When the popular Washington, D.C.-based reggae band SOJA began working on its new CD, "Strength to Survive," the musicians took inspiration from the master, Bob Marley and his epic album "Survival."
"It's my favorite album of all time," says SOJA's lead vocalist Jacob Hemphill. "Bob wrote it after he went to Africa. He was desperate when he wrote it to save his homeland. Even the ballads were like 'Africa Unite' and 'we're not slaves any more.' So we kind of set out to make that album."
Known for fusing inspiring messages with stirring roots rhythms, SOJA excels with "Strength to Survive." Like Marley, they are adept at uplifting with catchy melodies while addressing serious global issues and struggles.
Lead vocalist Jacob Hemphill (center) is backed by Hellman Escorcia, Ken Brownell, Bobby Jefferson, Ryan Berty, Patrick O'Shea and Rafael Rodriguez.
"I'm amazed we're still here," Hemphill sings on the title track. "If we don't leave our old ways, we can kiss it goodbye."
Compelled to create consciousness-raising songs, SOJA's lead vocalist says he understands how we can waver between feeling "we can save the world and all come together, and then, if you read the news, that we're doomed and nobody's going to change and the cultures are going to keep on warring against each other. But I refuse to think we're doomed. I have to speak for the earth and the people that don't have a voice. This whole album I'm saying, are we going to save the earth or not?"
Originally formed in 1997, SOJA comprises Hemphill on vocals and guitar, bassist Bob Jefferson, keyboardist Patrick O'Shea, percussionist Ken Brownell and drummer Ryan Berty, plus two new horn players, saxophonist Hellman Escorcia and trumpet player Rafael Rodriguez.
Over the years they've sold more than 150,000 albums, toured 15 countries and have generated an almost Grateful Dead-like international fanbase.
"When I first heard Bob Marley, I was like, this is it, this is what I want to do," Hemphill continues. "I'm going to try as hard as I can to be like Bob Marley."
A passionate artist, Hemphill's soulful, beguiling vocals immediately hook listeners to the band's messages and music.
"A song has to transport me to somewhere," he says. "I've always looked for the guys with the most interesting voices."
The inspirational spirit of their songs has long resonated with Hawaii's audiences. In 2009, SOJA paid tribute to its avid following here with the documentary DVD "SOJA Live in Hawaii."
So how does he hope their music impacts people?
"We want people to question their world and their norms and what their government calls reality," he concludes. "We live in a system where the next president has to tell more lies than the last one. To become president you have to promise that you'll get the country out of 50 trillion dollars in debt, while you'll cut taxes and you have to promise to spend 50 percent of our tax dollars on military spending.
"It's imposable for our leaders to do what they're promising. I don't blame them; it's the game of politics. You lie and cheat people. The only leader we need in the world right now is one who is unpopular, who will slap us on the wrist like a teacher, cut military spending and raise taxes. Everybody has flat screens, but no money; everybody's got mortgages on houses, but nobody can pay for them. We're a hilarious group of people at a birthday party that never ends. Things have to change and I'm just trying to prepare people."
* SOJA plays the Maui Arts & Cultural Center A&B Amphitheater Saturday. The Green and Anuhea will open. The show starts at 5:30 p.m. Advance general admission tickets for all ages is $40 available at the MACC and at Request Music. Tickets are $50 the day of show. Applicable fees are added to ticket prices.
Legendary guitarist Jorma Kaukonen returns to Maui to play the Historic Iao Theater on Friday evening. Acclaimed as a leading finger-picking acoustic guitar player, Kaukonen was a pioneering electric guitarist with Jefferson Airplane.
"Nobody does the acoustic blues better these days than the founder of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen," praised a Popmatters review.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, Kaukonen was influenced by folk-blues greats such as Blind Blake, Lightnin' Hopkins and the Rev. Gary Davis.
"I was lucky because I got exposed to a lot of stuff," he says. "I grew up with classical music and then rock 'n' roll happened, and that started to set me on fire. I discovered the guitar and shortly after that I was lucky to discover traditional blues and that's really where I found a musical home."
But it was the blossoming acid-rock movement in San Francisco where he first made a name with Jefferson Airplane. Four years after opening San Francisco's legendary Fillmore Auditorium, the Airplane closed the second day of Woodstock. During that span, they recorded the landmark albums "Surrealistic Pillow," "After Bathing at Baxters," "Crown of Creation" and "Bless Its Pointed Little Head," helping define the popular music of an era.
