By Jason Fierstein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
No labels. No frills. Just pure musical inclination. The impact of the Blackmoon Graffiti experience in the Tucson community has been potent and far-reaching. To confine the eclectic sextet to one categorization would be trite and naive. I recently interviewed the band members of Blackmoon Graffiti, who spoke of their metamorphosis from a three-member band to a machine of integrated parts. Incorporated into the ever-evolving sound of the Blackmoon is everything from Spanish guitars and violins to ethereal vocals by Amy Stuenkel and crunching, multi-faceted guitar riffs by Alex Skelton and Bill Mericle, who both contribute keyboard efforts as well. Listeners can pick up anything from Soul II Soul, Digable Planets and Spearhead to native African tribal beats, polyrythyms and acid jazz in the sound.
The prototype project came to be in 1993 when founding funkfathers Napoleon Powell (vocalist with rapping tendencies), Skelton and Shawn Crawford created the monster-of-a-band. Additions to the conglomeration came with time. Powell recalls his intial introduction to the diva Stuebel, when she was immediately recruited into the band.When asked to sing for him on the spot, Stuebel let her pipes fly and sang for Powell on the spot. The voice immediately added a new dimension into the Blackmoon sound, one that has evened out the more bottom-heavy and guitar elements.
The Blackmoon Graffiti members pride themselves on being a conglomerative but unified organization. Every person in the band contributes, from the songwriting to the music itself. "When we started," says Crawford, "that was the conscious decision. This band was not the brainchild of just one person. But, there is a process of elimination. It's not like we can do whatever the hell we want."
Phat is the new album entitled "Echoes of My Tribe," a musical treat for the ears and the soul. Fundumentally, the album is of sound clarity. The Aqua Negra Records' release of Blackmoon's "Echoes" is surprisingly not "Tucsonan" in the clean, crisp quality of the production efforts. Machines of Loving Grace's Stuart Kupers produced the eight-song "Echoes" album, which will be distributed on a national level followed by a tour and a video by director Jason Wawro.
"Every song has an element of a different hearing, a different essence to it," says vocalist Powell of the new album. "One of my personal favorite tracks on the album is 'Echoes'. It's hard-edged and, combined with the story line, the track beat me down before I could beat it down, as the song didn't really appeal to me much during the production stages." Which is ironic: I popped the cd in and was first seized by the same track, "Echoes", which boasts a whirlwind of vocal talents by rapper/philosopher Powell and Stuebel, who's voice on the track is reminiscent of the female backup vocalists in Pink Floyd. The guitar grindings blow up the powderkeg of the track only after the guitar licks mutate into whale-like mating calls. "Echoes", as do other songs, strike from many different sides of the musical spectrum for something really fresh and inviting.
And then, I popped the no-no question on Powell, Crawford and Mericle while we sat enjoying GPC smoky treats at the Hotel Congress Sunday morning: How exactly would you label your style of music? It was a mistake of the first magnitude because the band clearly defied any musical niche or genre. Says Crawford after my gracious slip-of-the-tongue: "I'd rather you not be able to label our music." Napoleon Powell predicts the innovation may just materialize into its own new form: "Not one person is going to be able to say, 'This is this type of music.' The masses are going to have to just come to a collective decision that it's this or that kind of music. But I think that we're going to start a whole different column of music." That's what Crawford would say about the undermining qualities of "genrefying", as he put it in our coffee session.
The politics and bandwagon-jumping qualities seemed to disgruntle Blackmoon Graffiti. The music, in effect, should cater to every kind of listening crowd and any individual who makes the effort to open his or her ears up to the sound of the Moon, according to the band members. Blackmoon Graffiti stresses this virtue strictly, although they were weary of including everyone in that categorization.
As Blackmoon Graffiti proliferates past the constraints of Tucson, their marketability will seem ever-so-appealing to those cynics who chose not to pledge their allegiance to the band in the beginning. Club Congress is Blackmoon Graffiti's hive and the Congress family has taken their Graffiti artists with open arms. But, says Crawford, Club Congress is the only place in Tucson that has openly supported their music. "In a year from now, a lot of the more conventional places will be like, 'We'll do anything for you', but right now that's not where it's at. One time we played down on Fourth Avenue at O'Malley's and I assumed that we would have an audience that we don't generally play to but the music would overcome any differences. But, in truth, it didn't. They weren't interested and the thing is that in a year or two from now, those people will have to listen to us." Adds Mericle of the tradition phenomenon: "That's the crowd, the herd of cows, that will jump on the bandwagon".
I felt that the elements of muticulturalism and musical awareness, and not the racial and ethnic themes, were the critical underlying components to speaking with the diverse members of Blackmoon Graffiti. The vibes were apparent with my conversation with Blackmoon Graffiti. "I think that the color factor figures in and people don't want to talk about it, but that's fine with me because you can see it and feel it," observes Crawford. "It's like 'Well these guys couldn't possibly play the kind of music that white guys are able to play.' You might not feel it being black, but I feel it being white. I see that these guys are looking at us differently than if we were a bunch of long-haired white guys. For us, they don't think what we're doing is a valid musical statement to begin with, but when they see us and hear us, then it's a different story."
Blackmoon Graffiti wants to incorporate all people of all tribes, so to speak, into their mindful music. Crawford told me an anecdote of an older, middle-aged man dressed up not for a concert that came to a Blackmoon show. "It's somebody that, on the street, I probably would have judged him and he would have judged me and we would have said whatever about each other in our own head. And then I look over and this motherfucker is dancing and having fun. The music bridged that. He would be the last person to have at our show." Powell has seen lawyers and doctors along side the "alternative" eclectic crowds who frequent Club Congress. Says Powell: "I want people with an open mind to explore and aren't afraid to see the differences of light."
And, p.s., thanks for the cigs, guys.
(Blackmoon Graffiti will be playing at Club Congress this Monday evening at 9 p.m. with opening act The Low Downs)
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