INTERVIEW: Mystic Bowie prepares reggae-filled set for his ‘fams’

Mystic Bowie will play a free outdoor concert Saturday, July 15 in Princeton, New Jersey. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Mystic Bowie is one of the most successful and influential reggae artists in the world. He’s an exporter of his unique Jamaican sound, focusing on positive messages in his lyrics and groovy beats that keep the toes tapping. On Saturday, July 15, he will bring his band to Princeton, New Jersey, for a free concert at Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater. The concert begins at 7 p.m., and he will be joined on the double bill by Sasha Masakowski and The Sidewalk Strutters, a band from New Orleans.

“What the audience can expect is a high-energy, message-filled performance,” Bowie said recently in a phone interview. “We’re a group of musicians that enjoy to the highest what we do, and that seems to come through on stage.”

Bowie is a performer and musician who strives to stay positive with both his lyrics and his life. “For example, I am 50 years old,” he said. “I still never drink, never smoked, never tried drugs, so one of the my song titles is music is my ‘Drug of Choice.’ Those are messages that I send through my music. … So I use it a lot to deliver my messages in a happy way, get my message across while making people dance.”

The singer recognizes that negative songs often sell better than the positive ones. He said matter-of-factly that “negative gets airplay,” while positive-tinged tunes need to fight harder. This reality about the music industry only seems to bolster Bowie’s efforts to make more music — on his own terms.

“We’ll capture a lot the attention of families, and most of my shows are that way,” he said. “I market my show to families. My entire life, basically, I worked with children. I worked with young people. … You know, the youth culture group in my community currently, I founded that. The Mystic [Bowie] Cultural Center, which is my 501c3, I founded that 25 years ago, and what that does is collect, purchase and ship school supplies to poor communities all over the world, especially in my community in Jamaica. … There’s a summer camp going on in Jamaica right now with 116 students … which is a summer camp that has been going on now for three years now and again funded and hosted by me. These are the kinds of things that I do. I work with children and families, so I’m very conscious about the kind of message that I send and deliver to people.”

Reggae music, as defined in the preview for Lloyd Bradley’s book, This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica’s Music, was born in the sound systems of the slums in Kingston, Jamaica. “Reggae was the first music poor Jamaicans could call their own, and as it spread throughout the world, it always remained fluid, challenging, and distinctly Jamaican,” the blurb reads.

One might be surprised to find out that it took some effort for Bowie to find reggae music as a child in Jamaica. The genre wasn’t always available on the airwaves.

“Actually when I was a child, in the early days in Jamaica, it was very rare when you hear reggae music play on the radio in Jamaica,” he said. “Always we used to hear on the radio American music from the South, and more country [music] was being played in Jamaica than actually Caribbean music on the radio. What we used to get a lot of is the old blues. For example, Fats Domino would be in Jamaica multiple times per year touring, and their music would take over the airwaves. All those southern guys from Louisiana and Mississippi, Tennessee … Texas, that’s the kind of music was playing at home and [on] the couple radio stations that were in Jamaica through my childhood, so we had to literally search for parties and different underground scenes to actually find Jamaican music to listen to. So we [would] work really hard to find that music by attending the dance halls.”

THE FUTURE & THE PAST

Bowie’s latest album is Money Tree: The Best of Mystic Bowie, Vol. 1, featuring such songs as “Nevah Kiss & Tell,” “More to Life,” “Drug of Choice,” “Freedom Train” and “Sixteen Dimples.”

“They’re always asking, ‘Mystic, you’ve been performing since childhood. Are there any of your songs available that we can download or that we can get from your teenage years?'” he said. “So what I did was I went back and dug up a bunch of my old songs, and some I re-recorded. Some I just remastered along with six new songs. I put them together, and I put them out. Basically my inspiration came from the requests of my ‘fams’ — not my fans. I call them ‘fams.’ Our ‘fams’ are family because they’re always there for me.”

There have been many musicians over the years that have influenced and inspired Bowie. When he’s preparing an album of original content, and he’s thinking about the vocals, he often considers the work of Jimmy Cliff. For stage performance, Bowie thinks about Toots and the Maytals. For storytelling or poetic inspiration, his mind floats to Bob Marley. For international flavors, he’s listening to Third World and sometimes Talking Heads. In fact, Bowie has become one of the preeminent interpreters of the Talking Heads catalog, and he’s readying an album based on the tunes of David Byrne and company.

THE MUSICAL LANDSCAPE

As far as the reggae scene today, Bowie sees many positive elements, but he has a few recommendations for artists.

First off, he believes anyone can sing reggae, no matter where they com from. However, when recording an album, he suggests that bands consider traveling to Jamaica. “Get that authentic feel,” he said. “There’s something about recording reggae music in Jamaica. There’s a certain feel you get to your songs. You will never get it anywhere else — period. It’s no different than if you really want to record some really amazing country music, you go to Nashville or Texas. Well, if you want to record really good-feeling reggae music, go to Jamaica, and that’s what I did.”

He added: “It’s amazing the amount of commercials and advertisements with reggae music in the background, so, yes, I’m really optimistic. And I’m really happy to see the direction that reggae music is taking. Reggae music is being played at every festival. Go to the Jazz Fest; there’s a reggae band on it. There’s a rock ‘n’ roll fest; there’s a reggae band on it. I mean, reggae now is taking that international torch.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Mystic Bowie will play a free outdoor concert Saturday, July 15 at 7 p.m. at the Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater in Community Park North, Route 206 and Mountain Avenue in Princeton, New Jersey. The concert, produced by Blue Curtain and the Princeton Recreation Department, will also feature Sasha Masakowski and The Sidewalk Strutters. Click here for more information on the concert. Click here for more information on Mystic Bowie.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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