars and bitterness. With mediation, you are trying to make them come to a resolution that they see as a benefit for all involved, especially the children. And so, all of that experience for me as a songwriter influences my songwriting in a major way. Sometimes I feel like I am singing one big song. And I have had to kind of come to accept that, if that is my contribution, so be it, you know, cause that is where lot of my experience have been. I have actually seen someone shot before, unfortunately, but that is not what my eyes saw growing up and that hasn't been a major part of my life, so I don't sing and I don't write about that in a major way. So my experience in the legal realm, as a mediator has given me much substance, much context, much sensibility and things like that. As we travel, you know its phenomenal, the brothers I play with, Cat Mitchell on keyboards, Guinee on drums, Kojo on percussion, Igee on bass you know we are all fortunately man, we are so in tune to paying attention to people and different things like that. It really impacts how we interact with audiences. People could normally see us at shows in the back watching the other bands. We would be out in the crowd because it helps us. You can't lead and you can't understand, if you are not a part of what's happening, and if you are just on stage, you got a sense of loftiness and ego and you become detached and you are just an artist. We are not striving to just be artist, this is how we feel, this is how we live, this is how we exist. Actually at Reggae on the River we are rolling with a brother that helped define the sound of Bambu Station, Tuff Lion. He is going to be playing guitar with us there and we haven't played together for a few years. And so this is kind of a reunion of sorts and what better place, Reggae on the River.
What is the purpose of the Bambu Station Foundation?
The foundation I started it years ago to impact the lives of children and families again coming out of my family mediator experience. And as musicians, we have the people's attention, and so we have created a foundation to go into communities and and do things and to keep ourselves in check as to why we do music. We don't do music to be in the spotlight on stage. We do music to express the things that we want to do to help and to make a difference in people's lives to raise awareness, to raise funds, you know across the board. We have used the foundation to anything that comes across our plate. We are going to be putting more focus on the foundation instead of touring just to perform, we want to tour to raise money for the foundation or effect things in other communities. For instance, if we are coming to Reggae on the River, why are we not being taken into a boy's home, a girl's home, a prison, a rape crisis center, a homeless center to perform acoustically, to speak, to engage, a hospital, a cancer ward for children, whatever. It is very disheartening to go to a community, sing, wake up and leave. That's one of the things we like to do, we like to engage the community, and view the issues they are dealing with and help in whatever ways we can. We ask it of promoters, usually finances come into play so we do it how we can, if it is acoustically, just showing up and just speaking and making an appearance. You never know what is going to impact a child who is dealing with some serious issues at home. We challenge promoters and try to do things that will make a difference.
You sing in Leaning on Afreeka about people getting vibes and visions from Africa and the ancestors, what is your greatest wish for your self, your family, your people as it relates to Africa and being in the Diaspora.
My greatest wish, I don't even think I have gotten that far. But I would go out on a limb to say my greatest wish could be that the planet finds peace and makes peace and deals with the planet as human beings, and in doing that, if we do those two things than all that we can be in the great sense will come forward. I hate to see so much suffering, we say well that's human nature but I don't really dig that. If we can make peace and find peace and treat ones as human beings, that is beyond Africa, that's the planet. Then our people can live in joy and find joy and be joy and bring joy and I think if Japan gets decimated by earthquakes we are there to help and if the weather climate creates a drought in Somalia, its not oh Black children are poor, Black people are poor, we go as world citizens and help. I don't know if it will take an extra-terrestrial invasion to bring unity to the planet but I give thanks for your questions, and we could go and on.
Give thanks for your insights.