Backstage with Nahko Bear: Healing our social ills through music with a message
In a word, wow.
The doctor was in the house on Sunday night, and his name was Nahko.
Festival goers who thought well enough to make it to BaliSpirit Festival’s finale night on ARMA’s One World Stage in spite of rain early on in the evening were treated to a huge dose of roof-raising, goosebump-producing, unity-building spirit in the form of an unforgettable set by headliner Nahko & Medicine for the People. Charismatically led by the uber talented Nahko Bear (vocals, guitar) and ably rounded out by Hope Medford (cajon) and Chase Makai (guitar) with friend and guest Dustin Thomas, the band has cultivated a strong following on the island since performing last year at the 2012 Festival. Drawing the largest crowd of the weekend, hundreds packed in tight to get a taste of the band’s musical medicine, which spanned everything from hard-hitting rock riffs to shimmy-shaking reggae to heart-warming folk songs that had everyone singing along together as one.
I had a chat with Nahko before their set in which he expressed excitement for being ready to really deliver this time around. And deliver they did–as evidenced by the ecstatic rush of audience members onto the stage to dance and sing the final number alongside the band. As one of the lucky ones who joined them on stage, I had the vantage point to take in the glory of a genuine moment of shared bliss that could unite such a massive crowd with arms uplifted and voices crying out “I believe in love.” I think it’s probably safe to say that everyone who was there that night could feel the love vibrating through them. I know I did. With the BaliSpirit Festival now behind us, the hope is that we take that belief in love–that feeling of unity–with us wherever life takes us next. Let the medicine of the music live on.
And here’s what we talked about.
Me: I understand you have a pretty diverse background. You’re practically a world music band in and of yourself.
Nahko: Yeah, it’s so weird that I’ve gotten into that space. People come up to me all the time and say “what the hell are you guys.” (laughs) We’re definitely creating something a little different. I’d say the world music thing taps into the global message. But sonically, it’s a lot of acoustic rock. To me, it’s really all about the storytelling, which is amplified by the melody.
Me: Would you say the diversity in your background and experiences have had a significant impact on your music?
Nahko: Big time. My mom had me when she was very, very young. She’s Puerto Rican and Apache. My dad was Filipino and Guamanian. She gave me up for adoption when I was nine months old, so I didn’t really know a lot about my parents at all when I was growing up. I was raised in a white Christian family–hella suburbs, like deep in it. Super conservative Republican. I was home-schooled until the eleventh grade.
Nahko: I started playing piano when I was six years old. I taught myself how to play the guitar when I was 14. When I moved out of the house at 17, I went to live in Alaska and played piano for about a year there. Going to Alaska brought me into another musical realm and into nature. Then I moved to Hawaii for eight years and started a farm when I was 21. That changed everything for me. In Hawaii I learned how to work. I worked my ass off as a farmer and would take summers off to travel and play music on the streets. I was living a very Dylan, vagabond Kerouac-style life. Kerouac’s books have always influenced me.
Me: What are some of the musical influences in your life?
Nahko: From a writing standpoint, indie rock like Bright Eyes. When I was younger it was classic stuff like the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald.
Yeah, so getting back to what we were talking about before–the search for my identity was unconscious for a while. But after I left home and was living on my own, I started to realize I was really lost. It was like I had this family, but I didn’t really know who I was–I couldn’t identify with them, because they were so different from me. I was really religious for the first 17 years of my life–like praying to God every night to forgive me for stuff I’d done wrong and not talking to girls because it would be sin. Like hard core.
So leaving was big for me. I started opening my mind and expanding my consciousness. And then I found my mom and started to learn about her culture and the unspeakable things that had been done to her by her mother and my dad. I spent a year trying to hunt him down and “be karma,” and then found out that he had died. And through that, I learned about forgiveness for what he had done. That was a big turning point for me. And so a lot of music that you’ll hear tonight comes from a place of overcoming tragedy, self-discovery, empowerment and being brave enough to rise above the pain of memories and experience by putting it to good use. Redirecting it…
Me: …in a positive way.
Nahko: Yeah, which is really hard for a lot of people–to find what drives you, what makes you passionate and happy in this world? Good luck. But the gift of spirit–I feel it’s definitely in all of us. So I think we all have a chance. Everyone’s invited to join in the celebration of life, whether you’re at the top of the food chain or at the bottom. We all have spirit. But the way democracies have been built, at least in the States, and also how the Western world has affected people everywhere with layers upon layers of problems–it’s difficult to tap into it.
Me: So how has this all contributed to the genesis of Medicine for the People?
Nahko: Everything in my life has happened really organically. Everyone in our band has kind of just showed up to play their part. So where we’re at right now–our name, our sound, the band members, our musical offering to the world–has been driven by spirit. I didn’t go out there and decide I was going to be a musician, and I’m going to have this band, etc. No, I met Hope around the fire. She’s a midwife and was living on the farm that she helped start in Portland. And we were just jamming around the fire, I was like 21 I think. So we played music together for like three–almost four years.
