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by Dan Grunebaum

Fertile Ground

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 way…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 music scene.

"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 doing things."

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.

credit: P-Vine


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