Rasta Redmon: Hopi Reggae Artist Casper Lomayesva Brings Redemption Songs to the Desert

On a sunny September afternoon, the pulsing sounds of reggae rise from a red brick house in downtown Phoenix. Inside, chinking guitars and bouncy bass lines resonate through the wood floor in the front room, where Casper & The Mighty 602 Band are rehearsing for an upcoming show in New Mexico.

As horn-emulating keyboards jaunt through the song, the singer clutches the microphone and sings, "Me name ah Casper Rastafari Native, mon."

The smell of marijuana, the holy sacrament of the Rastafari movement, permeates the smoky air. The slight Jamaican accent in the singer's voice sounds authentic, and the music is pure island groove, but this self-professed Rastafarian doesn't have the expected dreadlocks, but a short black mullet that barely reaches his shoulders. And he's not from the islands, but the desert of northern Arizona. He's not black, either, but he's sincere when he sings, "Fight for my people; my people not free."

Jamie Peachey
Casper Lomayesva  got into reggae when Culture Connection began bringing Jamaican artists to the Hopi Reservation.
courtesy of Casper Lomayesva
Casper Lomayesva got into reggae when Culture Connection began bringing Jamaican artists to the Hopi Reservation.

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For more information about Casper & The Mighty 602 Band, visit their MySpace page or their Facebook page.

To hear a few songs from Casper Lomayesva, visit our Music blog Up on the Sun.

The singer is Casper Lomayesva — Hopi reggae musician, budding political activist, and artist-advocate for Native American culture. At 5-foot-2, he hardly strikes an intimidating pose, but he's managed to do some very big things since taking up music 25 years ago. Most of them were "starving artist" years, but Lomayesva, now 42, has seen his career take off in the past several months.

Long after most people would have given up on "making it" in music to settle for day jobs that will actually pay the rent, Lomayesva has played some of the most famous venues in the country, including the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian in Washington. In May, he performed for more than 18,000 people at New York's Madison Square Garden as part of legendary folk singer Pete Seeger's 90th birthday celebration. From January until the end of September, he played Hard Rock Cafes all over the country as part of the Native Music Rocks tour.

Lomayesva's list of heroes puts Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, KRS-One, and Burning Spear alongside Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and late Hopi Chief Dan Katchongva. He says the Native American experience isn't that different from the African experience; both cultures have a history of oppression.

Indeed, when you hear Lomayesva talk about his music, the classic Bob Marley "Redemption Song" lyric comes to mind: "Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom? / 'Cause all I ever have / Redemption songs, redemption songs."

Because of this shared resistance to tyranny, the genre is wildly popular among Native Americans — from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, with its proximity to the Caribbean islands, to the Hopi of Arizona, who have a long history of bringing Jamaican reggae artists to the reservation, including Culture, whose singer Joseph Hill told the New York Times in 1999, "[Hopi] culture is quite specific and lonely in its own right . . . The black man suffered the same as the Hopi."

For all the Native reggae fans out there, Lomayesva is the only known Hopi reggae artist. But anybody expecting him to come out draped in turquoise and feathers is in for a letdown. Most of the time, Lomayesva's just wearing jeans and T-shirts. He lets his lyrics tell the stories and make the statements — as in the song "Jealousy," in which he sings:

"As long as I don't break no white law, I'll stay upon the top, not gonna take no fall / I never want to miss a day of freedom / This is my version of 'Redemption Song.'"


The view from atop any of the First through Third mesas on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona seems endless, with yawning blue sky meeting flat patches of brown dirt and rocky red earth in a still, panoramic sprawl.

Everything moves slowly here; even the breezes that roll across the mesas take their time circling in the dust. In the Hopi village of Old Oraibi, one of the country's oldest continuously occupied settlements, founded around 1100 on the Third Mesa, residents maintain 4,000-year-old traditions brought to the area by their ancestors.

The Hopi consider this place the center of the universe, and in a song called "Last Train," Casper Lomayesva says that "time always stands still in the center of the universe." But change, however slowly, has come to this place, and in Lomayesva's opinion, the best of it has come bouncing onto Hopi soil with rock-steady beats and Jamaican accents.

Next to country music, Lomayesva says, "reggae is the most in-demand on Indian land." It enjoys popularity on reservations nationwide, but particularly on the Hopi rez in Arizona.

The "Reggae Inna Hopiland" phenomenon started in 1984, when a group of fans on the Hopi Reservation tired of driving several hours to Phoenix and other Arizona cities to see reggae shows. They formed an organization called Culture Connection to bring reggae acts to the Hopi, starting with a Phoenix band, The Sons of Captivity.

Culture Connection founder Gerry Gordon, formerly a teacher at the Second Mesa Day School, says from 1984 until he left in 2000, there were "about 35 reggae shows" on the reservation, many featuring big names from the islands, including Toots and the Maytals, Steel Pulse, The Wailers, Black Uhuru, and Yellowman. Gordon says the shows drew anywhere from 750 to 2,000 people to the Hopi Civic Center. In the past two years, most of the late Bob Marley's sons, including Stephen, Damian, and Ziggy, have performed on or near Hopi land.

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3 comments
CRASH
CRASH

how are brother, i just kicking back jamming to the jah music. just wont to send you and your family a holday blessing. jah love take care CRASH

Jamie
Jamie

It's great to hear positative things about Native Americans. It's great to just hear about Native Americans we're always in the back row. I know the white man always says we tread on this being our land but, when we r trying to make our own money, they (the white man) always tries to take their cut or limits us on how spend it. And they put us on the REZ so we won't prosper.... Great job guys. It comes from the HEART!!Keep it up, from ur Native Sister!!!!

Robert
Robert

Great article! Glad to see the New Times doing a music-based cover story about something besides the latest flavor-of-the-month band or rapper wannabe. Now, how about doing an article about the band Blackfire?

 
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