BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“Music is one of those things that helps us get through incredible challenge. When you get to go to a place like California WorldFest where you see the emerging stars from countries all over the world, it’s really a blessing to feel that all in one place.”
Michael Franti’s music and message are the medicine an ailing world needs in these troubled times. His live performances attract a melting pot of people whose race, creed, color, religion, sexual preference or political party affiliation matter not. Acceptance is his antidote for fear, division, prejudice and intolerance. Worldwide, Franti is welcomed with arms, hearts and ears wide open by people who seek solace in the sounds of sunshine beaming from any stage he sets foot (barefoot, to be precise) upon.
On July 16, Michael Franti & Spearhead will close the 21st annual four-day California WorldFest in Grass Valley, CA, located in the majestic foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I recently had the honor and great fortune to speak with Michael about the festival, the power of music and the world we are currently living in. As with my previous two conversations with Michael, I left the conversation feeling like a much better human being. (For audio of our conversation, please listen HERE)
Hey, Jim, how’s it going?
Good, Michael. How are you today?
I’m doing fantastic. Greetings from Cape Cod.
Oh, nice! Greetings from Northern California.
Alright! Where do you live?
I’m just outside of Sacramento, about 40 minutes or so away from beautiful Grass Valley, where the California WorldFest will be taking place.
Alright! Right on! Yeah, I grew up in Davis (just over an hour southwest of Grass Valley).
Absolutely. Well, Michael, I’m blessed to say that this is actually the third time that you and I have spoken. The last time was about a year ago, on the phone, and the first time was in January 2009, backstage at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles, not long after President Obama was elected for the first time.
Wow! (Laughs) We go way back!
Yes, sir. It’s always a pleasure, and thank you for your time, as always. So, the 21st annual California WorldFest in scenic Grass Valley is happening July 13-16. As you just mentioned, having lived and attended high school right down the road in Davis, describe to people how beautiful Grass Valley and the Sierra foothills are.
Well, you know it’s the gateway to Lake Tahoe. For me as a kid we used to spend a lot of time going up to lake in the summertime, and inner tubing on the Truckee River. It’s just an amazing part of California, and Northern California is one of the most beautiful places in our country. And I can say that because I crisscross the country a lot, so I get to see a lot of it (laughs). So, we’re excited to be coming back there. To be playing outdoors in one of the most beautiful spots in our country. I really believe that music is the universal language. It speaks beyond borders and beyond cultures and just beyond the verbal language. So, to be at a world music festival during this time, I think, is more valuable than ever. With everything we see taking place in the world, music is one of the few places that still holds on to the ideal that people can live together and celebrate together.
Amen, brother. And you anticipated my next question. Below the logo on the festival’s website (Worldfest.net) it says: “Music Connects Us All.”
I think you just summed it up there, but your music is arguably one of the best examples of that being true. It certainly does bring people together, and this particular festival has been doing it for a long time. What do you want to accomplish, or convey, every time you hit the stage and perform for people from California to Calcutta?
Yeah, well, you know it’s funny. In America, we consider world music to be anything that’s not from America (laughs). The fact is all music is world music. There’s no greater compliment if someone from another culture says, “I get what you do. I love what you do. I understand it.” Whether you’re from Ireland or you’re from Kenya or if you’re from Indonesia, you hope that your music can connect with other people. The tour that we’ve been doing on our own is called the “Love Out Loud” tour. The reason we call it that is because with so much division that we see in our country right now – and around the world – politically, socially, over religion, over sexuality, over the environment, I believe that it’s important that all of us begin to speak out loud about what type of world we want to live in. It doesn’t matter what political affiliation you come from, we need every voice. And then perhaps even more important than the freedom of speech in that regard is all of our ability to listen. With an open mind and an open heart, listen to the views of other people who come from a different perspective, or come from a different religion, or come from a different political party. I really believe that that’s the roadmap to the future.
Not surprisingly, considering its name, WorldFest features performers from every corner of the world, including something that I’ll be particularly interested in experiencing: The Global Indigenous People’s Village. This is a particularly interesting concept that they have. I was born in Peru, Michael…
I’ve been in the Unites States since I was three, and I’m extremely proud of my heritage. I’ll be checking out a band called Huayllipacha (WHY-LEE-PACHA) from Peru. Their name means “Singing to the Earth.” Is there a world music artist – again, using that term – that you would like us to know about, that you’ve discovered along the way?
I gotta think about that for a moment. There are so many artists around the world that are my favorite artists. One of my favorite artists in the world is Marie Daulne from Zap Mama. She’s been around for quite some time now, but she’s someone that I always try to steer people towards. She grew up going back and forth between Belgium and what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where she was born. And she grew up for a while living with Pygmies in the forest, during a time when Zaire was in a period of war. So, she picked up that style of singing as well as knowing western styles, and she’s just a really incredible performer and full of magic, really.
