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Face the Nation: Natty Nation’s Positive Message

June 15, 2008

By Gayle Worland, The Wisconsin State Journal

Jun. 14–Some things just lend themselves to an outdoor summer music festival. Sweat. Heat. Love. Reggae.

So this is high season for JAH Boogie’s Natty Nation, one of Madison’s most enduring reggae bands. For 13 years the group has morphed and grown and vibed and toured, taken breaks, made comebacks and recorded four studio and nine live albums.

And this year — at last — its wildly affectionate following rewarded it with more than just selling out shows. In May, Natty Nation won four Madison Area Music Awards, including Entertainer of the Year. Its sister bands, the rock-rap Know Boundaries and hip-hop group dumate (DOO-muh-tay), won four more.

Maybe, as Natty Nation’s two key members, Demetrius “JAH Boogie” Wainwright and Aaron J. “Eyes of Moses” Konkol, surmise, it’s a karmic thing. For the past year, Natty Nation has revved up its presence on the benefits circuit, playing show after show for cause after cause. “This year, we tried to do as many (benefits) as we had time to do,” says Konkol. “We just felt like it was time to give back. And definitely people — or at least the universe — are recognizing this, giving us all these MAMAs. “When you give of yourself, you’re actually getting more than you’re giving,” he says. “It’s something that we both definitely subscribe to. This year, we’ve been like: OK, we don’t need to focus on us making the money. Let’s make money for these other people. The causes that we sing about in our music — let ‘s live it. “

That mindset is a good fit with the spirited, offbeat rhythms of reggae music, which grew out of Jamaica in the 1960s and was popularized through the love-one-another Rastafarian message of the late Bob Marley. Although the iNatty Records label bands Know Boundaries and dumate (Wainwright and Konkol perform with the former and helped create the latter) rail against social wrongs with urban edginess, songs from JAH Boogie ‘s Natty Nation tend to be G-rated, preaching optimism and condemning injustice, inequities and intolerance.

“Anything we do, we try to be positive, ” says Wainwright, who writes Natty ‘s lyrics, including those on its latest CD, “Reincarnation, ” due out this fall. “Even with the hip-hop, we try to maintain that positive, social, conscious message. For both of us, it ‘s not hard to do. “

Though Natty Nation plays its share of clubs, daytime benefit concerts are a good fit “because they ‘re much more family friendly, ” says Konkol. Former bar and college-aged fans pop up again, now with babies and toddlers in tow.

“A lot of these old fans with kids say, Now I can come see you again, and I can have my kids see you, ‘ ” says Konkol, ” because I want them to get these vibes, too. ‘ “

Everything’s gonna be all right

As one of the workingest bands in Madison, Natty Nation is “notorious for playing 2, 3 hours straight, ” says F.R.P, the DJ who hosts the long-time weekly reggae show “Tropical Riddims ” on WORT-FM. His Tropical Riddims Sound System sometimes opens for Natty Nation shows.

“As far as where they stand in the reggae genre, there ‘s no question that they ‘re the best in town, ” says F.R.P. “They have a solid trio backing them up, and that has allowed Demetrius to come out from playing the bass to be more of a frontman and a performer. Aaron, of course, is an extremely talented keyboard player. “

Konkol ‘s addition in 2002 brought a “dub ” element to the band, says F.R.P., though Natty still features “rockin ‘ guitar, and I think that is part of the appeal of them in this area — I think the rock audience can appreciate how they rock out. “

Matt Gerding, co-owner of the Majestic Theatre, started hearing the Natty buzz the moment he arrived in town. He ‘s hired the band to play July 9 along with visiting reggae legend Lee “Scratch ” Perry.

