Ten years ago a dynamic young music trio rose out of Baltimore and became one of the world's most successful independent acts in soul/jazz music. Founded by composer/producer/musician James Collins, his wife, Cleveland diva Navasha Daya, and the drummer Marcus Asante, Fertile Ground has become a staple of the independent soul circuit. Their first project, Field Songs, conjured up the smoke filled jazz clubs of a bygone era while maintaining roots in the acrid desert sands of Africa. The combustible combination of soothing instrumentation, Navasha's rich vocals and the Collins elegant compositions catapulted Fertile Ground into a global powerhouse. Their next six albums, all self-produced and -distributed have sold well over a quarter million units worldwide, including a remix project and a greatest hits compilation. With the Internet's liberating assistance and the development of their own distribution center, BlackOut Studios, the band has taken their spiritual messages of peace and love to fans from Sydney to Tokyo.
Since the early years of Field Songs, the inventive young trio has since evolved into a powerhouse sextet with the inclusion of acclaimed jazz musicians Ekendra Das, Freddie Dunn, Mark Prince, Joel Mills and Craig Alston. For reasons the group prefers not to share, founding member Marcus Asante was replaced in between the release of the group's sophomore project, Spiritual War and its highly successful follow-up, Seasons Change. Along with their line-up, the soul/jazz band's musical vision has also changed over the years from modern spirituals and original jazz compositions to a heavier reliance on Latin jazz, World Music influences and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The group has also added a killer horn section led by Mills, Dunn and Alston, prominently on display in the group's last project of unreleased material, Black Is ... (the group has since re-released a newly mastered Field Songs). Now and again the group will even delve into the celebratory world of dance music with stunning results like the carnival inspired track "Peace and Love" or the Osunlade remixes of "Another Day" and "Live in the Light". The expansion of the group's musical palette have assisted Fertile Ground in moving past comparisons to other soul jazz bands east of the Atlantic, like Incognito and Brand New Heavies. While the group has experienced unyielding musical growth on every project, the constant threading each work is Fertile Ground's socially conscious lyricism, which sometimes eclipses the groups innumerable love songs. Interestingly, Collins bristles when queried about the band's rep as educators as well as entertainers.
"Educates gives the auspices of we know and want to teach. Rather, Fertile Ground wants to expose and cause people to ask questions. Like how Bobby Brown taught everyone that prerogative was a word. Maybe through our music fans will hear the word chakra, or Buddhism, or Malcolm, or Marcus Garvey and want to learn more about it."
While Collins may not like the idea of being considered an educator, he has nonetheless begun, through his BlackOut Studios, a home-grown arts institution in Baltimore; one that educates everyday people on how to follow Fertile Ground's path to independent success.
"There are a lot of awesome singers and vocalists who are mothers, teachers, and wives who haven't been privileged with our understanding of how to get exposure for your work. We try to mentor them as we have been mentored," notes Collins.
Founded to assist Fertile Ground in distribute Spiritual War, BlackOut Studios now has a separate staff to run CD distribution, develop events like Organic Soul Tuesdays and Baltimore's African Heritage festival, and manage its Poetry for The People non-profit affiliate. Through Poetry for the People and Organic Soul Tuesdays, an open mike showcase, Collins and his team have provided cultivation and performance opportunities for both local and national artists. Several black bands have formed as a direct result of their exposure to Organic Soul Tuesdays. BlackOut Studios has also distributed and published the work of other writers and artists in and out of Baltimore, including Julie Dexter and poet Olu Butterfly. Collins is thoughtful about the role he and Fertile Ground have played in developing talent and distributing new work.
"As an artist I think it's my duty to inspire art. But certain things have to be put in place to help make those things happen. We have been trying to provide different places and opportunities for artists to grow."
As incredible a gift as the band's recordings are for its legions of fans. Nothing beats Fertile Ground in concert. Picture it: incense, moody lighting, a full jazz band sporting a rocking horn section and a barefoot Nubian Goddess draped in gleaming kente fabric dancing in unison to percussive African rhythms before a dark room of devoted acolytes. Then, in a healing alto channeling the source, she sings and the room responds with song, sways, shouts and sometimes even tears.
"A Fertile Ground concert is a discourse, not a sermon to digest. It's an intimate, inside conversation about things that need to be discussed: spirituality, government, change, culture; things that can always use an extra ten minutes on a soapbox. Through art, we just try to inspire people."
By L. Michael Gipson