By Kiran Gandhi, June 15th, 2010
Nashville, Tennessee. Bonnaroo Music Festival 2010. June 11th – 12th, 2010.
“Show me your soul.”
I had bought my own plane ticket to Nashville and my own festival ticket to Bonnaroo. The idea was to journey down there solo for the weekend, bring a toothbrush and change of clothes in my backpack, network with other musicians and spend the night on a miscellaneous piece of grass among all the drunken hippies. Of course the underlying intention was to see Thievery live as I had missed them very much when I was abroad in Hong Kong. I really didn’t expect to see the band since festivals can be very hard to navigate – at most I hoped to catch them after the show and say hi before heading back to D.C.
What was intended to be a personal musical mission turned out to be the most soul-feeding, family-oriented, internal exposure to what I have always believed is one of the greatest musical projects on the planet. It turned out to be a weekend that changed my life and helped me determine some of the things I hope to experience in my own life as a musician. Let me tell you about it.
Walter Tates, Jr. suggested I called Sista Pat on the Thursday (June 10th, 2010, 4:30pm) before going down to Bonnaroo just to welcome her back to the country after a 3-week tour around Europe and to tell her that I was coming down to Nashville for the weekend.
“What do you mean you’re going to sleep on a ‘patch of grass’?? Are you CRAZY? Girl I have a huge bed in the hotel room, you best crash with me. It’s the Nashville Airport Marriot, Room #1111, call me as soon as you land.”
I landed in Nashville on Friday morning (June 11th, 2010, 9:30am) and did as I was told. On my way to Sista Pat’s hotel room, I ran into Frank Mitchell on the 11th floor, in his work out clothes, trying to buy a soda from the vending machine. It was awesome, he didn’t blink an eye, just came and hugged me as if he knew I was coming. He went on about how he was really sweaty from walking around all morning in the Tennessee heat, trying to find a bank that would exchange his Euros to dollars. After several hours of walking, no one in Tennessee would change it for him and he was not happy. He also proceeded to tell me about how his pinky was malfunctioning and maybe it was his body’s way of telling him to slow down, and that as a drummer I should take care of myself when I start gigging. He also went on to tell me that I probably will be screwed over many times as a musician, since I’m young and most bands already have drummers. He was going to give more advice but Sista Pat heard us talking and lovingly opened her hotel room door, stuck her head out and took me to her room by the hand while Frank bounced down the hallway and told me he’d catch me later.
She gave me the best hug ever and told me that she had kept “that side of the bed” ready for me, and “this side of the room” for me to put my things. “I’m messy, sorry.” She said, even though the room was super organized and she had left me my areas so lovingly. We talked about the tour a little bit, but both of us were exhausted and she was a bit jetlagged, so she closed the blinds and we passed out for a while.
When I woke up, Loulou, looking fabulous and carrying herself with that really graceful Loulou presence, was outside chatting in the hallway with Yasmin, Kamal, Gianmaria and Pat discussing what the members of the band were going to do that night since it was everyone’s day off. Most people were going to stay back at the hotel and sleep, but some members of the band wanted to go down to catch the Flaming Lips and other shows that were going on. Sista Pat asked Kamal if I could ride with them down to the show. My first interaction with Kamal: “Ummm ya, I mean if there’s space she can come, but I’m not here to fuckin babysit anyone. You’re completely on your own. If you get fucked up or lost or you don’t make it back on the bus, that’s it. Fuck it. Good luck.” Kamal is purely business. Everyone respects him for that. I learned a lot by watching him when I was down there. That said, I was a bit intimidated…Loulou picked up on that immediately and was like, don’t worry girl, Conrado and I driving down there as well, so just give me your number and we can link up in case you need a ride back.
Have you ever ridden in the Thievery Corporation van from point A to point B? Let me tell you. Best, most ridiculous experience ever. I heard the craziest shit. I felt like I was living the dream. I felt like the kid from Almost Famous: sitting there in the back with a really goofy smile on my face, keeping my mouth shut, really really happy to be alive in that moment. Most important take away point: The band loves Jack Daniels.
