Interview: Jalani Horton of Bambú Station
In 1996, Jalani Horton founded the U.S. Virgin Islands-based roots reggae band Bambú Station. Celebrating their 2012 album release, Children of Exodus (an ode to Bob Marley's album Exodus for today's generation) Bambú Station continues to build notoriety for their infectious messages, tight sound, and electrifying stage presence. With a musical characteristic that is rightfully dubbed as "rockas to the bone," Bambú Station's music and live performances do nothing less than shake you to the core. This past weekend in Denver, Colorado, the band passionately performed songs such as "How Tings Ah Go," "King Baby," and "Bird's I View." But it was the heart-tugging and quiet rendition of "Walk Ur Mile" that had yours truly approaching tears. Thus, the realization came that Bambú Station is just that powerful. Complimented by unforgettable live performances, Bambú Station's words and sounds have the power to evoke emotions and incite self-reflection as only revolutionary music can do.
Therefore, to say that the opportunity to reason with Jalani Horton was "a pleasure" and "an honor" would be an understatement. In the same manner he delivers the profound lyrics in Bambú Station's songs, Jalani Horton graced Inity Weekly with his profound insights on the music industry, having an impact in the lives of others, and whether, in our lifetime, there will ever be peace.
IW: Just to dive right in, is it just me, or is there this surge of reggae artists from the Virgin Islands (“VI”) lately? Or am I just late?
JH: The surge really started in about 1999... 2000, and it really exploded because of (the availability of) technology to record at home and not having to go to big, costly studios. So, there was always talent in the VI, (but) we didn’t always have the means to record as much as we do now. In ‘98 and ‘99, we started to see the likes of different bands, started with Midnite, Army, Ras Iba, Dezarie, ourselves, and a bunch of other folks. So I would say, it’s been about 12 or 13 years of consistent music being released from the VI, and the world can now take notice via the internet and many of us being able to travel and support our releases.
IW: Is there a unique quality that reggae from the VI brings to reggae music?
JH: Everyone may have their own opinion. In my view I think musically, VI music has a particular swing to it. It has a particular feel to the bass line. And dialect, or of course vernacular is different than folks are used to hearing out of Jamaica. Even though we’re from the Caribbean region, we have our own dialect, so most of us tend to speak or perform in that dialect.
IW: That’s definitely something that makes it unique. When I really started listening to Bambú Station and reading about you guys, you are always referred to as a “roots reggae” band. I think many people are excited about a roots reggae band because they are picky like me about the reggae music that comes out these days. So, to call it roots reggae, it has to pass certain criteria. What do you think is the criteria to be considered a bonafide roots reggae band or artist?
JH: Wow, that’s a heavy question. Roots reggae has a particular feel to it. A lot of it is based off of what we call the “one drop” drum beats, or maybe what we refer to as “rub-a-dub” drum beats. It’s a particular vibe, it’s a particular sound. It is music that allows the listener to really ingest the lyrics, whereas dancehall is “poppy” music, it’s about dancing. The singers of dancehall write in a particular way just to promote the rhythmic movement. Roots music is about a particular sound, a particular feel and a particular consciousness. Not a specific consciousness, but an attempt to be conscious of positive listening. We released our new album Children of Exodus, and what we’re striving to do is compel people into some kind of action. Our standard of all productions is to be profound. Because what we have see, is that the reggae music of today… you know everybody and their grandmother is playing reggae music, and that’s fine because hey, “one love, cumbaya”…but all the reggae out there is not compelling, it’s not profound, the overall impact doesn’t move you into any kind of soul search and things like that. So, we are taking a stand and stepping outside to push away what we see as commercial or just blah blah reggae, a regurgitation, a rehashing of what’s been there the last 30 years. With our new album we’re making a statement that this is “Rockas.” We say, this is more than reggae this is “Rockas to the Bone.” What we are saying is that whether through lyrics, through music, through joining our shows, we are hoping that this hits you in a profound way. Reggae music from the previous generation was during times where people were fighting for independence from colonialism and imperialism. It was a tool to inspire people to fight for independence and for justice. This generation plays reggae to play reggae. They want to do something spiritual and positive and they go to reggae. And that falls short right there.
IW: That brings up a couple of questions. First, regarding reggae that you feel is more commercial, it seems that those are the artists that are reaching a wider audience and gaining that fast popularity. How do you feel about that?
JH: It’s very difficult to tour when you don’t have label support, you know, that traditional financing of it. We have to be more strategic, we have to be more organized. We have to take a stand that what we are fighting for is more important than any popularity that might come. If that’s our role in the big picture, then so be it. With this massive popularity, you get limitations. There are certain challenges with popularity. You’re striving to write a song like the hit you had before. Creatively, artistically, it can be a big challenge. For us it’s a financial challenge, but we force through and we make it happen and we are committed to what we do. It’s about our lives, about the lives of our youth, about the impact in our communities, in the ghettos throughout America and throughout the world. We’ve traveled well enough to know that a lot of people long for this kind of music in South America, Europe, and Africa. North America is the institution that promotes and broadcasts music but they don’t put the marketing, promotional efforts and booking behind it. Even in North America, a lot of people want to have this music. People come to these concerts and they’re like “where have you been, where did you come from,” you know?
