Underneath the mass-market radar, the Baltimore soul-jazz
collective have sold nearly 200,000 albums
|Marital bliss: James
Collins (back left) and wife Navasha Daya (front center)
lead Fertile Ground
They weren't the first to defy the mainstream record
industry-Ani DiFranco proved it could be done a decade
ago with her Righteous Babe label-and it's safe
to say they won't be the last. But Fertile Ground and
their Blackout Studios imprint have achieved something remarkable,
selling nearly 200,000 albums without a major label contract
or even a distribution deal.
That achievement required not only musical talent, which Fertile
Ground demonstrate they have in spades on their latest Black
Is... (more on that later), but business savvy, resourcefulness
and dedication. A quick telephone conversation with founder
and keyboardist James Collins reveals that he's got
all these qualities and then some.
"We started with our initial recordings in a very honest
We wanted to get our music out to people, so how
do we do it?" Collins explains. "Record labels
seemed to be so inaccessible, and it becomes much more political
and contrived when you're dealing with something that
has to be a national or global product."
Taking his cue from labels like Okay Player, home to live
hip-hop collective the Roots, and his observation of the impetus
it's given to the music scene in nearby Philadelphia,
Collins launched Blackout to give voice to Fertile Ground's
brand of instrumental music, which Collins says was underrepresented
amid the headlock of hip-hop on the contemporary US black
"We represent a resurgence of live music, of just saying,
'Look, we have a concert, and there are people at the
concert and we'll sell records to them.' We
also try and reach out to stores, but we're not approaching
this as 'We're creating a product and how do
we sell this product?' We're thinking what do
we need to do to continue to create great music, and how do
we continue to create music and continue to share it with
people? It's a little different from the Sony way of
Collins formed Fertile Ground seven years ago in Baltimore,
deferring entrance to medical school to try his luck as a
musician. He wrote, recorded, and produced the band's
debut album, Field Songs, and gradually built Fertile Ground
from a trio into a seven-piece powerhouse. The band now includes
a coterie of like-minded musicians including percussionist
Ekendra, who has played with legends from Roberta Flack to
Sun Ra, and Collins' wife Navasha Daya, the colorfully
attired and powerful singer who now fronts Fertile Ground.
While the group is steeped in the great traditions of African-American
music, from the blues and jazz through Motown and funk, Black
Is..., released last week in Japan by independent label P-Vine,
saw them also taking inspiration from legendary Nigerian bandleader
and political firebrand Fela Kuti. The opening track, "Spirit
World," launches in with a robust Afrobeat horn line
that sets the tone for the lyrics's insistent question:
"I want to know the role of my soul in the spirit world."
Woods explains that what they took from Fela was not just
his approach to horn charts, but his determination to give
a socio-political relevance to his music. "He's
one of the few musicians for whom we can appreciate what he
contributed not only musically but culturally and socially,
and we wanted to use that as the backdrop for a piece that
Navasha wrote, which is 'Spirit World.'"
"We certainly respect him for his voice and playing,
but that wasn't the point. The point was all the other
things that he discussed: poverty in Nigeria and other conditions
of his people. We would like to do something similar to that."
Fertile Ground's insistence on integrity in their approach
to music, whether from an artistic or business point of view,
puts them at odds with the bling-bling ethic that drives much
contemporary hip-hop and R&B. "The song 'Artist's
Prayer' poses the question, as is the theme throughout
the record, 'What is an artist and what should we be
asking for?'" says Collins. "There are
deeper issues as artists that we should consider, and it [the
song] does criticize people who don't understand that.
We certainly criticize many of our contemporaries for not
taking the artist seriously. If there was no money or prestige,
this would still be our religion; this would still be what
we do. It's a sacred thing for us."
The search for spiritual meaning is central to Fertile Ground's
quest-sometimes perhaps even overwhelmingly earnest-but
Collins says the band doesn't hew to any particular
faith and represents a scope of religious interests. "In
this band you have people who are devout studiers of Hinduism
and Shintoism and Buddhism and Catholicism and Europa and
Vedic traditions...these are just categories, but when you
deal with the simplicity of life practice you're talking
about well, 'What have people before me done to get
closer to nature and to God?'
"These are the things that we throw on the table. We
don't want to isolate specific religions, we don't
want to deal with Christ and Mohamed and so forth. We want
to look at these things holistically, because all people of
integrity are engaged in a constant soul-searching."
Returning to Japan for what Collins says will be Fertile Ground's
fourth or fifth time, Collins says that sometimes foreign
audiences are more respectful of the contributions of African-American
culture than African-Americans himself. And while he probably
isn't aware of the challenges that African-Americans
living in Japan face, he certainly has it right when it comes
to the kind of audience likely to turn out for Fertile Ground's
upcoming Blue Note and Motion Blue gigs.
"We love Japan. People are so nice to us and appreciate
what we do. It's amazing to me, because black culture
is something they've always respected and held with
the sort of reverence that I wish everyone in the States did,
or the folks who created the culture did. When we travel,
people have more respect for our uniqueness and our contributions
to art than we have ourselves."
Fertile Ground play the Blue Note
Tokyo on October 29-30 and Motion Blue Yokohama on November
1-2. See concert listings for details. Black Is... is available
on Blues Interactions/P-Vine Records.
with METROPOLIS readers at http://forum.japantoday.com