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Kang goes from String Cheese to Zimbabwe

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
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CARBONDALE ” Over the first 35 years of his life, Michael Kang saw a lot of places. Born in South Korea, the son of a worker for an international construction firm, Kang’s early years were spent bouncing through Indonesia, England, Germany and New York before the family settled in California. Kang didn’t stop moving around as a young adult, as he put in time in Berkeley, Alaska and various Colorado ski towns.

He picked up plenty of musical influences along the way. Kang started on the violin, and played in classical orchestras during his high school years. But the constant movement must have had an impact on Kang’s internal make-up; he craved music that got people moving. He switched his primary instrument to mandolin, and made the natural transfer into bluegrass. While living in Crested Butte in the early ’90s, he hooked up with several other players: bassist Keith Moseley, drummer Michael Travis and guitarist Billy Nershi. Led by Nershi, the oldest and most experienced musician and a devout acoustic picker, the foursome leaned toward being a string-band ” albeit one with a drummer, and that could play a bluegrass take on Santana ” and took the name String Cheese Incident.

As the group developed a following and played bigger venues, the music needed to get more expansive to fill the spaces. Kang happily plugged in his mandolin; Travis brought in Latin and funk rhythms; the band added a keyboardist, Kyle Hollingsworth ” and the idea of a string band lived on in name only, as String Cheese blasted a mix of groove, Cuban, jazz, rock and bluegrass in amphitheaters across the country.

One of the few places Kang had never visited was Africa. And while there were traces of African sounds ” in the Afro-Cuban beats, the funk and jazz styles ” in the band’s music, Kang never truly explored the full range of African styles.

So when String Cheese took an extended break from touring in 2006, Kang knew just where to head. “I was going to Africa to check it all out,” said the 37-year-old. “Anything that has dance related to music, I’m interested in. African, Cuban, Brazilian ” those have all been places where musical practices are tied up with dance.”

Boulder, Colo., was String Cheese’s old base of operations, but Kang has lived in Oakland, Calif., for several years. Shortly before leaving for Africa, Kang met Chris Berry in New York City. A California native, Berry had spent a decade in Zimbabwe, learning to play the mbira, an African thumb piano. Berry, too, was planning a trip to Africa, and the two decided to travel together.

Over his four months in Africa, Kang was overwhelmed by the variety of musical styles. “You can’t say ‘African music’ and mean anything,” said Kang, who visited South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, and the Zimbabwean village where Berry had founded a drum camp. (Berry, whose wife is the daughter of the Zimbabwean opposition leader, did not return to the country.) “Every single country has three or four different kinds of music. And anything that is sent out to the U.S. is so watered down. You have to go over there to get the real deal. You can’t get that from afar.”

Back in the U.S., Kang reunited with Berry in Panjea, Berry’s African-inspired band. Kang has been a most-of-the-time member of the group, and played with the group at the 2007 Festival in the Desert, in Mali. He has signed up full time for the latest round of dates, which includes an appearance on Sunday, July 13, in Carbondale’s Sopris Park.

“We see music in a lot of the same ways,” Kang said of Berry. “The first couple times I saw the band, I thought it was super-tight. And it had a lot of messages I was down with.”

Kang is also in tune with Panjea’s relaxed touring schedule, which includes a quick run through Colorado and a few festivals.

“People don’t understand ” playing onstage, the music, that’s the easy part,” said Kang, who devoted much of his time to the Our Future Now organization, which focuses on environmental problems. “But the traveling, having your life uprooted entirely, is extremely difficult.”

Kang says String Cheese currently has “no status.”

“Part of taking a break is taking time to reassess what you want to do, and letting new influences come in,” he said.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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