IW: For me it was word of mouth, so I see what you’re saying. Building on that, I read a statement you made regarding Children of Exodus. You mentioned that you hoped to get the messages out to the world by all means - that if you can’t afford it, copy it, burn it, ask you for it because the discussion is real. Yet, there’s this awareness being brought to the forefront by artists and labels that not paying for the music is cheating the system. What are your thoughts on that?
JH: I would say that I totally understand what they’re saying, but no one can really pay me for the sacrifices I have made to be able to do what I do. I’m of the opinion that when you have something good that benefits a lot of people, it’s not for me to try and get rich off of it, that’s not my spirit. I respect that fully, but on the other hand, the music that we’re playing, our goal is not to be rich people. Yes, we want to make a living, but I look at it this way: If the black market is not pirating your music, that says something. If they are pirating your music, that says a lot. And if people love the music, they will then probably come to a show because once someone becomes a real fan, they reach out, they get involved, and they do other things that support the band. It’s a balance. The big bands that have sold millions of records, yeah they can complain because it’s happening to their bottom line, but on our part, burn it, copy it. Just don’t sell it because that would be unethical. But then again, if our music is helping someone, then what’s more important at the end of the day, you know?
IW: Yes, absolutely. With that said, why do you think music is such a positive force?
JH: Because it’s universal. Our bodies are made up of abundant water and water is impacted by sound. Sound is made up of frequencies and certain frequencies make us behave in certain ways. Music is sound and at the end of the day it transcends culture, beliefs, ethics… it transcends. It goes to our most primal instincts. I love to create sounds using certain chords because those are the particular frequencies that cause waves go through me. Music is so important because it transcends most of the labels and boundaries society has put on citizens.
IW: Have you noticed Bambú Station’s impact on its citizens, in particular, the VI?
JH: In my little lifetime I have been so blessed to have witnessed the impact of a song I may have written, or something that I may have done. Some people crying… some children are singing my songs. My own children sing my songs and it makes me smile because they are repeating positive things. Just the other day we were in California and a gentleman came up to me after the show. He started asking me about lyrics in particular songs, some we didn’t even perform that night. I was able to relay to him how the song was created, its inspiration, clarified some lyrics for him, different things and we had a great exchange. He had some words of encouragement for me and further talked about how the music has impacted his life. When you get that feedback it fills your tank, it keeps you going because at the end of the day, that’s the most meaningful thing, to know that it has purpose.
IW: Jumping to another matter, I actually had the opportunity to interview Army last weekend and he mentioned his concerns back in VI, and he said: as is often found in urban communities, the VI has been decimated by gun violence. In his opinion, crack cocaine is most likely the catalyst of this. Would you like to comment on his statement?
JH: Yeah, what has been the catalyst in our reality is the dysfunction of our families. Our families have been broken, way before crack was created. Our families have been divided, oppressed from institutions, systems, government, politics, and most of that has been based on the lust for money, not even religion. It’s really always been about money. So now, crack is a device to make money. We have M-16s, AK-47s, grenade launchers. We have these things in “American Paradise.” I never hear of boats with containers of weapons being confiscated by the Homeland Security. Back home, it’s no secret who brings the weapons into the islands, but there are never any arrests, there are never confiscations. But they just confiscated 5,000 marijuana plants the other day and they call that a great police success. Marijuana doesn’t kill people. These big guns do. If our families are in order and have stability, then there’s more guidance for the youth in the home. It’s just layers and layers of epidemic and crisis, and crack is just one of those layers now.
IW: I absolutely agree with you. I just want to ask one more thing: Whether it’s in the VI or worldwide, do you think there will ever be peace or what do you think it will take for there to have peace?
JH: Well, (laughs) that’s a far-reaching question. Will there ever be peace? Hmm. If I speak off the top of my head, no. Because there are two natures of man. They conflict and contradict and cause chaos. And there’s no peace because of that. The second thing is if I’m to go into myself because I’m really on a walk of faith right now. My faith is being tested. If I speak from that mind, I would have to say everything is possible. We might not be able to see it, we might not be able to feel it, but everything is possible. Words and thoughts are real. Visions are real. Our effort, our music is a hope to contribute to making that possible, making it hopeful. Let me end by saying, yes. There will be peace, there will be peace. Let’s speak it to life. Your website and your organization will help make that possible, because what you’re doing is giving voice to positive things. You are informing, sharing, and caring about making peace. So there will be peace.