I had met the band outside the hotel and had loaded into this van with Myers in the front, Hash moving from one seat to the next, and Yasmin, Kalani, Stone, Gianmaria, Kamal and Elliot piled in as well. Pit stops included the local liquor store and burger joint. Hoooook it up and hit the van again! Eat on the Road! Not a moment to loose! When we got there, everyone had their own agenda, their own stage/tent they wanted to go to, their own drug they were on a quest for and their own way of blowing off steam on their night off after 3 weeks of going hard traveling. Kamal hooked me up with some passes to get into the artist tent for free food and drinks and then bounced. If I haven’t stressed this enough, I was in heaven.
I went on a brief solo mish and exploration. Bonnaroo was a muddy mess of bodypainted, naked, bearded, headbanded, backpacked hippies chain-smoking weed and escaping life for 4 days. I met an older couple from Santa Fe who made these drums called Triongos from different types of wood – they sounded like 3 bongos but had the mechanical engineering of a Cahon…I jammed out with them for 2 hours and eventually bought the drum. It had a real soul, I couldn’t help it. Roommates are going to kill me.
Stone looked out for me that evening and kept an eye on me throughout the craziness of the festival and Flaming Lips show. I was a little lost after my epic drumming experience with said Santa Fe elderly hippies, so he helped direct me back to the artist tent where everyone was. We had good wine, weird beer, some water with miscellanous melted ingredients contained in it and made our way to the Flaming Lips show where we watched it from the VIP sound booth. Myers leaned over to me between shooting the show and said, “How’s this Kiran? Good enough for you?” Ummmm. Ya. I’ll say.
Flaming Lips melted my face off. Though Kamal was right that it is the same show they’ve been doing for the past 6 years. Still. Facemelting happened.
Thievery crew, wasted and muddy, made it back to the van and we rolled out just before 3am. Hash and some others stayed the night and partied on in tents and god knows where else. They really are legendary. Though I was passed out for the van ride home, I do remember the band making fun of southerners. It was really funny. “Wellll gollllly boys! I ain’t neva seen a person o’ color speak English so proper! You shhhure he black?” Or other ridiculous imitations like “Welcome home boys! Nashville Marriot gon be yo home for the next 3 naights!” The band is really funny that way. They are crazy. I am just happy we live in a world where people get ridiculed and mocked for being racist rather than the other way around. I think there’s beauty in that.
The next morning I woke up to a radiant Sista Pat in a yellow sarong and bathing suit ready to hit the pool. “I smuggled you two yogurts from the breakfast buffet and I have some biscuits you can have for breakfast.” It was a lot of love. I felt blessed in that moment.
I went down to see Sleepy and Rootz and Zee. It was really good to see them. I chatted with Sleepy for a while about the tour, what it was like to have to constantly be on the move from one city to the next and why everyone was so tired doing this tour in particular. He shared stories from the experience and explained that after this tour his name was especially applicable. He keeps it real. Chilled vibes as I told him about things I had been working on, what Hong Kong was like.
Seeing Rootz was another highlight. It was around 4pm and he was chilling just inside the porch of his hotel room, which was on the first floor on the same level as the pool, smoking a cigarette and wearing the best clothes. He really carries himself like a king, has a big heart and has a heightened awareness of how people think and feel in certain situations. I sat there with him for an hour or so, with Zee in and out of the conversation, telling him about my Hong Kong endeavors, what it was like to be with my parents, to discuss my interest in music with them, what goals I had for coming back to DC and potential plans after I graduate. He praised Meera and Vikram (my parents) for being cool about my interest in music in general and for trusting me to follow that passion a little bit and see what comes out of it. “They could have told you to stay far away from music from the get go, but they didn’t, did they? There’s a lot to be said about that.” He said I looked rejuvenated coming back, and that as I start to navigate myself through the music scene to continue to respect people, learn what I can but not to bow down too much to those he said might try to hold me back. I showed him the Triongo drum I bought the night before, and he and I jammed on it for a bit while he sang some beautiful tunes and smoked a joint.
7 hours till Thievery takes the stage at Bonnaroo 2010.