And about a year and half ago, we started playing with our guitar player Chase, who’s an Aussie, I met him four years ago hitch-hiking in Hawaii to my farm. He picked me up. He was playing in a band called “Twisted Tree,” and we played a show together. Didn’t see him agan for three years. Then last winter I ended up moving into his house–a bunch of surf dudes, jamming music. I’d brought Dustin (Thomas) with me from Minneapolis. So I’ve had this eclectic group of people playing with me for the past few years because I move around a lot. It’s really just in this last year that we’ve created this foundation of the three of us–Hope, Chase and me–and everyone else rotates in.
We just got back from our Australia tour, which was our first formal tour, and everything’s taken shape. We’ve got clarity on what our mission is, what our band looks like, how we’re going to tour, etc. Before, I’d call them up and say, “hey, we’re going on tour,” and we’d just get in a van and go. So that’s how roots and independent we’ve been. It’s so classic to see how we’ve grown the way we have. The upcoming tour we’re starting in the US in April is the first time we’ll be doing it with a legitimate management and booking team. We have a new record coming out on 4/20.
Me: Nice! Very auspicious. Can you tell me about the new album?
Nahko: There’s a huge difference in our first record, which was made with the three grand my Auntie gave me. She was like “go make some music.” I’m such a community person and had so many friends in Portland. So I had like thirty people singing in it. A lot of it had a jazz influence from my horn player and his brother who plays keys. Which was cool, but ever since learning more about what kind of sound I want to go for–it’s definitely gone heavier. And with Chase playing guitar, it’s automatically turned into more rock, and I love it. I just go crazy. But I listen to hip hop. So it’s rock infused with fast lyrics but also slowing it down to more mantra-ish prayers.
Really, everything’s a prayer. I’m saying stuff I want to do and become better at, like the song “Black is the Night” on the new record. I was going through this epic break up with a girl I was with for five years. So the song’s a mantra for believing in the good things that come next, and that everything’s going to be ok.
The new record is an ecletic mix that shows the variety in our sound. It goes from funk to a solid reggae track to folk to a little dub with some whomp and then straight back to rock.
Me: So creatively-speaking, what’s the direction you’re heading in as a band?
Nahko: We definitely look at ourselves as less of a traditional band and more of a social movement. What it comes down to–the music, the words, the intention–is a movement encouraging people to be socially responsible. Whether it’s culturally or with the environment, or with each other.
From a political side too, we really want to be pushing for a democracy that makes sense, specifically in America which is where we’re from and where we live. Obviously that can apply to a lot of different countries. But over the past few years, we were really inspired by the Occupy movement, and Idle No More, the Native American movement in the States. It’s been growing in the last six months. There’s a Chief from a tribe up north in Canada that went on a hunger strike when the Prime Minister refused to meet with her about moving these people off their land. So it really powerful stuff.
Our band’s really focused on indigenous Native American rights in terms of land recovery. Hope and I are both involved in a number of non-profit organizations that we support. Some are about tribal democracy and others are focused on climate change, like 350.org. We work with an indigenous elder out of Minneapolis, Winona LaDuke. She was Ralph Nader’s running mate when he ran for President, and she has an organization called Honor the Earth.
I’m part of a foundation called Be the Change. We play a festival to raise money to provide to artists who have charitable organizations. We give artists like Trevor Hall money every year for his foundation in India. And we give movement leaders like Winona money to build a wind turbine on the reservation so they could have free energy. So the idea is to stay connected with artists and leaders of movements who are involved in activism, whether it’s land recovery-focused or marine conservation-focused, like our work with Surfrider Foundation.
My intention is to move off the Big Island and to relocate to Arizona, because that’s where my tribe is from. There’s such a big art and activist community over there, and so much work to be done. The next record’s going to be reflective of that kind of vibe. More tribal, more audio samples, more indigenous instrumentation.
Me: That’s truly inspiring. This is your second time playing BaliSpirit Festival. How are you feeling about bringing all that we’ve discussed to your performance?
Nahko: I feel like this time around I’m so much more ready to deliver. Last time I was here it was the first time I’d been out of the country. So I was like a virgin–everything was blowing my mind. Chase had recently joined us. Hope and I are were going through some stuff. I was here for two months, and it was an epic spiritual journey for me. It was life changing because this place has such big spirit–it really moved me.
I was here for Nyepi, and I wrote about it. It’s our second-to-last song tonight. It’s about learning to be fearless, which is what happened to me when I was here. Because I came here and started to organize the next step in my head. I have angels and they help me see what my options are. We’re not just a band playing shows. We are a movement. We’re here specifically to help people to see their power and to activate people to take care of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Having said that, this year I’m much more grounded and prepared to deliver our message with that much more passion and intensity.
Me: I can’t wait to see it all come together. One final compulsory question. Do you do yoga?
Nahko: I do my own yoga. Want me to show you? (laughs)
Me: By all means, please do. (laughs)
Written by : Melanie de Leon