STORY: "Believe in Magic" - An open letter from James Searl of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad
Photo by Jamie Love
By Brian Turk
GrassRoots Gazette reached out to James Searl of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad in order to conduct an interview. The original intent was to talk about Rochester-based Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, their long history as a band, their music, and how they have played Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance countless times. Instead, James Searl began to express his love of GrassRoots. And there was really no need to ask any questions. The love just flowed. After transcribing the recorded conversation, we sent the ode back to Searl, and Searl re-worked his thoughts into an open-letter to all. GrassRoots is deeply moved by what James had to say. We hope you are too. Much love to Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. They understand the magic that is created at a GrassRoots Festival. And as an organization, we believe the magic IS the people who attend. The magic is…YOU.
By James Searl:
As a band, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad believes in magic. The real magic in life. The things that inspire you. The things that push you forward as an artist, as a human being, and as a community. The GrassRoots family of festivals aligns with that. I'm not a trippy hippy and am very interested in global politics, human rights, and political economy. I am a realist. But I know magic and energy when I see it, and GrassRoots is a magical event. It's the kind of place you imagined as a child. There is always lots of color and joy at GrassRoots. People walk around with their faces painted, smiling, and saying hello to each other. GrassRoots has shaped generations in this small pocket of NY. And beyond. I don't understand how GrassRoots is always able to put the elements together to create that magic year after year at all their festivals. I guess that’s why it’s magical. You can’t see it but it always gets you. It’s somewhere in-between the people and the music.
Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance is held on these old Fairgrounds in the middle of Trumansburg, NY - which is a small, slightly funky town. Just driving past the Fairgrounds, when GrassRoots isn't happening, you could make an assumption that nothing much is happening in Trumansburg. But a lot is going on there, its just happening inside the houses and barns that you pass. People in that part of NY are finding new ways of living within the reality of the 21st century. GrassRoots represents that way of life to me. A rekindling of old traditions like camping, crafts, and sing alongs with the conscious center piece of a solar powered, love your neighbor, listen and respect the indigenous mindset. It’s the differences of culture that make us great together and the eccentricities that keep us exciting. That is what is celebrated. That is the grassroots way of life to me. Trumansburg folks are constantly experimenting with their reactions to the modern situation. A walk into Trumansburg is a mix of getting the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had at Gimmee while an old man on a bench lectures ambiguously to the air about how presidential candidates should have to debate poetry live and the couple next to you discusses the very real power of earth worms composting and how fungus will save the world. Something about the air out there gives one a calm attitude to respectfully consider all of these possibilities and how they may intersect beneficially with each other.
There is also cultural preservation that takes place at GrassRoots festivals, especially with old-time American music, which inspired the founding of the original Finger Lakes GrassRoots. At the same time, you are going to see some of the top global artists. So there is special attention to a worldwide curation of music as well.
One of the exciting things about the GrassRoots phenomenon is it doesn't matter where in the country it takes place; there is always the same vibe. I don't know how much it has to do with the traveling circus tent, but I am sure it's a factor. We just played Shakori Hills, and when we were backstage, for a minute, we had forgotten we were in North Carolina. We thought we were in Trumansburg. Even though the Shakori Hills property in North Carolina is extraordinary, and it isn't in the middle of a town or on a Fairgrounds like in NY. There is really something mystical about the fact the same energy can be conjured in different physical locations.
Honestly, I really wish I had known about GrassRoots sooner. The first time I saw what was going on at Finger Lakes GrassRoots was from the passenger seat of a car. I was about to go to Ghana for an exchange program, so I was driving from Rochester to Ithaca to pick up some stuff at the house I had been living at. When we hit Trumansburg, there were all these cars and lots of people that looked like they were my kind of people. It looked like a place I would fit in with, but I had no idea what event was happening. That is strange, now that I think about it. As an Ithaca College student, who was in three bands and all about counter-culture...I had never heard of Finger Lakes GrassRoots. The next year I went to the festival, and it has been an essential part of my life since.
