By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007; Page WE05
SOJA is on the move.
In the month before headlining Friday's first of three free Weekend's Weekends concerts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, the Arlington-based reggae band SOJA (an acronym for Soldiers of Jah Army) was touring in Europe, after a tour of South America earlier this year.
"This is our first year to jump outside the United States and U.S. territories," says guitarist and primary singer-songwriter Jacob Hemphill, speaking from Toulouse, France, last week. He adds that SOJA has been to Guam several times.
The group performed a dozen concerts in France and one in Belgium and appeared at the Festi'neuch rock and reggae festival in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Pretty good for a band that puts music out on its own label (Innerloop) and whose manager, Elliott Harrington, moonlights as DJ Redemption.
Hemphill says that, thanks to the Internet, "you don't need a [major] record label these days" to develop a profile outside your home town. On MySpace, YouTube and a half-dozen other Web links, you can find an audience (and vice versa) and do some community building.
"We have a different brand of reggae, and people kinda pick up on that."
Hemphill says: "Bob Marley is the king of reggae, and the reason is he invented something new. After him, you get a couple of guys doing new stuff, but a lot of people are just following in his footsteps. We incorporate different kinds of music and keep a very roots and Rasta message but try to say things in a way they haven't really been said before. We try not to use catchphrases that get used over and over, try to personalize our message so that it's really coming from us. The guys who invented [reggae] -- Marley and Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Culture -- all had their own style, so we're trying to take it back to the way they made it."
Though reggae is "definitely the main overtone, we put a lot of rock into it, a little bit of hip-hop," Hemphill says. On the group's most recent album, 2006's "Get Wiser," guest musicians included guitarist Junior Marvin of the original Wailers, percussionist Go-Go Mickey Freeman of Rare Essence and a string quartet led by Eddie Drennon, who was Bo Diddley's music director and electric violinist in the late '60s.
"We featured Go-Go Mickey to put a little D.C. music into it, Eddie Drennon's string quartet to put a little blues into it," Hemphill says. "I have many influences, and when I'm writing songs, I try to let that show through. I'm not necessarily into one kind of music; I'm into songwriters, guys who write killer songs and make it really personal and original. That's what I identify with."
SOJA's members (Hemphill, bassist-vocalist Bob Jefferson, keyboardist Patrick "Ricochet" O'Shea, drummer Ryan "Jah Byrd" Berty and percussionist-Nyahbinghi drummer Ken "Papa Iyah" Brownell) are still in their mid-20s, with roots going back a decade when they first hooked up at Williamsburg Middle School and Yorktown High in Arlington.
Some relationships are even older.
"Me and Bob met in first grade at Nottingham Elementary School, and we have been hanging out ever since," Hemphill says, laughing. "I've known him since I turned 7 years old and had just moved back from Africa with my family after my dad had worked there.
The group coalesced at middle school talent shows, "doing Wu-Tang Clan -- we were really into hip-hop and rock," Hemphill recalls. "When we found reggae, we felt there was something bigger about it because it has this unifying message -- there's a movement and a lifestyle. You can't really just come on the song and say whatever you please, you've got to be moving to a positive, moral structure and an equal rights and justice outlook on the world. Once you get hooked on that, it's tough to ditch it."
Hemphill remembers going to family reunions where his older cousins would listen to Marley, Tosh and UB40, but "I was too young, and it was hard to understand because I hadn't seen [reggae] on MTV or heard it on the radio. When I was a little older, I realized why they were so into it."
In their early teens, the kids started going to reggae concerts at the 9:30 club, catching such artists as Israel Vibration, Culture and Burning Spear. "We'd take the Metro to U Street-Cardozo," Hemphill recalls, "and usually when we got out of the show, the Metro was closed. And we'd have to hustle our way back to Arlington, then go to school the next day."
Another schooling began, Hemphill says, when folks in Washington's Rastafarian community "noticed these little white kids who would always show up early and leave really late." Ras Mugabe, leader of the local Nyahbinghi (an order of Rastafarians) house in Washington, invited them to learn about the Rastafarian way of life and to study the music and drumming, the essential "riddim" at the heart of reggae.
"We were pretty much the only Americans, and the only kids that looked like us," Hemphill says. "There were elders there, like Brother Jack . . . and Ras Iris. Ras Pidow, who died recently, was a dub poet who worked with Roots Radics and Israel Vibration. So we would go there and see these living legends and could not believe it. They were really cool to us and would teach us things."
Some very important things, Hemphill adds.
"One of the first things Ras Mugabe taught us was, 'You aren't Jamaican, you should not be trying to talk to Jamaicans.' They would come see us play at State of the Union or Kaffa House and say, 'Understand you're not Jamaican, but you can talk to your people -- American people, white people, kids -- in a way that we can't. And in that way, you're carrying on the Rasta tradition and message in the circle that you can control it.'
"I remember the day he told me that and everything clicked for me. I felt, 'Okay, I have a place now in fighting the fight that I want to fight,' and those words from Ras Mugabe really changed my whole outlook on all that stuff. Be yourself -- what a great thing to teach us."
Another important connection was made in 2000, when Berty, working as a courier, delivered a package to veteran sound engineer Jim Fox at his Lion and Fox Studios, then in Alexandria.
"He's a living legend," gushes Hemphill, adding that "probably half the [reggae] albums in my house say 'mastered by Jim Fox at Lion and Fox Studios.' We never expected to meet him or for him to care who we were."
Fox, who had done most of the mastering for RAS Records and mixed sound at many of the local reggae concerts the teenagers had attended, took them under his wing and recorded, mixed and mastered SOJA's self-titled EP and co-produced their 2003 album, "Peace in a Time of War," and "Get Wiser."
With such songs as "Open My Eyes," "Faith Works," the purposeful "Strong for Them" and "911" on the album, Hemphill says he thinks the recent album is "more complex lyrically; there's more to think about. When Bob Marley wrote a song, he wrote it so that anybody could feel like it related to them, no matter if they were a Rasta or not, black or white, man or woman, poor or rich. It's not like he was being vague, but he would speak these universal truths. And that makes him my favorite musician and favorite songwriter of all time, the best storyteller I've ever heard in my life. That's all I've ever aspired to do."
In January 2006, SOJA celebrated the release of "Get Wiser" at the State Theatre with Go-Go Mickey and Drennon's string quartet as special guest. The performance was filmed for a live DVD -- Fox did the audio, of course -- and Hemphill hopes it will be out this summer. Besides the Carter Barron concert, SOJA will be at the State Theatre on June 30.
Appearing with SOJA at Friday's concert are Image Band, the local Caribbean-rooted calypso-reggae band that headlined a Weekend's Weekend concert in 2003, and Baltimore's Strykers' Posse, led by singer-keyboardist Ichelle Cole.
Weekend's Weekends with SOJA, Image Band, Strykers' Posse Friday at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW Tickets: Free tickets for Weekend's Weekends will be available the day of the performance at the Carter Barron box office beginning at noon. Tickets will also be available starting at 8:30 a.m. the day of the show at The Post at 1150 15th St. NW. There are no scheduled rain dates. Picnic areas are available in the park around the amphitheater. For more information, call 202-334-6808.