Bandwidth

Forget about the FBI investigation, the multimillion-dollar casino deal, and the sexual-harassment lawsuit — what’s gonna happen to James Billie’s band?

Anyone who's ever been in a band knows the deal is as precarious and passionate as any marriage. Groups break up, members are replaced, and creative differences tear folks apart, but politics is usually not a top reason for strife among working musicians.

Unless you're in the complicated universe that is the Seminole Tribe, with whom Hollywood guitarist and singer Raiford Starke has long maintained a tenuous relationship. That relationship ended two weeks ago when the Tribal Council terminated Starke (real name: Colin Kenny) from his reporter job at the Seminole Tribune. Now, he says, his partnership with Tribal Chairman James Billie is uncertain.

"I really don't know what's going to happen," Starke says. The tribal election held May 14 might have decided the future of the tribe, the chairman, and the band. But the following day the tribe's secretary-treasurer told Bandwidth the election results "could not be divulged at this time."

"Maybe I won't be able to play with him anymore," guesses Starke. "He might want to distance himself from me completely."

The problem is that, at least on the surface, it appears that staffers Peter Gallagher, Charles Flowers, Dan McDonald, and Starke were abruptly fired at a hastily assembled "emergency council meeting" because they were seen as being too sympathetic to Billie, whom the rest of the council may well be looking to oust. Starke also sees another possible explanation: He and his former colleagues are not Seminoles.

"It's a hard thing to say, "We got fired because we're white,'" Starke says, "but it does look that way. We got fired for no reason, as far as attributing a reason to our performance."

Interestingly the purge occurred while Billie was out of town. Starke and the chairman have been friends since 1987 but didn't begin a musical partnership until 1994, with Billie as vocalist and storyteller and Starke as guitarist and bandleader. Or as Starke tells it, that's how it was to work in theory.

"What I ended up doing most of the time was build[ing] chickees," he explains. "I did play a bit of guitar, but building chickees with his crew was kind of a neat way to be introduced to the culture, to the Seminole way of life."

By 1996 Starke had assembled the Shack Daddies, including "Bonefish" John Stacey, Carl "Kilmo" Pacillo, John Yarling, and Bob Taylor, as Billie's backing band, performing mostly at Billie's Swamp Safari. "His music went up a few notches when I got those guys," Starke says proudly. "Everybody said it was the best he'd ever sounded."

The following year Starke was tapped to write a column for the monthly Seminole Tribune. His friends Gallagher, Flowers, and McDonald asked him to submit a weekly humor piece, "because they always said I was shootin' off my mouth about something," Starke laughs. "It wasn't about anything -- just trying to be funny, telling stories. But it didn't necessarily have anything to do with the Indians, and some of the older ones were kind of pissed off about that, I guess."

In fact rancor among tribe members led to Starke's suspension in 1997. But by January 2000, he says, he was back in the Tribune's good graces, promoted to full-time staffer. And it stayed that way until all four non-Indian staff members were canned at the early May meeting. "There's not a damn thing we've been allowed to do or say about it," Starke bristles. "I haven't had any opportunity to appeal this."

That same evening Starke and Billie played a gig together on the Miccosukee reservation, but "we didn't have a chance to sit and talk," Starke says. "I've never really had a chance to find out what's going to happen."

But he's expecting the worst. "He's between a rock and a hard place," he says of Billie, noting the arguments centering around the tribe's interest in the Hard Rock Casino, the ongoing FBI investigation of the tribe's financial dealings, and a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Billie by a former tribal employee. Starke says he and Stacey have begun a record label, Big Cypress Records, and are biding their time.

A scheduled Billie/Starke appearance at the 49th Annual Florida Folk Festival this weekend in White Springs is now in limbo, according to Starke. Billie did not return calls from Bandwidth.

Additionally Starke isn't pleased with the coverage the mass firing received in The Miami Heraldon May 7, in which writer Erika Bolstad, he contends, gave the impression the Tribunewas heavily weighted with political stories at the expense of cultural issues.

"I have no problem with the other side being represented, but the fact that needs to be represented is what that newspaper was like." He points to a story which coincided with the December 31, 2000, Phish concert in the preserve, "A day in the life of Big Cypress," which won Best Photo Essay from the Florida Press Club Awards that year.

"If anyone ever wants to do a story about [the Tribune] again," he cautions, "they can take a look at what it's going to be like in the next few weeks. You might notice a difference."

 
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