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Michael Franti's Roof-Rattling Rhythms

10/01/2013 02:26PM ● Published by Enjoy Magazine

“Can you hear the sound? A little bit of rhythm makes the world go round.”

It’s a musical question Michael Franti has been asking for two decades, and the rhythm in his voice is very much helping the world go round—on an orbit marked by compassion, unity and social justice.

His music is a highly danceable blend of hip-hop, reggae, folk and pop that has the power to keep thousands on their feet for hours. His infectious style allows him to deliver powerful messages about topics as serious as war and the death penalty and as life-affirming as the beauty of sunshine.

In his newest recording, “All People,” which he’ll be supporting at his Oct. 9 concert at the Cascade Theatre, Franti again has focused his sizable energy reserves on mostly positive matters.

“These songs are about the power of unconditional love, born out of tough times. It’s rare to find someone who accepts you being your own authentic self and in the past I didn’t always give space for the broad spectrum of emotion, but this time I made an effort to write about everything I experience,” Franti says. “I want to make music that makes people feel excited to live.”

That excitement is roof-rattling evident when Franti and his band, Spearhead, perform live. The dreadlocked, barefooted 6-foot-6 San Franciscan can’t stand still and neither can his audiences. The Cascade Theatre felt compelled to note on its website: “This event is a high energy and likely dancing in your seat event. Limited visibility sometimes occurs.”

Dancing was the order of the day when Franti performed at the spring 2009 Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite National Park. Prior to his appearance on the festival’s main stage, Franti put on a special children’s show on a small stage adjacent to playground equipment and a lake.

Hayfork native and former Redding resident Kim Haswell and her daughter, Kennedy, remember it well. “Kennedy waited by Birch Lake all day to get a good seat in center front for the Franti kids’ concert. She was so excited, dancing all around, and to our surprise, Franti motioned for her to come up to the stage with him. She didn’t miss a beat; she sprinted up. Then, he called the rest of the kids up. It was a wonderful memory.”

That easy outreach and ability to bring all ages and races together is not a stage act, says Kim Haswell’s husband, Rob, the business manager for the Auburn Symphony and a longtime Franti fan.

“Franti’s music transcends generations, genres, language, racial boundaries and political divides,” Rob Haswell says. “When he sings about love and compassion—and those themes run throughout his music and live performances—it does not come across as trite or worn out or cliché. It is real.”

Franti has long put his words into action. For 10 years, he hosted the Power to the Peaceful free concerts in San Francisco, originally to support political activist Mumia Abu Jamal and later to raise his voice against rising violence around the world. In 2004, he took his guitar and a video camera to Iraq, Israel and Palestine to look at war’s human toll with his own eyes.

The resulting documentary, “I Know I’m Not Alone,” with Franti’s release “Yell Fire!” as the soundtrack, “came out of my frustration with watching the nightly news and hearing generals, politicians, and pundits explaining the political and economic cost of the war in the Middle East, without ever mentioning the human cost. I wanted to hear about the war by the people affected by it most: doctors, nurses, poets, artists, soldiers, and my personal favorite, musicians,” Franti says in the prologue.

Says Rob Haswell: “You can sum up Michael Franti in two words: Taxi Radio. In his worldwide travels, Franti discovered that those two words were the most well known English language words in the world. He wanted to write a song that everyone could sing, so he wrote ‘Taxi Radio’ and sang only those two words. It may be the most inclusive song ever written.”

Redding musician and songwriter Jim Dyar, who’s also a fan, says he’s impressed with Franti’s ability to blend a variety of genres—hip-hop, soul, folk, rock—into sincere songs that are accessible but not trite.

“He’s a great showman and a passionate ambassador for peace and awareness. But I really like his rebellious, rockin’ tunes that don’t mince any words when calling out the systematic failures we’re all facing as a society,” Dyar says. •

Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at 7:30 pm Oct. 9 at the Cascade Theatre. Opening will be Ethan Tucker from Olympia, Wash. Tickets are $55 to $75; call (530) 243-8877 or visit www.cascadetheatre.org.

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