Taken from MercuryNews.com (Nov. 26, 2004)
Guitar changes activist's art
NEW SKILLS GIVE MICHAEL FRANTI A DIFFERENT WAY TO CREATE MUSIC
by Jim Harrington
It took Michael Franti roughly 30 years to learn that, indeed, Mother knows best. Like thousands of other youths growing up in Oakland in the '70s, Franti was too busy playing basketball to heed a bit of parental advice.
``Sports was definitely the thing that I did to avoid piano lessons,'' says the purveyor of politically charged rap music in a telephone interview. ``My mom made every kid in the family play an instrument. The only way I got out of it was by being on the basketball court.''
The 6-foot-6-inch Magic Johnson wannabe, who was good enough to play on the University of San Francisco basketball team in the early '80s, doesn't regret the time spent on the court. But he does wish he had listened to Mom and picked up an instrument as a kid. That might have saved him some embarrassment a few years back at a songwriters forum in Cuba.
``We were doing this collaboration with about 25 American artists and 25 Cuban artists,'' remembers Franti, who performs with Spearhead tonight and Saturday at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
``I was sitting there at this table with all these great singers like Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls, Gladys Knight, Peter Frampton and all these incredible Cuban artists. . . . They passed the guitar to me, and I flipped it over and tried to tap a beat on the back and rhyme over it. It didn't work. So I swore I would never again be caught in that situation.''
Franti has been true to his word. After 15 years of making records with the Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, he picked up guitar skills in 2002 and totally changed the way he makes music.
``I carry'' the guitar ``with me everywhere I go, and I write all my songs now from the guitar up,'' says Franti, who previously relied heavily on other musicians during the songwriting process.
The result can be heard on his 2003 solo disc, ``Songs From the Front Porch.'' The gentle, heartfelt album, a collection of new songs and acoustic arrangements of previously released tracks, represents a vast departure from the industrial mix of rock, rap and punk dished out by the Beatnigs or the danceable reggae-tinged soul of Spearhead.
``I wanted to make . . . kind of a chill-out record,'' says the San Francisco resident. ``So many people, myself included, feel so stressed out about the state of the world right now. I wanted to make a record that people could relax to. Now, this next record I am making -- there's a lot of loud guitars and things for people to raise their voices to.''
Songs for his forthcoming album, scheduled for release in May, were inspired by Franti's 16-day visit to the Middle East in June. He was part of a delegation of peace workers, musicians, artists and filmmakers who traveled to Iraq, Jordan and Israel to get a firsthand view of the effects of war.
``I just got tired of hearing on the news every night generals and politicians speaking about the economic and political costs of the war, without ever mentioning the human costs,'' Franti says. ``So I wanted to see the people most affected by the war.''
Franti took along his guitar and played for people on the streets and children in hospitals. He also carried a video camera and shot footage for a documentary film he hopes to have in theaters in 2005.
``It's kind of like what you would imagine'' in the Middle East, he says. ``It's really frightening. When you are there, you don't know what is going to happen from one moment to the next. Everyone is tense. . . . It was great to be there with a guitar and see people . . . let their guard down for a moment.''
Franti's dual roles as entertainer and social activist have evoked comparisons to one of the all-time musical greats. ``He's the closest thing we have to Bob Marley in this country,'' says iMusic founder Marc Geiger, who partnered with Franti's Boo Boo Wax label to release ``Songs From the Front Porch'' and Spearhead's latest record, ``Everyone Deserves Music.''
``As a live performer, he has the power to make you dance, the power to make you act and the power to make you think.''
Despite Franti's role in organizing such events as the Power to the Peaceful Festival, which drew 50,000 to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in September, he says his music comes first.
``My favorite place in the world to be is behind my guitar. That's really the thing that drives me,'' he says. ``If I wasn't performing'' at concert halls, ``I would still make my living playing on street corners or playing for kids at school. It's just that I feel drawn . . . to speak about what is happening in the world.''