In 1970, Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady started an offshoot ensemble they named Hot Tuna, focusing on the guitarist's finger-picking approach to acoustic blues and traditional music.
"Hot Tuna was what Jack and I had done all along," he explains. "I spent a number of years being a roots, finger-style guitar player, and Jack and I spent a lot of time together playing."
Leaving the Airplane, Kaukonen began concentrating on the roots music he loved, and by 2003 he had earned a Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album for "Blue Country Heart." His most recent album, "River of Time," featured a mix of originals and covers of gems by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and Merle Haggard, and he pays tribute to his early San Francisco days with the Grateful Dead's "Operator."
"I started out playing old-timey music and I have always really loved it," Kaukonen explains. "It's timeless and still gratifying. People ask me today what kind of music do you listen to, and I'm just totally out of touch with rock. I really only listen to roots music."
The Iao concert also features another acclaimed blues musician, Chris Smither.
Influenced by Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, Smither's career spans 40 years and 12 albums. His songs have been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and Diana Krall, among others. Raitt has called him "my Eric Clapton." His song "Love Me Like a Man" was first recorded by her in 1972, and has remained a staple in her concerts.
The Austin American-Statesman hailed Smither as "America's great blues poet, a master acoustic guitarist whose music suggests the power of Son House and a wisdom informed by the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism."
* Jorma Kaukonen and Chris Smither perform at the Historic Iao Theater at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $28, $35 and $45 for Gold Circle. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are available from the theater box office (242-6969), Lava Java in Kihei and Westside Vibes in Lahaina.
The Slack Key Masters series at the MACC features renowned Hawaiian musician Dennis Kamakahi teaming with Stephen Inglis tonight in the McCoy Studio Theater, presenting music from their superb new album, "Waimaka Helelei."
The recording honors the Hansen's disease patients who were exiled to Kalaupapa.
Several of the songs were written by Kalaupapa residents and there are a couple by activist Bernard Punikai'a, who led the struggle to save the Hale Mohalu treatment center on Oahu in the 1980s.
"Tears fall at Kalaupapa, grieve, grieve," Kamakahi sings on the extraordinary title track. "Sad rain in the distant uplands, Silent are the voices of the ancestors, grieve, grieve."
* George Kahumoku Jr. hosts and opens the show. Tickets are $25 standard, $45/VIP with artist talk-story session at 6:30 p.m. (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC as above.
Nominated in 2009 as Ireland's Best Traditional Irish Folk Group, Derek Warfield & The Young Wolfe Tones are known for their patriotic songs. One of the founders of the popular Wolfe Tones (named after 18th-century Irish Nationalist leader Wolfe Tone), which helped spearhead the traditional music revival of the 1960s, Warfield left the group in 2001 and now performs songs from Ireland's rich heritage with his own "Young" band.
* They play the McCoy Studio Theater at 7 p.m. Friday. The Chancers from Portland, Ore., will open. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of show (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC as above.
Pianist Hyperion Knight returns to the Castle Theater to perform with the Maui Pops Orchestra at a "Gershwin+Broadway" concert at 3:30 Sunday afternoon. The program includes music from the concert hall, Broadway, jazz, and opera.
"Not since Heifetz has anyone played Gershwin solos with this much panache," praised an American Record Guide review of Knight, who has recorded two CDs devoted to unique arrangements of Gershwin's music.
* Tickets are $10, $25, $35, $45 and half-price for kids 12 and younger (plus applicable fees), available from the MACC as above.
The fifth annual Mystic Island Festival at Camp Olowalu today through Monday promises a gathering of world music, electronica, reggae, visionary arts and exploratory workshops.
Among the entertainers are Chris Berry and Michael Kang of Panjea and String Cheese Incident, known for their "bombastic beats, phat brass and revolutionary lyrics," according to the Los Angeles Times. Berry has been honored as a master of the mbira and ngoma drums.
Also on the bill, the neo-folk, world-rock ensemble HuDost, the reggae of Jah Levi, the mystic Americana of the Human Revolution, and our own Maui Underground featuring Alana Cini and Greg diPiazza.
* Passes are $225. For more information, visit www.MysticIslandFestival.com.