Metropolis Magazine
Issue #805 - Friday, Aug 28th, 2009
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311: Sonny Rollins
310: Speech
309: Santana

By Dan Grunebaum

Mishka
The Caribbean nomad delivers conscious reggae to Yokohama’s Greenroom Festival 

Photo by Doug Seymour. ©2008

Trying to interview someone who’s speaking from a cellphone as his car weaves through California’s Sierra mountains is a challenge. But in a way it feels right when the subject is reggae singer Mishka Frith.
Mishka, as he’s known, is something of an elusive character. Born to a Bermudan father and Canadian mother, he spent his childhood on his parents’ yacht in the Caribbean and had a brief stint as a pro windsurfer before settling on music.

“I’m not really North American,” he says in answer to a question about growing up in the largely black and Latino Caribbean. “I come from a place that’s a cultural crossroads, so it didn’t feel as if I was a stranger there, unlike other people who go straight from North America to the Caribbean. It’s actually more the reverse: How does North America feel when I go up there?”

Combining the roots reggae of the Caribbean with folk influences from North America, Mishka has, at 34, just seen his third album Above the Bones top the reggae charts in the US and Japan. “I’m not somebody that checks the charts—in fact, it was the first time I ever checked Billboard,” he says in an island lilt. “But it means that people are recognizing the music, so I’m happy about it.”

Having done time in the record-industry wilderness after his 1999 debut album was picked up by the Creation imprint—which promptly went under—Mishka is justifiably wary of the music biz. His current success comes partly thanks to the efforts of actor Matthew McConaughey, a longtime fan who created his own Just Keep Livin’ label for the express purpose of releasing Above the Bones.

“When Matthew came along, I was in the midst of working independently on the new album,” Mishka explains. “He came along and said, ‘How are you going to put this one out?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re thinking of doing it independently.’ And he said, ‘Would you like to work with me?’ That was about 2006.” McConaughey strapped on his backpack and flew down to visit Mishka. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mishka’s lyrics have a deeply reflective tone that makes him a descendent of the great reggae-philosophers like Bob Marley. How does a Caucasian come to embody the message of what was fundamentally music of the black liberation movement?

“Initially, that’s what the struggle is about, but when you look deeper it’s a human struggle that transcends race or class,” he says. “It’s something that everyone has to strive for within themselves regardless of their background: Asian, European, African… everybody. You have to strive for the truth, and at different times all people have faced struggles. It’s really about a way of life, a perception of history that’s not tainted by propaganda, like not believing in Columbus. A lot of it has to do with a true perception of history and being vigilant toward political situations that are going on in the world right now.”

One of the most striking songs on the album is the title track, whose lyrics were written by Mishka’s wife, a poet. “She wrote the song really about our ancestors and all the people who have been through great suffering and tribulation, many of whom may have died in genocide and slavery and things that have led us to where we are today.

“It’s a song about trying to recognize this and ask, ‘How do we live with ourselves in this knowledge and rise above the bones—above the physical death—to let the spirit be free?’ In a sense, the whole album is about freeing your spirit and trying to rise above strife and unhappiness and trying to find some balance. Above the Bones signifies being outside the box, being free.” A Rastafarian himself, Mishka is pessimistic about the prospects for roots reggae in the Caribbean. “It’s not being allowed to come to the forefront, which is due to the corporate structure of companies,” he says. “They tend to push the dancehall and reggaeton. So the conscious roots stuff gets put on the back shelf. But it’s still very much alive and well among the musicians.”

As he heads to Japan for his second visit to the surf culture-oriented Greenroom Festival, Mishka remains philosophical. “Everything comes and goes in waves. You have periods where a whole generation will get lost in one particular type of consciousness, and then another generation will come along and wake up again. It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s a shame to see the system be involved in driving what’s popular because so many people get lost in the wake of that blackness. We have to keep consciousness alive. I see it as a duty of mine as a musician and songwriter.”

Greenroom Festival@Osanbashi Hall, May 30-31. Above the Bones is available on Surfrock International. See concert listings (popular) for details.

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