The anthemic song “Love, Peace & Unity,” features help from Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals fame, Cat Coore and Bunny Rugs of Third World, Jamaican rhythm kings Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, and legendary guitarist Earl Chinna Smith, who worked with reggae greats from Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff to Black Uhuru and Gregory Isaacs.
It’s an astounding ensemble, and a tribute to Miller’s stature in the Jamaican reggae community.
Many of those artists appear in Miller’s new documentary, a personal homage to the power of roots reggae to move audiences around the globe. Profiling his early immersion in reggae music in the mid-1970s to the present day, the film provides a unique perspective on the history of Jamaica’s profound gift to the world.
“It’s an autobiographical story about the journey I’ve had having these relationships with some amazing musicians,” Miller explains. “It all started in 1975 when we formed the Roots Band, the first surf reggae band in Southern California. We started seeing the different Jamaican acts coming through like Toots and the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff, and of course Bob Marley. I ended up going to Kingston (Jamaica) and meeting Sly and Robbie and the Revolutionaries. The film is about this journey and it comes full circle to the present. I went down about two years ago to finish the soundtrack for the film and I hooked up with a lot of the same musicians from the early days like Sly and Robbie, Big Youth, and Cat Coore and Bunny Rugs from Third World. It was like a homecoming.”
Featuring interviews (subtitled for the non-Rasta-patois literate) with a number of leading reggae artists including Peter Tosh, Sly and Robbie and Aston “Familyman” Barrett of the Wailers, it includes a clip of Bob Marley describing reggae’s evolution from ska through rock steady.
“In terms of getting archival footage, the seed started back when a musician named Chili Charles had a video company in Los Angeles and had a show called “L.A. Reggae with Roger Steffens,” Miller continues. “They were going out videoing all the reggae bands that came through Los Angles, and they heard about these white guys playing reggae and shot us live one night. Shortly afterwards, we put together the Reggae All Stars. We went to Sunsplash and he shot that.”
As a young white musician raised in Kansas, Miller surprisingly recalls he had little difficulty entering Jamaica’s insular studio world.
“The scene was pretty much in its infancy in terms of the U.S.,” he notes. “England had a lot more exposure through the Jamaican immigrant population. In many parts of the U.S., it (reggae) was almost completely unknown in the mid-’70s. So the musicians were quite open to me, and very few people were willing to go into the ghettos of Kingston and look these guys up. I had studied the music and knew who these people were and they could see this guy gets it. They dug it because it was different from what they had been doing in the studio, they enjoyed that I mixed up rock and soul and R&B with it.”
Some rhythm tracks from these early Kingston sessions are mixed with songs on the exceptional soundtrack CD, which features such other legends as the Mighty Diamonds, Peter Tosh bassist Fully Fullwood, Bob Marley and the Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin, and Willie Nelson dueting with Maui’s Marty Dread on the powerful “Take No Part.”
In conclusion, Miller hopes his film will “pull people into the story and then they will look deeper. It’s like what ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ did for Cuban music. A lot of young people in Hawaii love reggae, but they don’t know a lot about the founding fathers of the music, they don’t know how it evolved. We want to get people on the train and let them go on this journey and hope that it will spark some deeper interest in the music.”
Awe-inspiring and heartbreaking, “War Child” (8 o’clock tonight, McCoy Theater) spotlights the extraordinary story of young African hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal.
“Left home at the age of seven/One year later I leave with an AK-47,” raps this veteran of Sudan’s 20-year civil war. Like many of the thousands of “lost boys” of Sudan, Jal joined the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, training to fight the Arab-dominated north. After almost five years, he deserted and embarked on a harrowing journey that few survived.
Now in his 20s, living in London, Jal employs his music to raise awareness about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Sudan and the plight of child soldiers throughout the world.
“You see the training that we were given, it kind of kills feelings,” Jal told NPR. “You just obey commands, and that’s all. It’s like we are kind of like robots, in a way.”
In a U.K. Independent interview, he reported that he still feels frozen, and that a reunion with his father after years left him unmoved. “I wanted to feel a connection with him, but my heart is cold,” he said. “A cold heart is my protection mechanism. I don’t really feel anything for anyone.”
To help ease the pain of what he had experienced, Jal started singing. In 2005, he released his first album, “Gua” (peace in his native tongue), which topped the charts in Kenya. The success earned him a spot on Bob Geldof's “Live 8” concert in the U.K.
Since then he’s been heard alongside Coldplay, Gorillaz and Radiohead on the “‘Warchild’ — Help a Day in the Life” benefit album, on the soundtrack of the movie “Blood Diamond” and on the “Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur” CD.
Anyone who loved the global span of “One Giant Leap” should check out the exhilarating doc “Playing for Change: Peace Through Music” (Saturday, 8 p.m. McCoy Studio Theater).
Roaming across four continents, the filmmakers pay tribute to the unifying power of music, recording an amazing array of musicians all seamlessly fused together in global song. Thus an elderly guitar player in Santa Monica opens “Stand By Me” to the accompaniment of a washboard player in New Orleans, a rocking veena player in India, a Cuban improvising with a stick and corrugated plastic tube in Barcelona, a South African tribal chorus, and much more. Bob Marley’s “One Love” gets the same inspired treatment.
“The driving force for this film is to find a way to inspire the planet to come together as a human race,” said Mark Johnson, the Grammy Award-winning co-director of “Playing for Change.”
“We wanted to focus on our connections rather than all of our differences. We believe music can break down the walls and barriers between cultures and raise the level of human understanding and connection.”
More than 100 musicians from 15 countries were filmed and recorded over the course of a year, including the Oneness Choir from India, Israeli singer Tula, South African musician Vusi Mahlasela and the Tibetan duo the Exile Brothers.
“Wanting a movie to end so you can run out and buy the soundtrack may not seem like huge endorsement, but in this case, it is,” praised a Variety review.
Narrated by Huey Lewis, the insightful doc “Pocket Full of Soul: The Harmonica Documentary” (Saturday, following “Playing For Change,” McCoy Theater — the filmmakers will attend the screening) tells you everything you need to know and more about the humble instrument. Passionate exponents in the film include country star Clint Black, blues legend James Cotton, Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band, “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks, War’s Lee Oskar, Blues Traveler’s John Popper, Mickey Raphael of the Willie Nelson Band and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Viewers are transported on a comprehensive journey exploring all facets of this versatile instrument. “The harmonica is the people’s instrument,” notes Marc Lempert, one of the film’s co-creators. “Not to minimize the skills of the masters, but if you can breathe, you can play the harmonica.”
Along the way we learn how it’s descended from a fifth-century B.C. Chinese instrument, that the Hohner factory has kept a German town prosperous for decades, and that 3,000 players compete annually at the pan-Asian harmonica contest.
John Popper sums up the harmonica’s appeal. “It’s instant gratification.”
• Contact Jon Woodhouse at email@example.com.
Emmanuel Jal, a child soldier in his native Sudan at age 7 is now an African hip-hop star and the subject of “War Child.”
Photo courtesy of the Maui Film Festival and the filmmaker
Fact Box“Dreadlock Rock” will screen tonight in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center following Bela Fleck’s African musical adventure, “Throw Down Your Heart,” at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $10 for individual screenings. More information is available at www.mauifilmfestival.com.