Who Will Save Your Soul?

When Public Enemy released its album How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul in August, the music world didn't have a clue how to respond. It deserves some honest discourse, but in typical 21st-century fashion, very little came forward. 2007 was a great year for trap music and indie rock only, two genres that sold their souls and are raking in plenty of album and ring-tone sales in return. If we're lucky, trap music — that's rap made by and for drug dealers — will go out of fashion soon, while indie music looks like it'll stick around a while, getting whiter by the year. As Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker pointed out in a column several months ago, indie is at a point where it's hard to hear even traces of African or African-American roots in it. There's hardly any of the syncopated rhythms or swing or call-and-response gospel influences or emphasis on the downbeat that you found in rock 20 years ago. Listen to the Thrills or Of Montreal or Arcade Fire and tell me: How much black music do you hear in that shit?

This has been on my mind a lot lately. I've wondered if such a musical metamorphosis is even possible: Could rock 'n' roll really steal away from its origins and shape-shift into indie rock until not a trace of its original self remained?

But there's one genre of modern music where the opposite seems to be happening: jam music. Ten years ago, jam music was all about bands like Phish, m.o.e., Widespread Panic, and a few others who had almost exclusively white audiences; their followers were like the people who had turned on to the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead 20 years before. Jam bands today still draw mostly white audiences, but the music has changed. It seems to be getting blacker. More rhythmic. Not coincidentally, the complexion of some of the jam musicians has changed as well.

Take the sixth-annual Jam Cruise, which departed from Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago. At sea, 2,000 jam-band fans got down to the Funky Meters, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Galactic, and Soulive, among others — just a few of the bands with swing that have managed to tap into that market. It's bigger than just a cruise; it's a touring circuit, where groups like the Lee Boys, Dumpstaphunk, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band get to find a groove and play longer-than-usual sets.

Last week, I was talking about all of this with Ivan Neville, who'd just returned from performing on the Jam Cruise. "Man I've got no idea what a jam band is," he said emphatically. "I think the kids who go and see those bands determine that stuff. We're just up there jamming and playing our music the way we know how to play it. Does that make us a jam band?"

Neville's and his family's pedigree is steeped in New Orleans funk and soul. You might not normally associate a Neville with hippie jams, but apparently that's changing now. Ivan's band, Dumpsta­phunk, stocked with well-traveled black musicians from New Orleans, suddenly has a home on the jam-band circuit. He has his own theory about how they got there.

"When you have a band that's funky and there's some improv going on — 'cause that's the key element — folks will nowadays label you a jam band," he says.

Dumpstaphunk drummer Raymond Weber seconds that. "A jam band to me is when you just get some guys together, all free-formed, and just go at it," Weber says. "You lock in, and eventually everybody is sitting in the same pocket. That's a real jam band to me. All that Widespread Panic stuff, that's not jamming, man; it's rehearsed. You can't rehearse this music, man; you just gotta feeeel it."

As they spoke, we were backstage at City Limits in Delray Beach, where some members of Dumpstaphunk performed with Eric Krasno from Soulive on rhythm guitar and free-jazz wünderkind Skerik on alto sax. They were part of something called "Super Jam," although the musicians weren't aware of the name. No matter. They were just up there jamming. George Porter Jr. from the Funky Meters even sat in with them. And as they played, the line between jamming and soul music got thinner and thinner. And then it just disappeared. Of course, I was the only person of color in the room to catch all this.

So indie music has thrown off the last vestiges of rock's African roots to travel its own path. I'm cool with that. The beat never stays the same. But now we have jam music, heading in a more Afrocentric direction, and that's good news. Now let's see if audiences follow suit.

 
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