I wanted to ride down with the crew from the hotel at 5:15pm. The van was completely full though, and already Hash and Stone were sitting in the back of the van where the luggage was. Natalia came out around then and wanted to ride down early as well. Kalani was like…there’s no room at all, this isn’t safe, just wait till the 8pm van. She had wanted to support a comedian friend of hers though, and had to go early to catch his show. She dresses really well. The Thievery girls. Damn. They’re always rocking the best shit on their bodies…from head to toe they look fly and creative and awesome. It’s a crafted project. I was busy taking mental notes when I realized they were serious about leaving Natalia and me behind. Then, in this really heroic moment, Hash flung the back door of the van open and was like, fuck it, you two, just pile in here, whatever it’s fine. It was 4 of us squeezed in the back, hot as hell, but Hash and Stone and Natalia were down to let me be there with them. It was the nicest thing ever. And Stone complained the whole time because he had to sit on this burning hot metallic thing and Kalani was lovingly pissed that he let us in and was complaining on top of it and both Hash and Stone were shirtless 5 minutes into the drive because it was so hot and Natalia didn’t want Stone to take his shoes off but he did anyway and it was all beautifully dysfunctional and I was so happy to be a part of it all.
Kalani hooked me up with a free dinner ticket and so once we arrived I went straight to the artist tent with Stone, Myers, El John, Frank Orral and Gianmaria. We ate, and I got to have a really great conversation with Frank about his role as Thievery’s percussionist and what he plays for the solo in Illumination because I wanted to learn it and understand the sticking behind it. He explained he has to stick to the same solo pattern since Yasmin coordinates her belly dancing to his part.
We were driven as a group to the backstage area of the tent where Thievery would take the stage. When the previous band had finally cleared out, it was time for the Thievery load-in to start.
Around 9pm, the band’s truck pulled up behind the stage, and the load-in company and Bonnaroo crew started moving all the necessary gear from the truck to the stage. Stone and Kalani directed them where to place boxes and I joined in as tech crew and moved percussion gear to the right area on the stage.
Once the gear was set, I got to help John and Frank set up their drums and percussion racks. I felt useful in that moment because I knew how to operate the gear, I could identify each drum, I knew what they’d be asking for or which tools they might need to tune etc, and in general it just felt really good to be useful to my favorite group of musicians of all time. Even Kalani started using my help during the set up and would have me run and get certain pieces of equipment that the band might need at different times. I was in heaven.
When I was helping El John set up, it came up that I knew the conga pattern to Exilio. I played it for him and he thought it sounded good but also suggested that I try to learn the pattern for Liberation Front if I could. We reviewed it and though I didn’t come up with the exact pattern, I had a version of it that he said worked. He said he would try to bring me up during the show. In the end I got to play for about a minute of Liberation Front and I was in heaven. It felt dreamy and went by so quickly that I don’t quite remember it. A taste of a future dream, you know?
The stage was finally set and the band was all together in the production trailer behind the stage grabbing a drink, chatting, prepping. It was this slice of the Thievery life that I felt really privileged to witness, because it was so beautiful and powerful and real and it fed my soul.
The Thievery Corporation project differs from anything I have ever seen before because it brings together people from all different backgrounds and different walks of life. I had never before in my life seen so many different types of people on the same stage performing music that works so well. The heart and soul that goes into these performances both on stage and in the studio is what produces this brew of lyrical ambrosia and musical genius.
Perhaps I have a more naïve perspective on the whole experience in that I don’t know about all of the internal workings or business matters of the project, but my intention is to deliver exactly what I did get to see in two days of spending time with the Thievery clan, and why I was so moved by it all.
These musicians are committed to their emotions, intellectual processors of their dreams and are liberated by their passion. Each member of the Thievery family contributes something powerful, weird, freaky, funny, intelligent, annoying, fabulous to the project as a whole. They piss each other off, and they are in each other’s face but it’s resolved in a minute when someone eventually bursts out laughing. They call each other out on each other’s bullshit. They complain. They help. Each does her or his part, and they look good doing it. They are tuned into the behavior and the needs of their fellow bandmates as much as they are tuned into their own needs and they react quickly.
During the various van rides, someone will bring up a memory from a previous show, and the rest will chime in with their own take on that particular experience, or supplement the story with an Eastern European, Borat-sounding accent of some sort. These musicians love what they do so much, I can only hope that it’s truly genuine and that everyone in her or his life gets to experience this level of euphoria and escape at some point. The truth is that the process surrounding those euphoric moments isn’t pretty. I got to see the rough sides of the tour and hear about it through angry renditions of all the things that apparently went wrong. The band had to haul gear, stay up late and wake up early, catch trains, wait for each other, make it through the airport with tons of baggage, and miss out on actually seeing some of the cities that they were visiting. Business is business. They had to sleep whenever possible and stay calm and collected and not let the frustration get to them since everyone was in it together. I can’t explain to you how real the whole Thievery experience is, and how I can only hope that if I ever get to tour as a musician, it can be with people as real and fabulous and intelligent and sexy as this family is. I leave it to the musicians to decide if all the hard shit that comes with touring is worth the euphoria that comes from performing.