Every year I go to Finger Lakes GrassRoots I find the music I will be fully immersed in for the next year - until there is another GrassRoots. I find all my favorite music there. I'm partial to African music - it's some of the best music in the history of world. Its the origins of the music that has shaped the world. For me, African music is scientifically medicinal. It's different than going to see a garage band in a rock club. African music is ancient, and it has a profound effect on people. I really have no idea how GrassRoots finds all these world-renowned musicians from around the globe and coordinate getting them on their stages.
These "world" musicians, especially some of the African players, are from musical lineages that are thousands of years old. This ancient music is what has inspired everything we currently listen to. GrassRoots knows that. And they find the best players no matter where they are. That means so much to me. Most of us would never have the chance to see this music if it weren't for GrassRoots. And aside from the African music, one of the most interesting things about GrassRoots is the bands I am blown away by I have never heard of. I don’t know how the folks who put GrassRoots together know what I am looking for in music more than I do. Again, that’s why it’s magical for me. It’s like, “was this all for me? Of course not. Is it for everybody? Anybody?”
I have talked to a lot of people about GrassRoots. There are a lot of people that see this festival as their one big event for the year. They work hard all year and look forward to this. You can really feel that. And it feels that way for me too. Its a purifying weekend for us all. It's also rejuvenating, even though most folks don't get a lot of rest since the music goes all night. I always take the time to walk across Rabbit Run and spend some time by the water there, before it gets to the falls. Wading in the water there, and then going and celebrating life and music into the early morning, feels like a 1,000-year-old tradition.
No true music lover would not enjoy themselves at a GrassRoots festival. I don't know why people from all over the country aren't swarming them. And why more people haven't heard of them. It's such a hard fact to contemplate. And I have definately thought about it. I want everyone to be at GrassRoots, and I want everyone to experience the magic. I just never want GrassRoots to lose its mystical elements, and they have done a great job with always maintaining authenticity in what they do.
GrassRoots comes up in conversation a lot since I am in a touring band and interact with other musicians. It also comes up in conversation in some unexpected places. My wife and I were in Turkey 2017, which is where she is from. We were by the Aegean Sea and stumbled across a Classical Music festival. I looked at the program and saw that they had some of the best Classical musicians from all over the world performing. The schedule was like New Orleans Jazz Fest, where you can really pick and choose what you see. I saw that a South African guitar player, Derek Gripper, who has transcribed the music of Kora player Toumani Diabaté for six-string guitar, was playing. Toumani Diabaté is someone I had been listening to for a long time, probably because I heard Malang Diabaté playing with Nate Richardson, a grassroots staple performer, in Ithaca NY and learned that Diabate is the name of a musical lineage in Mali. Anyway, I was really excited to see a student of Toumani Diabaté listed in the program, even though I wasn't familiar with the artist.
My wife and I walked down the beach and couldn't find the concert. We didnt see anything going on anywhere. We stumbled upon an office, and my wife went in to ask where the show was - since I don't speak Turkish very well. After talking to them for a minute, she peeked out and called me in and said they spoke English.
I told them I was trying to find the Derek Gripper show. A guy on the couch said the show was the day before and that we had missed it. He then introduced himself as Derek Gripper. We got to talking, and within 10-minutes we realized we had both played the last Shakori Hills together. I mean, this guy is a world-renowned classical guitarist playing this renowned classical music festival in Turkey, and he had just played Shakori Hills. That's proof to me that the GrassRoots team picks some of the best musicians from around the world to play. Derek Gripper was excited to talk about GrassRoots with me. He said, "Man that festival was amazing! We jammed Zydeco till 7 in the morning. That guy Jeb still has my capo"! It was so surreal. I was sitting on a beach, in Turkey, next to the Aegean Sea, in my wife's home country, talking with another musician about why GrassRoots is so unique, and we had both played Shakori Hills the same year. That's magical. I live for those times. And it shows GrassRoots really has a global reach. These are the fastest surest way to peace, and we need a whole lot more roads to get there.