Giant Pandas unusual suspects in reggae
October 7, 2008
So, they’re not black.
The Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad plays roots reggae music with politically charged songs that decry mountain-top removal, elitism, and the widening gap between the rich and poor. Their music sounds like Bob Marley and the Wailers: funky, Rastafarian and distinctly Caribbean, but band members don’t have a traditional reggae look.
There’s not a dreadlock among them. Four of the Giant Pandas are caucasian men born and raised in upstate New York, one is Puerto Rican, and the other, Rachel Orke, is a woman.
But for bassist James Searl, the group, established in its current form in Rochester, New York, in 2005, isn’t about being white. It isn’t just about political slogans, either.
It’s about funk.
"The only time we ever run into [skepticism] is from other white people," Searl said. The band spent three weeks touring in Jamaica in 2007 and received a warm reception from people there, especially older, roots-loving listeners. "A lot of Jamaicans were kind of done with roots-reggae after the 80s," he said. "Some of the younger people would come up to us and say, ‘We almost forgot about this.’"
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The word "reggae" was coined in Jamaica in the 1960s to denote a "ragged" style of dance music, according to music aficionados. It acquired political overtones because it borrowed both from New Orleans’ rhythm and blues and African traditions.
The music quickly became attached to the Rastafarian movement that advocated the spiritual use of cannabis, moving away from western culture and practice, and, in some instances, a mass movement back to Africa, an idea many American music lovers recognize from Bob Marley’s song "Exodus." (One of the song’s lyrics reads, "Stolen from Africa/ To the heart of the Caribbean).
Searl does acknowledge that crossing race in reggae is particularly daring because the music was originally conceived as a way for Jamaicans to grieve over the loss of their homeland and to protest the specter of colonization and slavery at the hands of white Europeans.
Now that Bob Marley is gone, he is everywhere. He smiles from posters affixed on dormitory walls and sings among the Dixie-cup carnage of fraternity parties. His antiestablishment message rivals only John Belushi’s "Animal House" for its popularity among 20-something college students.
Yet his laments live on. Even if time and circumstance have papered over the urgency of his cause, Marley’s message survives through his music. The fact that non-Jamaicans have taken to the genre is testament to the broadness of its auditory appeal, not its politics.
"Reggae is the most popular music in the world," Searl said. "Everybody likes reggae."
He noted that reggae bands pop up nearly everywhere in the world, including places as disparate as Denmark, Japan and Australia.
Beyond being enjoyable, some say reggae music is relevant to the American experience, particularly in a heated election year. Giant Panda played 180 shows in 2007. "There couldn’t be a more interesting time to travel around the United States," Searl said. "There’s an eerie quietness in the country. People are ready to work on a different palette. They’re ready for a big change."
He added, "The music of reggae was created in an inherently political environment. I don’t think any music is apolitical. There’s truth in rhythm."
Dancing is the hook. Concert goers enjoy moving to the music and then they start listening to what the music is about: messages that range from the decimation of native buffalo to physical fitness. "There’s a point when all this bad news becomes oppressive," Searl said. "We say what we want to say but we don’t make it a focus of the show."
Searl and some of the other Giant Pandas discovered reggae in their teens when they were growing up in Rochester. Searl experienced many of the music phases common to American kids. He listened to hardcore, punk, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Sublime.
He also listened to a Bob Marley Legends CD that had about 40 tracks of what became his favorite music. The disc, given to him by an older friend when he was 11 years old, was the streaming soundtrack for most of his youth, delightful background music as he rocked out, and played, American-made music.
Searl attended a Wailers concert in Ithaca, New York, and underwent something of a roots transformation. He and his friends added reggae to their repertoire. "When you have a band in high school, one of the rules is that you need one of every song," he said. Although reggae had been on his radar for a long time, he never gave much thought to playing it himself. "It was too hard, too difficult," he said of playing music many jazz musicians consider compositionally backwards for its syncopated rhythm. "We didn’t get when the rhythm drops."
The Giant Pandas use stencil art in many of their sets, an apt metaphor for the off-beat thump of reggae music. "When you’re making a stencil it’s the negative space that’s going to come out," Searl said. In reggae music, it’s the notes you’re not playing, the negative space, where some listeners find meaning.
For Searl, it was the sound of reggae that really sold it. "What we all rested on is that reggae is the best of the best. It’s funkier than funk."
Another boon, he added, was that the music is group-oriented.
The Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad features Matthew O’Brian on lead guitar and vocals, Searl on bass, Christopher O’Brian on drums, Dylan Savage on guitar, Aaron Lipp on the organ and Rachel Orke on the Clavinet, an electronic keyboard and the melodica, is an instrument similar to the accordion and harmonica that has a musical keyboard and is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece.
The band based its name on an obscure Tom Robbins reference. "At first it seemed completely random," Searl said. "But we’ve sort of grown into it."
The name plays big on marquees and in newspaper headlines and each word offers a different point of entry for the attention-deficit generation, he said. The band, formerly known as the Bomb Squad, compiled an album of live performances in 2006 called "Slow Down" and plans to release another live album by the end of the year.
A woman who rocks
Rachel Orke is used to answering questions about being a woman in a reggae band. Bouncers often stop her, inspect her ID and give her an incredulous look. "I think it’s pretty surprising to people most places, especially since I’m not a singer. I’m a keyboardist. Sometimes people don’t believe I’m in the band." They assume that she is a roadie or someone hawking merchandise.
Things happen to her that she says wouldn’t happen to men. She remembers one fan barging on stage and trying to bump her off the keyboard so he could play himself. "There’s some sexist treatment from audience members," she demurred.
Reggae is considered by some to be patriarchal and homophobic, as recent spats in the media have illuminated. That’s all the more reason to traverse the boundaries of race and sex to deliver dance music, band members say.
"Reggae is so good and so pure," Searl said, "we thought ‘why do we have to mess it up with all that other stuff?’"
Orke said concert goers who resist the idea of a woman sharing the stage with five men are in the minority. Most people revel in the band’s "family vibe," she said, and congratulate her for following her calling. "Sometimes if I feel too much separation, I have to find something for myself to stay strong and stay healthy."
One of the reasons she chose to tour with Giant Panda is because she feels a close kinship with the male members of the band.
While in Jamaica, Orke said she had to turn down offers from men who "wanted to take me to the hills and marry." She was able to shrug them off politely.
Publicist Curtis Bergensen said what attracted him to the band wasn’t a demographic. "They’re pushing a really original vibe for a bunch of kids from upstate New York," he said.
If you go
The Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad plays Oct. 8 at the Star Bar, 268 Main St.
The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and includes two sets of music. The venue is for patrons 21 and older and costs $10.