Neon Prophet May Be Big On Reggae, But They Eschew The Rastafarian Flags And Fake Jamaican Accents.
By Allen Sloan Torpie
All the people are the same. Different colors, different names.
IN THE FREQUENTLY misunderstood and image-heavy world of American reggae music, bands often live or die by audience-accredited authenticity--instead of by the quality or depth of their music. Locally, however, there is a unique exception in the Tucson-based reggae sensation Neon Prophet.
For 13 years, this six-piece band has quietly evolved as a walking embodiment of diversity and equality. In a music genre seemingly dominated by stereotypes and predisposed notions, Neon Prophet is a melting pot of musical backgrounds, races and religions. Rather than calling themselves reggae musicians, they prefer to think of themselves as jazz musicians who've chosen to play reggae music. As a result, their broad talents and open minds provide limitless opportunities for creativity and experimentation.
Be warned, however, when Neon Prophet comes to play, you won't see any Rastafarian flags and you won't hear any bogus Jamaican accents--because the members of Neon Prophet are adamant about being musicians first, and entertainers second.
"As Americans," says Jamie Cirrito (bass/vocals), "we have to be true to our own roots. We're not oppressed Jamaicans from the Third World, so we'd be kidding ourselves to pretend we're sufferers from Trench Town. Essentially, it's about keeping it very real and close to who we are."
Each of their musical backgrounds is rooted primarily in jazz, but also include rock, classic blues, gospel and a myriad of diverse world styles. Given their collective and individual talents, it's no wonder their unique brand of reggae has sounded fresh and intriguing to Tucson audiences for nearly a decade and a half. And because they don't limit themselves to roots reggae, it's difficult to classify their sound. Although Cirrito tried it anyway.
"You can call it kind of a Celtic, Afro, Cuban, jazzy fusion kind of bluesy-influenced ska," laughs Cirrito. "It would sound ridiculous to name all of our influences in one shot. If you really listen, there's a lot of stuff in there."
Overall, the combination of Neon Prophet's collective talent, reggae's unhurried pace and Tucson's desert climate create a situation that seems a bit odd. But as Plato Jones (percussion) explains, they play reggae for the "pure enjoyment of it."
"The genre naturally felt closer to where we each came from musically, and where we want to go," says Jones. "And we love Tucson. It's like a little island surrounded by the desert."
Having played jazz for most of their careers, it would seem only natural for the members of Neon Prophet to gravitate toward a more flexible and creative expression of their talents; they've found that in reggae.
"There is always something we inject into the music each night that's uniquely individual," says Carl Cherry (drums/vocals/keyboards). "People often tell me, 'I've heard reggae before, but you present it in a way that's easier for me to understand and easier for me to relate to.' I feel that's why people continue to come see us."
Aside from the band itself, an interesting aspect of Neon Prophet is its fan base. Having entertained Tucson for more than a decade, it's safe to say that at any given show, every walk of life is represented. Perhaps it's the appeal of island-based music in a small desert city, or the band's come-as-you-are attitude. In any case, there's no barrier--be it race, age or social class--that the band can't breach.
"In the 13 years we've been playing in this town, we've definitely seen three generations of fans," says Jones. "Sometimes years will go by, but they always come back. Now, it's become a huge cross-section of people. And that's why we do it."
Outwardly, the most curious aspect of Neon Prophet is that none of them are Rastafarian. To the average fan, this may seem like a bold, if not courageous, move for a reggae band. But Cirrito is quick to point out that Rastafarianism is a religion, whereas reggae is a beat. Without question, what Neon Prophet may lay aside in public image, they make up for in enthusiasm and sincerity.
"We don't want to come off as a bunch of fake, American preachers, talking about subjects we aren't familiar with first-hand," says Cirrito. "Rastafarianism was essentially a black movement that was about going back to Africa in a literal sense. For us to be fronting that in our music? Come on."
"Going back to Africa?" grins Cherry, "I was born in St. Louis."
Recently, Neon Prophet released its second full-length CD entitled Reggae Party. Emblazoned with Native American cover art, the album was produced by Neon Prophet Records and mixed in Jamaica. At its core, the music is solid, traditional reggae. But this collection of intelligent and spirited arrangements is filled with a barrage of deeper influences, giving it a deservedly broader appeal.
In addition, its lyrics are more sophisticated than one might expect, which provides a medium for a larger number of people to relate to. As David Dean (vocals) admits, "We've been pushing to get away from slack party lyrics to create a more positive message. I feel we've accomplished that with this CD."
Yet Cirrito feels there's only so much a song can teach to people. Rather than lean on reggae's reputation for mellow grooves and spiritual vibe, he points to their music's end result for answers.
"Without saying any words, the crowd itself is the real message," says Cirrito. "It's Indians. It's cowboys. It's students. It's working class. It's older and younger people. They're all hanging out together and it's a living example as opposed to preaching. The crowd is an experience that people can learn from. They come to hear music and end up mingling with a lot of people they may not mingle with in everyday life. That's a deeper message than any amount of speaking or song lyrics."
No amount of image can counter that.
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