Panjea featuring Chris Berry and Michael Kang
Berry's story "sounds like it was written by a Hollywood script writer" (Steve Leggett, All Music Guide). Maybe that is because it is hard to believe that a California White boy moved to Africa, became a spirit caller, and went on to sell over a million records in Southern Africa, where he still sells out stadiums. Now he is positioned to do the same in America.
A lot of small-town American kids flee home as soon as they hit legal age, in search of something. Many find their way back home, but few journeys match those taken by Berry. After over a decade living in Africa, Berry has now settled back in America following the edict given to him by African ancestor spirits to make a difference here, launching a slew of new activities to convey his message of justice and peace. His renewed American mission launches when Chris Berry and his band Panjea release Dancemakers, on Wrasse Records on April 18, 2006. Berry has drafted String Cheeses Michael Kang for new collaborations in Africa and for a May 2006 American tour supporting the new album.
But Berry is keeping busy with other efforts as well. He recently composed a 13-song CD accompanying Mine & Yours, Human Rights for Kids, Amnesty Internationals first illustrated guide for young children, consisting of one song for each of the thirteen Childrens rights. Saxophonist and global consort leader Paul Winter has recruited Berry for Flyways, a musical celebration CD of the great annual bird migrations from Eurasia to Africa. Berry is creating a massive pan-African orchestra consisting of musicians from each country that the birds pass over, from Germany to South Africa.
His own winding and unexpected journey took flight at age 18, when Berry and his mentorexpat-African drum master Titos Sompa, with whom Berry had been studying since age 13boarded a plane for Congos Brazzaville. After a ten-day boat trip up the Congo River, Berry arrived in a remote village and immersed himself in the culture and music. His fascination of Zimbabwean mbira (thumb piano) music eventually lured him to Harare, where he settled and studied under legendary mbira master Monderek Muchena for ten years. During that time, Berry put together his band Panjea, whose pioneering blend of indigenous music, dance hall, and hip-hop earned platinum album sales throughout Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and beyond.
While studying in Zimbabwe, Berry became one of the first Westerners to be accepted among the elder mbira masters as one of their own. I played for a lot of ceremonies where people would become possessed, said Berry. Some of the old ancestors who came back spoke to me through these people: What are you doing here? There are lots of misguided people, lost and confused people, in your country. Theyre killing each other there. Its time for you to take what youve learned and bring it to your own country because they need it more than we need it here. Thats your job. Youre the bridge maker. And so back on his native soil we find him today, preaching an uplifting transcontinental message of hope to contagious, dance beats based in the Zimbabwean mbira and sacred Congolese ngoma drum rhythms
Berry has been deemed a master of both mbira and ngoma drum, earning the title of gwenyambira (one whose music calls the spirits), a distinction reserved only for those who have achieved the highest fusion of the technical and the magical in music from the elder with whom he lived and studied during his years abroad.
Berry and the kids he knew in Sebastopol, CA grew up on Rush, the Scorpions; your standard rock & roll diet. In junior high he fell in with a bunch of hoodlums, in his words, who sought amusement through shoplifting. One day, when he was around twelve, one of the guys pocketed a cassette from a local music store and hurried out to join Berry and the gang in their van. That tape changed his life. It was a Fela Kuti album, he remembers. We started playing it and it was like I had gone home. For hours I listened to it again and again. I couldnt stop playing it and I couldnt stop dancing.
The onetime child hooligan has made good on his years of experience. Panjea, featuring members of The String Cheese Incident, The Tonal Evangelist Horn Section, which over the years has developed into a multicultural ensemble united by his commitment to heal through music and fighting racism with love. Their new release, Dancemakers, is a testament to their philosophy, with a catchy but thought-provoking number that asks, Why do we kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong?
Panjea has grown from a band to a full-fledged non-profit institution: the Panjea Foundation for Cultural Education. Panjea believes that through the sharing of ideas and open cultural exchanges the world can once again become a new kind of Pangaea, united not by its physically joined continents but by its people. Berry, along with his family, and band all join in the foundations activities, which include cultural tours to Africa, drum and dance classes, camps and workshops, and special performances, including an appearance at the 2000 Olympics.
Berry and his band bring it all home to America with their high-energy mix. The musicians are tight, and the music is smokin'. But the root is Africa: Africa is the source for almost all the popular music of the world, he insists. You can hear it in blues, rock & roll, funk, hip-hop, and jazz. Ive just found a more direct line to the source. We've got the medicine, and its pure and strong.