When Hopi reggae artist Casper Lomayesva takes the stage Saturday at the Dolores River Festival, he’ll channel the inspiration of Jamaican music he heard performed live as a kid.
Raised in the Kykotmovi Village on Second Mesa in Hopi Land, Lomayesva was front-and-center for regular communal gatherings of legendary reggae musicians and the Hopi community.
“There is a spiritual connection between the Native American struggle for independence and the struggles of the Jamaican people,” Lomayesva said. “We share similar experiences, and I think that shared background brought us together through music.”
Beginning in the 1980s, the historic Hopi tribe in northeast Arizona began hosting epic reggae acts for Native American fans residing in small, ancient villages.
For Hopi and Navajos – and those lucky to be in the know – these special concerts in the remote desert featured famous bands such as Toots and the Maytals, Steel Pulse, The Wailers, Burning Spear, Freddie McGregor and Sister Carol.
“I remember going to the concerts with my grandfather, who was a very conservative, traditional Hopi,” Lomayesva says. “I would just dance all night, and he would stand back, watch and listen.”
Arriving to the remote, windswept mesa country, Jamaican stars would come off the tour buses, squinting and smiling, but also wondering, ‘where is everyone?’
“They’d ask, will the people come? And I’d say, you watch, at sunset they will come down from the Mesa behind you, from the mountain trails, from the south, the east and the west. And they always did,” Lomayesva said.
The gatherings reached in the 1500s and were more than just a concert, he said. Each family would bring enough food and drink to share, and a feast of stews, burgers, and traditional breads would be had before and after the show with the bands and fans.
“It was like a big family gathering. For the Dolores festival, I feel the same energy, respect,” he said. “A small town with a lot to share. We’re looking forward to a great show.”
Inspired by his childhood musical experiences, he went reggae and never looked back. His band Casper and the Mighty 602 Band features a mix of a modern, upbeat reggae sound alongside the classic hypnotic roots style.
“We’re a tribal stew; you never know what you are going to get. You can trust we are heavy on the drum and bass,” he said.
The band’s lyrics are a champion of the unspoken issues and social challenges that hold down some of his peers. Suicide, substance abuse, jealousy, living in two, often contradicting cultures, are all problems that Native Americans deal with, he said.
“I don’t hold back, and call it as I see it. The Hopi tend to not talk about difficult issues, but I disagree. Let it out and then work on a solution. Those are the songs I write about and perform.”
Exposing corruption of the establishment is a core of the reggae revolution, he adds.
“Pointing out injustices like police brutality on the reservation is something friends and family can relate to. You won’t read about that aspect of the reservation in the New York Times.”
Oppression, “sometimes by our own people” needs more acknowledgement and resistance in order for positive change to happen, Lomayesva says.
“On important issues, you can’t beat around the bush, you know? Keeping silent has a way of alienating your own people who are suffering.”
Strange, often negative stereotypes of Native Americans persist. He wants people to understand that natives live in two worlds, and have successfully resisted the often brutal assimilation policies of the past.
“We were here before the pioneers, before the Spanish, before the Aztecs. We are not from the reservation, rather our Nation is surrounded by one,” he says.
Between shows, producing albums, and visits to his traditional village, he works for an engineering firm out of Mesa, Arizona.
“My grandfather warned me that the world may not be ready for what I offer, but I convinced him I don’t perform for fame or money, it feeds my spirit,” he said.
“When people struggling thank me for my lyrics, it means a lot. The human spirit always finds a way to stay alive.”
Casper and the Mighty 602 Band takes the main stage at 4:15 pm.