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Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis arts reporter and journalist. Winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, she contributes regularly to The Liberator. She is also producer and host of Catalyst on KFAI Radio in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Blue King Brown. Australian Roots Debut CD, Ignites USA Tour [by Lydia Howell]: Every once in a very long while, you hear a band that makes you able to believe again in the power of music to fundamentally alter the cultural DNA of the society you live in. Australia's Blue King Brown made me an instant convert. Blue King Brown is authentically “world music” with a hell of a lot of vital things to say -- while driving you to dance non-stop.
And you will not be able to stop dancing when they hit Minneapolis, Saturday March 14th at The Cabooze.
Densely layered rhythms draw on reggae, Afro-Beat & a smoldering bass-line flavored with deep funk, they've opened for Santana, Damian 'Jr, Gong' Marley and Santana. Recalling 1970s “big bands” like Santana and War or Nigeria's “high life” music's multiple percussion wall of sound, this band creates a totally 21st century fusion all their own. Deeply political, often blunt truth-tellers, while making extraordinary music, Blue King Brown is thrilling audiences from the U.S. East Coast to Japan. Once heard, it's easy to understand why Carlos Santana has said “Blue King Brown is [his] favorite band right now.” I second that emotion!
The band's co-founders front-woman guitarist/lead vocalist Natalie Pa'apa'a and bassist Carlo Santone started as a street-singer duo before hitting Melbourne, where they put together Blue King Brown in 2004. Co-writers of all the band's songs, with Pa'apa'a responsible for all lyrics, it's like these two 20-somethings are channeling the spirits of Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield, for a world living on the brink of economic, environmental and violent meltdown. They are urgent messengers who also realize, the necessity of catharsis in the midst of crisis—and they provide a huge musical catharsis.
Mighty percussionist, Salvador Persico, brings in hot Latin American beats of the conga, timbales and bongo jamming with kit drummer Julian Goyam. Sam Cope's Hammond keyboards smoke. Solid backing vocalists Hailey Cramer, Nadee, and Jess Harlen build another layer of solid soulful sound, along with a rich horn section, that would fit in many African big bands or the most classic '70s American soul.
And then there's Natalie Pa'apa'a's unique voice. There's something in her style resonate with spoken word yet that always remains beautifully melodic. She can let out a cry that hits hits you full-force, then, drop to a tender tone. Pa'apa'a has the wild passion of The Pretender's Chrissie Hynde, with some Sarah McLachlan wistfulness, Patti Smith's strength and Ani Difranko's idiosyncratic intimacy. Oh forget it, you can't really compare Natalie Pa'apa'a's to anybody else because she encompasses all these elements and so much more. She's a powerhouse of a vocalist that the band coalesces around like Isis with an intense acolytes, calling forth the most primal spirits.
Blue King Brown's debut CD “Stand Up' was nominated for a J-Award, which is Australia's Grammy. The title cut stand s on firm reggae ground while Pa'apa'a voice makes a sinuous anthem of unity., worthy of Winston Rodney. “One Day” opens with Santana-esque keyboards that glide into reggae beats and rich horns to back Pa'apa'a's haunting evocation of both the horrors of colonialism enforced by the military then countered with a soaring hopeful chorus that “one day we will know what freedom is”. The rhythms of Africa and Latin America merge in song after song, like the exultant “Don't Let Go”. Santana echoes more in the percussion and keyboards in “We Won't Go” as Pa'apa'a's voice attains an almost silvery insistence, “We gonna live/we gonna rise up/ keep on shining like the sun/ we won't go.”
The band's 2005 award-winning first hit single “Water”, opens with keyboards and drums launching into a fast-paced clarion call against corporate globalization, to “be the water to their fire”. It almost hits punk speed, while Pa'apa'a articulates every fiery word. The anti-war “Comin' Thru” has incredible dynamics from stripped down backing up Pa'apa'a stark narrative of “All those people/all those souls/all those children were they good for your gold?” that then kicks in a psychedelic guitar and the band's full power on the chorus, “The time has come now for us to rise...we're comin' thru”.
For something completely different, “Samoas' Song”, marries the Caribbean with gospel, adding extra backing vocals by Brown Roots Collective. The longing for home and its satisfaction with arrival have a lovely universality. Pa'apa'a's voice somehow manages to remind me of my own regional roots in the American South. There's a magical use of backing vocals on this album, where the singers become like another horn section or make the sweet, steady undercurrent in “Keep It True”, a song that's an ode to holding to one's own vision.
That's another inspiring element of Blue King Brown: they are also actually engaged in the issues they make songs about: human rights and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples—including the Aboriginals of their home country, environmental protection to being anti-nuke and opposing war. Their website includes links to information and activism.
Hearing Blue King Brown, an Earth-rooted secular faith in one another returns: no stumble can prevent taking the crucial stands in theses troubled times---if one's heart stays open to the world. Blue King Brown is a like a force of nature, unleashed, with a totally exhilarating impact on the mind and body, heart and soul.