Kzoo's Baddest Band
June 1, 2017
Regardless of what anyone says, summer isn't over until after Labor Day weekend. The kids may be long back in school and store aisles may be crammed with ghosts and ghouls in gaudy anticipation of Halloween, but the sun still owns the sky and the party is still on.
What better way to celebrate the tenacious spirit of summer and fire up a long holiday weekend than with a reggae dance party? There is none.
Thankfully, the folks at Botanical Roots Concert Series anticipated the reluctance to give in to school schedulers and merchandisers and have planned the perfect end to a perfect summer.
Zion Lion, the Kalamazoo-based Reggae band, will tie an irie bow on the gift of fun memories summer 2016 has provided when they groove on the Botanical Roots stage on Friday, September 2. The excellent G-Money Band kicks things off with their infectious blend of blues, Motown and rock.
Zion Lion are no strangers to Fort Wayne, though the last time they played here, thanks to the weather, it was in the concrete reverb-a-tron of the Civic Center parking garage.
Dubbed as the "baddest" band on the scene in Kalamazoo, Zion Lion have deep roots in the world of Afro-Caribbean music. Fronted "Sista" Myra Atkinson on vocals and steel pan, with founding member Preston Moore driving the rhythm on drums, John Foster on lead and rhythm guitar, St. Lucia native Webster John-Baptiste on bass, Senegal native Assane Dia on djembe and Joel Finley-Pink on keyboards and bass, Zion Lion promise to keep the fun rolling and get the crowd on the terrace hopping.
"We just try to entertain the audience as best we can," Atkinson said in a recent phone interview. "We've been there a few times. We know how to get people moving."
The band has been around for many years, Atkinson said, with most of the members coming from backgrounds in R&B, gospel and rock, and of course lots of reggae. But she came to love the sounds of island rhythms, especially those produced via steel pan, after years of solo playing and singing in small clubs and coffee houses around Kalamazoo.
"It was different for me," she said. "I grew up in R&B and rock. I've been playing steel pan for about 10 years, and it's been an interesting journey because I'm self-taught. It's hard to find teachers around here. I try to pick up things wherever I go."
That meant buying a lot of CDs and piecing it together as she goes. Part of that included veering from the more familiar name of the instrument, steel drum, to the traditional steel pan.
Her explorations took her to Jamaica and Trinidad, where steel pan originated.
Being from the Midwest, it's easy to associate steel pan with a kind of cheesy ultra-poppy tourist version served up by cruise line bands and Florida lounge acts. That was kind of Atkinson's take as well. She said, like a lot of people, she never understood the depth and musical possibilities of steel pan until she saw and heard it played by islanders.
"I think the first time I saw one was on a cruise back in the 1980s. I'm like okay this is pretty cool. I liked the sound of the instrument."
Then she went to Trinidad.
"I got the true experience from where it originated," she said. "And what a treat that was to see different well-known bands on the island, one of them called BP Renegades. They're one of the original steel pan bands from way back on the island of Trinidad. And to listen to every genre of music played just on steel pan was absolutely breathtaking. I just got goose-bumps. I heard them play everything from hip-hop to ABBA to classical to Phantom of the Opera. "
Atkinson's influences include Roberta Flack, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Luciano, Susana Baaca and Mama Africa, Mariam Makeba. While these artists account for her love and knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean-world music she and Zion Lion perform, Atkinson also got a lot from Joan Armatrading and Carole King.
"I've always liked Carole King," Atkinson said. "She obviously wrote 'Natural Woman' and Aretha Franklin recorded it. Her kind of folksy-bluesy style just made me go 'wow.'"
It's that kind of openness to music in general that makes Zion Lion such a crowd favorite. Atkinson said the band has had its busiest summer ever playing festivals around the Midwest. They've been so busy in fact that they can't seem to find the time to get into the studio to record the dozen or so originals they've written over the years.
But that doesn't dampen Aktinson's enthusiasm.
"We're hoping we can get into the studio at the end of the year to record," she said. "But we're all so busy in the summer and with our other jobs that makes it difficult. But we're hopeful."
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