“We ‘ve been open about eight months now, and we ‘ve already had Natty Nation play here twice, ” he says. “We booked them on a couple bills and, sure enough, the fans came out in droves. “

Natty also is a regular on the TV show “Urban Theater, ” which features local bands. “These guys are very cool, ” says show host John Urban. “They have that everything ‘s-gonna-be-all-right ‘ nature that you have with the type of music they play. I love that attitude. “

The Michael Jackson frontman

With dreadlocks that reach to his waist, Wainwright, 34, seems just as happy talking Eastern philosophy as playing music — or making plans to take his five- and seven-year-old kids to see the “Kung Fu Panda ” movie this summer.

The founder of Natty Nation and its only original member, Wainwright grew up in Racine and was into music by age 4; he made his Summerfest debut at 8. He learned the ropes when a much older cousin asked him to join his R&B cover band — with a pint-sized Wainwright in the spotlight doing Michael Jackson tunes.

“I watched them to learn how to manage a band, ” he explains now. “That was my first taste of being in front of people, working the crowd, how to do the frontman thing singing and also playing drums.

“It takes a lot to be the front guy, ” says Wainwright, who went on to join his high school jazz band and later moved to Madison to attend electronics school. “You ‘re kind of the center of attention, and I don ‘t think that ‘s my personality, even though I ‘m put in that position. It ‘s humbling. “

“Humble ” is a word that DJ F.R.P. uses to describe Wainwright ‘s personality, too — at least offstage.

“Onstage, it changes a bit, ” he says. “His personality, I think, changes with the style of music he ‘s playing. He can be roots/rasta man on a reggae song, or hip-hop artist extraordinaire, with the associated stylings that go with that. It ‘s an almost chameleon-like description that I ‘d give. “

Konkol, 27 and a UW-Madison grad, started playing piano at age 3, joined his school jazz band and played in a Beatles cover band while at Madison West High School. Long a fan of Natty Nation, he decided to stay planted in Madison after he was invited to join the group. His dad Ron is now the band ‘s manager.

“This guy kept me here, ” Konkol says of Wainwright. “We have such a strong relationship — brotherly and musically, spiritually and otherwise. “

When Wainwright first met Konkol, “I saw a bit of myself in him, ” he says. “I look at him as a younger brother that I have to set an example for.

“Maybe ego is part of (being in a band) when you ‘re younger, ” Wainwright adds. “But I think we ‘re getting to an age now where there has to be meaning behind it. There ‘s something to be said about really hitting your backyard and driving that positivity home. “

AWARD WINNERS

Three bands that count Demetrius Wainwright and Aaron J. Konkol among their members won big at last month ‘s Madison Area Music Awards. Here ‘s their 2008 MAMAs take:

JAH Boogie’s Natty Nation

–Entertainer of the Year — World Artist of the Year — World Album of the Year ( “Seth ‘s Picks: Best of 2003 2006 LIVE “) — World Song of the Year ( “Hurricane “)

Know Boundaries

–Unique Artist of the Year — Urban Album of the Year ( “Live 7.14.2007 @ UW Terrace “) — Compilation Album of the Year ( “The Best of Urban Theater, Vol. 1, ” which includes Know Boundaries ‘ “Star People “)

dumate

–Urban Song of the Year ( “Juke Joint “) If you go What: A sampling of summer gigs for JAH Boogie’s Natty Nation When and where: Greenway Station’s Sounds of Summer concert series, 6-7 p.m. Saturday. Free. July 5 : All-ages concert at the Union Terrace, 800 Langdon St., 9 p.m. Free. July 9 : With reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry at the Majestic Theatre, 8 p.m. Tickets $24.50-$32 at www.majesticmadison.com July 13 : Art Fair on the Square, MLK Street Stage, 4 p.m. Free. July 22 : The Loft, Lussier Teen Center, 827 E. Washington, with Know Boundaries, dumate and the Von Trapps — 241-1574 Aug. 2: Madison Roots Festival, Willow Island. $27; $35 day of show. More information: http://1055triplem.com Aug. 11: McKee Farms Park, 1930 Chapel Valley Road, Fitchburg. 6:30 p.m. Free. Aug. 22: Orton Park Festival, with Taj Weekes. 1003 Spaight St. Free.

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