When a storm kicks up in the Pacific, it’s an awesome force. 20-foot waves crash on beaches and palms bend low in the wind. It’s the kind of weather that has made Pacific Islanders strong and resilient. More often, though, the sea breeze blows warmly and calmly through the volcanic atolls, stoking a serene lifestyle of music and communal social gatherings. It’s at these family-style gatherings that a tight-knit cadre of Hawaiian musicians began playing reggae music, blending it with Polynesian traditions, acoustic guitars, meditative vocals and an irie disposition.
Reggae music came to Hawaii in the 1970s via Bob Marley’s tours and the spread of Jamaican roots music around the globe. Residents of the 808 State embraced sound wholeheartedly, recognizing a shared legacy and folk tradition with the Caribbean island nation. But reggae in Hawaii, like much of the wider Pacific Rim, was quickly infused with indigenous instrumentation, pastoral arrangements and local traditions. For a time, this was represented poorly by the watered-down and New Age-y “Jawaiian” reggae strain. The Jawaiian sound faded in the ‘00s as a new crop of deep roots and reggae-rock warriors emerged. Now Anuhea, Fiji, J Boog, Pepper, Iration, Hot Rain and others represent an established Pacific Islander reggae community that is taking on the world.
The six members of Hawaii’s The Green all did their time in various small groups, singing at local gatherings and clubs, sitting in on each other’s sessions, setting up studios, and, importantly, backing touring Jamaican artists for their Hawaiian shows. By the time The Green had solidified as its own unit, the members were both educated and passionate about authentic Jamaican music but still employed homegrown creativity. That’s lead to three albums and several singles, which, thanks to relentless touring and key festival appearances landed The Green at the top of the Billboard Reggae charts and made them top sellers on iTunes and other music services.
The band won over legions of new fans on the past two years via their live shows that carry all the strength and power of a typhoon, as well as their thoughtful romantic and conscious roots songs that stream along as warmly and soothing as a tropical breeze. They’ve been ubiquitous on the road and in the charts since their most recent album Hawai'i '13 dropped in August 2013. Signed by Easy Star Records, home to other modern and progressive reggae acts like John Brown’s Body, the Black Seeds and Passafire, The Green look to continue to expand their following, and bring a new audience to reggae music.
ForwardEver spoke with singer and guitarist Zion Thompson during a tour stop in San Francisco.
How has your latest US tour gone so far?
It’s gone really well. It’s been exciting to cover so much ground in so much time. We started in the south, and have traveled up north and east and all over. One week we’re in Florida, the next week we’re in Chicago.
How has your extensive touring contributed to the band’s success?
[Touring] has helped expose fans to our music, and also exposed our music to other touring bands and music companies. It’s important for us as Hawaiians to come out here [to the US Mainland] and spread our music, hit the road hard, and with play bigger bands. We’ve been doing that game plan for pretty much the last four years and it’s helped out a lot.
Your latest album has been in the Billboard Top 5 and a strong seller on iTunes and elsewhere since it came out. How have you dealt with the success of this new release, and all this attention for your music?
Well, we’re honored and humbled for any success that we’ve accomplished. It’s really hard though to step outside of the box and look at what’s going on, and what people think, because we’re just so completely saturated with the music we’re doing. The record came out in August and we started tour in October; we were so focused on so many things it was hard to know if [the album was] doing good or bad. By the time other people hear the music [we’re] already working on the next release.
But it’s a blessing to be busy and make the music that we love. But we really don’t know how the album is doing until we go out [on tour] and talk to people and hear how they like it, or if it has affected their lives in a positive way. That’s another benefit of touring for us, we actually get to see the benefit of what we do, and it’s rewarding because we work hard, and that keeps us going.
It’s an interesting time for reggae music with a lot of music from outside of Jamaica being popular. But it still seems like there’s some synergy and cooperation going on between artists from Jamaica and elsewhere. What’s your take?
I agree. I think the connection is becoming much closer between artists in reggae. There’s so many different ways to play reggae, and it’s coming from all over the world. There’s the Hawaiian or California type of sound–which is also always changing over time–then there’s the East Coast American sound, Virgin Islands sound and the South American styles, it’s a beautiful thing.
I think it’s cool that Jamaican artists especially are opening up to collaborating with artists outside of Jamaica because I understand the roots of the music where they come from, and to see other people [playing reggae], it’s a complement, but it’s also makes you think even more about [the music’s] roots and origins.
What you think the connections are between the islands Jamaica and Hawaii?
It’s a lifestyle, you know? It’s a pace, an attitude, and a sense of community; that’s what you grow up in an island environment. Reggae hit so strongly in the 1970s and ‘80s. Bob Marley and the Wailers came to Hawaii back then and they were huge. People from Hawaii love reggae; I think it is the island connection. We have a lot of the same plants, the same trees, and the same foods. We share a culture, and [like Jamaica] there people who’ve been there forever and maintained the land, and live in the mountains. These days, Hawaii and Jamaica have similar social issues, like tourism, overcrowding in cities and whatever. There are so many similarities. The beat of reggae music, the whole push and pull of the music, it makes sense to Hawaiians.
When you were growing up and learning about reggae, did you gravitate more to the music aspects or the spiritual or political aspects of it?
For me it was the music itself, the feel and sound of it. It attracted me because it is so different from rock music or R&B and soul. I always loved soul music though. R&B and reggae also works really well together, so that’s another attraction. [Reggae] is just something that connects with people from Hawaii. When you come from a similar place and a similar environment, there’s a natural recognition; it’s a mystical thing I guess.
