With the year in music just a few weeks away from ending, I'm already prepared to issue an award in a category I just invented - most unique tour by a Madison band.
For a lot of local bands, playing gigs beyond the state line is a logistical challenge. This year, Natty Nation not only crossed the Badger border, they took their "positive message" songs across the globe. This reggae-rock band spent most of November touring Africa and Asia to play music for U.S. troops.
Natty Nation is one of Madison's longest-standing bands. The original Natty crew began playing shows in 1995 in a small diner called the Mango Grill, located in the old University Square.
The core members of Natty Nation are Demetrius "JAH Boogie" Wainwright and Aaron "Eyes of Moses" Konkol. Last week, the two were half a world away when they emailed joint responses about their interactions with the troops, world reaction to the election of Barack Obama, their new album and their homecoming show this weekend.
When and how did the idea to play for American troops in Africa and Asia originate?
Our manager got a phone call in early August from a Department of Defense agency called Armed Forces Entertainment. Captain Ogilvie, the contact, said that his circuit received a lot of requests for good reggae. He searched music websites and found our press kit, liked what he read and what he heard, and contacted us. We immediately wanted to say yes, but we figured we should digest the terms and discuss it with our families. Thankfully we were able to do it!
Are all the shows on this tour for American troops, or are you playing to other audiences?
Our contract specifies that we only play on military bases in Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Djibouti and Bahrain. But the bases employ a lot of local civilians and contractors from the states and other countries, so we played in front of audiences from all over the globe.
You must have many stories of people you've encountered during this tour. Can you share one of the most memorable?
On one stopover flight, we dropped off over a hundred Marines into an active combat zone in Afghanistan. A soldier grabbed one of our hands to shake and would not let go. The look in that Marine's eyes will never be forgotten. Another one of us happened to be sitting next to a Marine originally from Belize who used to be a reggae DJ! Joining us on that same flight was a CNN Pentagon reporter and her producer. Breaking news - she got airsick and spent a lot of time in the bathroom!
Your first show on this tour was the day after Obama was elected president, right? What was that like? Have the troops been talking about that?
We left on Wednesday, Nov. 5 after a good night of celebrating a new way for our country. Our first show was on Saturday, Nov. 8 in a time zone exactly 12 hours ahead of Madison.
The troops wanted to talk about the election as much as we did. They readily reflected the opinions we heard back home - some McCain supporters but many more Obama supporters. Everyone agreed that the time for change had arrived and that they are eager to have some resolution of our country's problems. In Africa a lot of the locals and contractors from other countries got really excited when they saw that one of us was wearing an Obama shirt!
The troops are tired. Some are on their third or fourth tours. They do not see an end strategy and welcome a leader who can define some goals no matter what they are to end the U.S. participation in these conflicts. They spoke of the real tragedies in military families with kids growing up with an absent parent and spouses under stress. We gave them a much-needed listening ear and then some positive music to relieve some of their stress on the dance floor.
Has this trip changed your view of the world?
Yes! The poverty and the wealth we saw side by side was ironic. We saw U.S. soldiers working on orphanages and Habitat for Humanity houses in Asia. In Dubai we saw more skyscrapers near desert sands than you can see in the Loop in Chicago. The most devastating thing we saw was the poverty in Africa. The world is a complex place that needs U.S. engagement in more humanitarian versus military ways.
What distinguishes Reincarnation from other Natty Nation albums?
The spiritual themes are leaning more towards Eastern philosophy and less towards Rastafarianism, and the political songs are much more outspoken. For the first time we've brought in tracks produced by outside producers (Man Mantis, DJ AV ONE, DLO), and put them side-by-side with tracks featuring the full band produced by us.
Have the new members of the band changed your musical direction?
The band has always had an ever-evolving lineup, and the music constantly grows and changes, but never straying too far from the all-original hard roots-rock-reggae format. Over time the studio albums have become more polished and the live albums and shows more raw and uncut.
Why should Madisonians come to your homecoming show at the High Noon on the day after Thanksgiving ("Black Friday")?
First of all, the $5 cover charge is half of our normal ticket price at the High Noon, and for only $5 more you can get a copy of the brand-new CD, Reincarnation. This will be the first time we'll be able to play back at home since this tour. We've been playing and living together for three weeks. The synergy will be undeniable! We can't wait to be back playing for our friends and families, and of course JAH Boogie will have plenty of stories to relay to the fans from the stage. It's great to spread music across the globe, but you can't beat the vibrations at home.