Franti turns up the heat in message of tolerance
There’s no question that Michael Franti has deep intentions for his music. Franti, like the singers who have most influenced him – Bob Marley, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan – addresses the weighty issues of politics, human consciousness and war in a way intended to provoke, enlighten and ultimately uplift.The question lingers, however: Does singing about such things, even with the intelligence and musicality and charisma that Franti has, make a difference? Or does the flock who attends his shows dance to his mix of soul, rock, reggae and hip-hop – and then part with their minds unaltered?Franti, naturally, believes the music can have a powerful, lasting effect. But if he needed proof, he now has it. September will see the release of “I Know I’m Not Alone.” Franti’s latest is not a CD, but a documentary film about the singer-songwriter’s travels last year through Iraq, Israel and Palestinian territories. An early version of the film debuted in January as the special closing night feature at the Slamdance International Film Festival in Utah. Franti later returned to the Middle East to shoot more footage in Israel; a re-edited version of the film will premiere next week at the Maui Film Festival.”I Know I’m Not Alone” follows Franti as he visits soldiers, hospitalized victims of violence, artists and civilians. Most everywhere he goes, Franti brings his guitar and sings his songs of tolerance. The film is not political, however; it began, in fact, from Franti’s weariness at having the voices of politicians and generals drown out the more personal effects of war. So the documentary is about how ordinary people cope with a wartime existence. And much of what Franti finds is the healing nature of music.
“What was interesting was I got the same experience from a kid in an Iraqi hospital who had his legs blown off as I did from an Israeli soldier,” said Franti by phone after a sleepless night traveling back to the Lower 48 from a pair of gigs in Anchorage. “It’s just the power of music. Not just my music, but music as a whole – to help people through difficult times, to bring them together, to bring out emotions. They forget about where they are.”Franti said he didn’t want to relate to people as a celebrity musician but instead wanted to see how his music spoke to them. Often he would just start strumming on a street corner and talk to whoever happened to take an interest.”It’s not just a pop song or a pop singer. It’s this goddess of music,” he said. “I met Iraqi musicians who play only in their circle of friends. I saw what it did to them, what it gave them.”For Franti – who performs with his band, Spearhead, on Saturday, June 18, at Snowmass Village’s Chili Pepper & Brew Fest – what his film project confirmed was already part of his experience. Music has been not just for fun and amusement, but serves as an anchor tying him to life’s experiences and emotions. In his songs, he has reflected on his strained relationship with his late adoptive, alcoholic father (“Never Too Late,” from the 2003 album “Everyone Deserves Music”); shouted down America’s and the world’s war-makers (“We Don’t Stop,” also from “Everyone Deserves Music”); and encouraged the potential of the individual (“Every Single Soul,” from 2001’s “Stay Human”). “Stay Human” was a concept album, built around a fictitious call-in radio show, to protest capital punishment. The music builds on that of Franti’s heroes, who wrote songs that were meant to touch and even influence listeners.”It has in my life, when I think about all the people who influenced me – not as a musician, but as a person,” said Franti, a 39-year-old native of the San Francisco area who first came to music through the door of poetry. “When I feel my saddest, I go to my CD collection. A lot of times, even before I call a friend, I reach for my bag of CDs. I’ve seen firsthand how, in different times, different situations, people turn to music.”And as times have gotten more emotionally and politically charged, Franti has turned up the volume of his message. After tackling state-sanctioned killings on “Stay Human,” Franti had an opportunity to address even more critical concerns on “Everyone Deserves Music,” his first post-9/11 release. The centerpiece of the album is the anti-war “Bomb the World,” on which Franti sings, “We can bomb the world to pieces/But we can’t bomb it into peace.”
After leaving Iraq last June, Franti began writing the songs for his next album, “Yell Fire.” Due for release in January 2006, it reflects his view that the world is reaching a boiling point, where the usual rules of decorum – such as not yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater – no longer apply. Franti is yelling.”If ever there were a time in this world, in this country, to be yelling fire, it’s now,” he said, adding that songs from the album will be featured in “I Know I Am Not Alone.” “The message of the film and the album is that violence does not work. That was my conclusion at the end of the trip. Violence just piles up, and we need to find ways to diminish it.” Franti believes that message needs to start at home, in the United States. In his last albums he has not hesitated to point fingers at America’s leaders: for example, “Bush War I, Bush War II/They got a war for me, they got a war for you” in “We Don’t Stop.””Even during Vietnam, the image of America around the world was as a benevolent nation,” he said. “Now our image is of a nation that goes around militarily throwing around its weight.”While the alarming tenor of the world hardly gets a mention in the top tier of the music industry, Franti says he is actually encouraged by the voices of his fellow musicians. “I see today, in the last five years, that there’s been an increase in musicians willing to speak out,” he said. “I see that there are now artists not only willing to speak out on issues, but encouraging festivals, working with communities to make the festivals more green, more involved with local issues. The best thing an artist can do is be an example: ‘Hey, I’m concerned about this; here’s an opportunity for you to think about it.’ It doesn’t always have to be in the lyrics, it can be in the way you walk.”The most obvious aspect of Franti’s artistry is his outspoken lyrics. But Franti and Spearhead are also a potent music machine, with well-crafted songs that shift dynamically from soft ballads to flame-throwing rockers to sunny singalongs. The band’s performance last year at the Snowmass Conference Center earned this paper’s award for best show of the year. “Yell Fire” was recorded in Jamaica, where Franti teamed with the impeccable homegrown rhythm duo of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. “I just wanted to have the best rhythm section in the world on the album,” explained Franti, who also has an acoustic album, “Cool Water,” due out, comprising the songs that didn’t make it onto “Yell Fire.”
Franti believes that “Yell Fire” will be his most powerful album yet. Combine it with “I Know I Am Not Alone,” and, Franti believes, his voice may have a real impact on politics, the environment and people’s lives.”Music can communicate some of those ideas,” he said. “More than that, it can grease the wheels.”The second annual Chili Pepper & Brew Fest opens Friday, June 17, with Keller Williams and opening act New Monsoon. Williams, a solo act who has made a name with his technique of looping multiple instruments on stage to create a one-man band sound, is in the top tier of artists on the jam-band circuit. But the one-time Steamboat Springs resident has had only one Aspen-area appearance to his credit, back in the late ’90s. Those who miss the show can witness Williams’ unique technique on “Sight,” his first DVD, due out June 28. New Monsoon is a San Francisco septet whose dynamic jamming abilities are evident on their recent release, “Live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.”Opening for Franti on Saturday is Chuck Prophet. Prophet, usually put into the alt-country pile, has expanded beyond that category with albums like last year’s “Age of Miracles,” which give a postmodern setting to traditional songwriting.The Chili Pepper & Brew Fest concludes on Sunday, June 19, with the finals of the local Battle of the Bands competition. The event also features chili and beer, including competitions among and tastings of both.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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