Your new album seems to make a statement of your identity as Hawaiians, both with the title, and the traditional introduction and closing song; the album is bookended by traditional Hawaiian chants. Was that an intentional decision on the band’s part?
Sure, that’s what we wanted to get across. It’s about having love for our homeland. We were totally trying to portray ‘this is us, this is Hawaii, this is right now’. We wouldn’t be touring the mainland or doing anything that we’re able to do without such a solid base back in Hawaii of family, friends and fans. Right from the beginning Hawaii has had our back. In our way, we’re trying to give back and show love for where we come from, and show the world that what we do comes from Hawaii. And that’s the cool thing about reggae too–you could listen to the first and last tracks on our album, the chants at the beginning and end, and you could look at the cover and never know that it’s a reggae music album, which is kind of what we wanted to go for.
Do you as a band discus what it means to be a reggae band in 2013
We don’t really discuss it specifically. The music we make just kind of naturally happens. Touring and being exposed to other kinds of music for sure has shaped our sound and the growth of the band. But the original sound or our formula will always be the same: it’ll be vocals from four different singers, a lot of harmonies, laid back stuff and some lovers stuff but also some rock and in-your-face things, especially [when we play] live. More than changing our persona or sound, we’ve tried to define it. Right now we probably feel the strongest about who we are as a band.
How did you come to doing the harmonies? Did you practice a lot, or did it just come about on its own?
A lot of us grew up in families that played music. So music was everywhere in the family, for birthdays, graduation, after a canoe race, whatever; it was always there. So at every party there was someone singing or playing ukulele, that’s just a part of the normal culture. So with it comes everyone singing, everyone harmonizing. I think that’s been a part of what we’ve been into all along.
We also all grew up listening [Jamaican groups like] The Gladiators, Israel Vibration and more; so many male groups singing harmonies–lots of women too. On top of that, a lot of reggae singers will come to Hawaii and they won’t bring a band, they use local musicians. So they need harmonies to add to their songs and we just learned all that. It made it more fun for us to learn all that, and incorporate it with the music we grew up with. And also having four guys who can sing harmony and also takes some leads really helps us. It’s just a by-product of the environment we grew up in, and we love to sing.
Does the band operate more like a collaborative creative unit?
Yes, I would say that’s true. As far as the creative process is concerned, all of us who sing bring songs to the table, whether they’re finished, half-finished or not even close, and we’ll work on those together. We’ll go through all our potential songs and ideas and weed the best ones out. We butt heads sometimes, but we have so much respect for each other as musicians and as brothers that if someone has a strong feeling about the way something should be done, the rest of us will work with it. We have that respect for each other, which makes everything so much easier.
Some of my favorite songs on the album are the roots tracks like “Stand and Rise” or “Something About It.” What are some of your personal favorites?
“Something About It” is one of my favorites too. I love the dancehall and reggae vibe [it has], and it has a little bit of rock edge, and the other guys all sing on it. That song is so fun to play live too. Another favorite is “Good Vibe Killah,” I’ve always loved that song, from the original scratch track GarageBand acoustic version to how it came out on the album. Personally, I’m happy with the way a song I came up with, “Power in the Words,” worked out. The vision I had and the way we all brought it together and everyone added to it is more than I could have ever wanted.
It’s a super-cohesive album. The lovers rock tunes sit really well along side the roots songs. There are a nice variety of styles on the album.
Prior to hearing your music as The Green I had heard Brad Watanabe’s recordings under the name Bw, which have this meditative, spiritual style to them. How did Brad come to join the band?
We’ve been playing music with him for years. BW was in band called Ookla The Mok, who is still one of the best reggae bands in Hawaii. He was keyboard player with those guys, and he had also played in Melodious Solutions, which was formed with this guy Mike Love, who toured recently with Groundation. The musical community in Hawaii is small, and we’ve known each other for years before we ever formed.
The first time I ever met him, he was playing at a house party up in Manoa [O‘ahu, HI], and they needed a drummer, so they borrowed the drummer from my band. So I went there and saw them and Brad was the bass player, and he could just really lay in to that bass. After that we just got to know each other through the music community. Before we knew it we were playing music together, backing up artist coming through Hawaii, and doing our own shows. That went on for a few years; so when The Green formed, Brad was right there already. So it’s been a family thing for a long time and he’s one of the key ingredients in everything we do. He’s definitely got an ear for the roots.
On the liner notes of your latest album you give greetings to many fellow artists you have toured or played with. Do you feel a kinship with the new West Coast and Pacific Island scene of bands?
We’re stoked on it. We’re lucky that we were able to come on the scene at such a great time for the spreading of reggae. The Cali Roots Festival is really taking off, especially last year (2013), and this year is going to be even bigger. We’re proud to call ourselves friends of some of these groups too because when we first started touring a lot of the bigger bands–Iration, SOJA and Rebelution–they took us under their wing and brought us on the road with them. We couldn’t even afford to bring gear, and they let use their (instruments).
For us, we’re like the little brothers to all these successful bands on the road, and to develop a relationship from there and see it grow for everybody has been just awesome. The timing has been so perfect all around, from when we released our first album and the four years that have gone by since then, the Cali Roots festival is just a sign of how successful this whole scene is and how much it’s growing. We’re honored, we’re humbled and we’re stoked.
We consider ourselves a little different style than the Cali reggae, but that’s what’s so great about it, everybody from all over knows each other and supports each other. It’s really all about the fans who love the music.
Follow The Green: http://thegreen808.com/