At 9 minutes to show time, a really beautiful thing happens.
Frank Mitchell starts playing on his sax. The band starts clapping. Yasmin, Loulou, Natalia and Karina come out wearing the dopest outfits, I can’t even breathe. Everyone starts to gather, singing and bouncing around. Eric Hilton addresses his comrades with something along the lines of: “It’s been an amazing 3 weeks, we have stunned crowds across Europe, it’s been a pleasure to work with all of you, let’s do it again and bring the house down.” 1…2…3…THIEVERY CORPORATION. The band moves onward to an interview where everyone knows the words to this miscellaneous song and they sing and clap for the camera while Myers plays guitar. Slowly they sing and move to their positions backstage.
The lights go dark. The crowds are there and so ready. They have decided to skip out on Jay-Z so that they can catch Thievery. Intelligent motherfuckers. The band takes the stage and singers are backstage, cool as cucumber, ready for their song to come on. The audience is completely mind-fucked once they are hit with all the trippy lights, political videography, and most eclectic group of musicians together on stage that they have ever seen. I know so because I sat there watching jaws drop. I sat there watching the first ten rows become completely hypnotized in such a way that they couldn’t prevent their hands from pumping out the thick vibrations of each song and their eyes from locking into the snake-charming ways of all of our singers. I’m also quite certain that some of them were simultaneously having an orgasm.
We live in a world that currently claims to be globalizing and getting smaller. It’s true that we can travel more, we can get in touch via Facebook more easily, and we can Skype. These are well and good, but it’s not the real shit. It’s not touch. Thievery Corporation is a project that uses music as a medium to promote real, colorful, functional human interaction and brings different types of people onto the project because it recognizes the benefit of having a mélange of influences. It distracts us from petty bullshit. It celebrates those from all walks of life, but especially those that are able to thrive in a heterogeneous environment rather than a homogenous one. And they are doing it in Washington, D.C.: a place that might not have been glamorous to work in, a place that might not have had many returns for someone solely seeking attention, a place that was once written-off as dilapidated and drug-ridden and a place that I believe is still today yearning for local leadership to promote things like NW – SE interaction. I am so enamored by the Thievery family because my personal goals align with theirs and I genuinely believe the Thievery phenomenon is something that must happen in every town via whatever mediums possible. By creating music that is the product of so many international influences and proving that the result is something that works (my understanding of the word outernational), Thievery Corporation, in my opinion, is making a bold statement that says separating these various subcultures is fucked, separating human beings is fucked, and mixing them together sounds sweeter than sex.
While Thievery Corporation is a business as much as a hobby, the people involved are real people. I know so because in two days of spending time with people that I don’t know as well as I’d like to, I was given a place to sleep, offered miscellaneous yogurt and drugs, invited to dine in the same places that they were, given so many badges and passes to get around the concert safely and easily, was looked after, was included in the van at the expense of others’ comfort, was invited to play with the band and was taken seriously enough to help out with equipment and load-in. While, sure, there were some moments, when for example, Frank Mitchell told me that if I play a show with the band, I have to play with no underwear on, I know he said it with love, just messing around. Real people doing great things.
I’d like to end this reflection with an image from the show I’ll never forget. The band played “The Richest Man in Babylon” and I looked up at Eric Hilton. He had a smile on his face, one hand in the air, had moved back away from his turntables, as if to relinquish his duties for a moment, and was singing the melodic chant of “oooohhhh ohhhhh ohhhhh…..ohhhhhh ohhhh ooohhhhh…” that makes the song what it is. He was looking straight out into the audience who sang till they were red in the face, and the band, both on stage and backstage were right there with him, totally committed to the song, delivering it as though they hadn’t sung it a million times before in the previous weeks.
It was the young audience members, the next generation, that is so thirsty for tangibly intelligent music, with sweat pouring down their face, that sang back to the band, believing in the political message behind the song and knowing that Thievery Corporation is a microcosm of whatever solutions they wish to see in their own world.
To see videos here: http://www.youtube.com/bonnaroo#p/search/2/FEmX7dmQt6Y