So, where on the globe haven’t you performed yet that you’d love to play?
Well, there’s so many places. Pretty much anywhere where we haven’t been, I’d love to play. We just went to South Africa for the first time, in April, and that was really incredible. But we haven’t been anywhere in the former Soviet Union. We’ve been all over Western Europe and the Middle East. I haven’t been to Peru, I haven’t been to many countries in Southern Africa. There’s so many places in Asia. India, we haven’t been to yet. As much as we’ve traveled, there’s still well over 100 countries we haven’t been to.
Well, I’ve already pimped myself out here, Michael, but I’m gonna be exceedingly prejudice and say, Machu Picchu in Peru?
Yeah! I want to go there. That’s on my list, for sure.
I’ve had the pleasure of going there twice, on two separate trips with each of my daughters. It is as magical as everyone says it is, no question about it.
So, back to WorldFest here. If nothing else, I guess this festival is kind of a Petri dish for discovering new music. That’s the way I’m gonna go into it. I’ve never had the pleasure of attending the festival until this upcoming year. Over the four days, 50 bands will be performing on seven stages. Will your schedule allow you to get a chance to enjoy some of the other performers?
Oh, yeah! As soon as we get there I’ll be out walking around the festival. One of my greatest joys is discovering new music in the same way that any other fan does at a festival – by just stumbling onto a stage or a tent, or wherever at a festival, and just hearing something that captures my ear. Whenever I’m at a festival, I never look at the schedule. I always just take a walk around and follow my ear. So, I’ll be doing that. In May I was in Indonesia. I live in Bali part of the year, and we filmed our latest video for “Summertime Is in Our Hands” (off 2016’s Soulrocker) in Bali. It’s a video about coming back after personal loss. It’s a really, really beautiful video. I’m also making another film that’s about how people around the world overcome incredible challenges through using music. I was filming in South Africa and filming in Indonesia and I’ve been filming in the States and in the Philippines, after the hurricane hit there. Music is one of those things that helps us get through incredible challenge. When you get to go to a place like California WorldFest where you see the emerging stars from countries all over the world, it’s really a blessing to feel that all in one place.
I’m getting more and more excited to get there already! I’m so looking forward to it. Just two more questions for you, Michael, and again, thank you for your time this morning.
Again, perusing the festivals website in preparing for our conversation, there’s a place where it says, “Please leave your pets, weapons, fireworks, glass containers and frowns at home.”
Other than – of course – the joy of music, what makes you smile?
Oh, my family, and my wife, and having the time that I do with the guys in the band. We love to just sit around and make each other laugh on the bus. I love to practice yoga, and that’s my way of going inside and taking a personal inventory each day of what’s happening in my life. Sometimes tears emerge from that journey, but from shedding those tears I find the joy again. I’m somebody who in my life who’s had to really, consciously find my smile. Music has been a big part of that because I’ve gone through periods of great sadness and depression in my childhood, growing up, and even continue that as an adult. Music is really one of the magic keys for me. But I find it (joy) in so many ways, in so many ways every day.
Finally, I gave you that list of what the festival organizers are asking people not to bring. What would you like people to bring to California WordlFest?
Well, obviously bring your smile. Bring your positivity. Bring your open heart and your adventurous mind. And be ready to just let go to the music. Be ready to dance, close your eyes and let the music take you somewhere else. And wander. At a festival like this with seven stages, get off your blanket and take a magic carpet ride (laughs)!
That’s great! Let me just close, Michael, by jumping back to pick up on something that you said earlier in the conversation. You alluded to the – my words here – troubling times that we’re living in today, certainly politically. I think we need like a Live Aid style register to vote concert. Are you with me?
Sure, yeah! I think it’s important. We always have HeadCount (national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy in the U.S. headcount.org) or Rock the Vote show up at our shows, and we try to register people every night. But I agree, the voter participation is so low in our country compared to another modern nation like Australia, where they require 100 percent voting. It’s hard for us to really, truly have a democracy if only a quarter of the population is really what’s voting for whoever eventually becomes the president. So, we need more participation, and we need to support leaders who inspire us, and we need to look outside the box to sometimes find those leaders, and we need to – in our own communities – be a supportive voice for our planet, for individuals, for creating jobs in a way that sustains life here, and not destroy it.
As always, I learn something from you with every conversation we have. I’m blessed to have them. Thank you, Michael, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to again say hello face-to-face again here at California WorldFest, coming up July 13-16.
Take care until then, and we’ll see you around the festival.