Cameron Stallones has experienced the joys of spiritual enlightenment first hand. As quite possibly the sole reason one of the most significant Jamaican groups ever had reformed in 2010, the LA performer is releasing and later performing FRKWYS VOL. 9: Icon Give Thank with The Congos. That band released the seminal roots reggae album Heart of the Congos, produced by the equally revered Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 1977, and went on to inspire and influence generations of dub and roots musicians, no less an obscur-ish audiophile based on the West Coast of the United States. His personal catalogue of cosmic esoterica includes the improvised neo-primitivism of Not Not Fun release Heavy Deeds in 2009 and a record inspired by antiquity in Hippos In Tanks’ Ancient Romans last year, all produced under the better-known moniker of Sun Araw.
Joined by friend and live collaborator M. Geddes Gengras on another gruelling tour –physically somewhere in Middle America, psychically across the universe –Stallones is talking about how he found himself in the midst of a musical and metaphysical centre, 45-minutes out of Kingston, Jamaica, a year earlier. That studio in the town of Portmore, inhabited by a community of musicians and Rastas, is itself a reflection of the hazy middle-point between creative expression and spiritual exploration where Stallones himself lingers. Icon Give Thank is the result of that accord. Featuring submerged dub beats and fragmented samples, stringed together by the elemental vocal harmonies that made The Congos emblems of their time, the album is a result an unfathomable meeting of minds, that only someone as curious, bold and slightly eccentric as Sun Araw could pull off…
aqnb: Was it a given that Mark [Geddes Gengras] was going to be working with you on this?
CS: Not initially, no. But he was my buddy for a long time and when Matt [Werth, RVNG Intl label boss] asked me to come my first thought was that I have to bring somebody because I jam and it’s a form of communication. I do it on my own at home and most of my Sun Araw records are just me solo but I just felt like another energy that would be responsive to my energy would be a really good idea. Especially in such a foreign place and Ged’s a really good engineer too. He records bands at his house and stuff so it seemed like a perfect idea. He also knows a huge amount about reggae and dub so there’s a lot of reasons.
aqnb: Touring as much as you do and being such a traveler, do you think about where you’re going to be in the future?
CS: Yeah, totally. I have no idea [laughs]. It’s pretty cool not to know.
aqnb: You’ve talked about living in the present and all that stuff but you’re basically living that reality now, in all its uncertainty.
CS: Yeah, man. That’s where all the gifts are. That’s the presence. If you open yourself up to it, it’s there. If you calculate it out and try to make a plan for it then it disappears. Because plans are based on an instrument in our body that isn’t really built for that sort of work. I think we’re supposed to move heart forward, not brain forward. It’s the oldest idea but it seems true in my life.
aqnb: Did you get that feeling from The Congos when you were there?
CS: Oh, yeah. The way time moves there. If you need evidence that time is a construct of the contemporary Western mind, then travel in the third world a little bit. In Jamaica the whole spirit is different. Time behaves differently, it reacts differently; it expands and contracts in ways that give you space, that we don’t allow ourselves to have in the western world. Those guys are in touch.
I think, in a lot of ways, that maybe the political and economic structures that are there force people to find those outlets more quickly because it’s just a lot more unpleasant if you don’t. If you’re stressing about the cares of the world and you live in a harsh environment of poverty or oppression, all of which Rastas have encountered, then you’re definitely not going to be very happy for very long. But if you learn to discover those gifts that lie there and open yourself to the moment…
People want to look at that and smile at it and say ‘that’s a nice idea’. We look at it wistfully like it’s something we don’t have the capabilty for or something that we don’t understand. That’s a tragedy because it’s really something every person can do and, really, the simplest thing you can do. It’s so inspiring to actually go there and see it. I think going to such a different place allows you to see it so clearly.
aqnb: Do you think, with the fall-out of the GEC, that people from the US and Europe could learn a thing or two from people who live in these harsher environments?
CS: I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about because obviously there are people who are really doing without and really suffering. I live below the poverty line in America but I’m also a white middle class person, somehow, so I can do that without it really touching me. I’m scrabbling for a burrito but at the same time it’s different than for someone born into a world of poverty, living in a world of poverty. But there is also, in a very real way, an abundance in this universe.
I don’t want to get too metaphysical but if you want evidence of provision for the human species, this world is an emanation of the same thing that we are an emanation of. We make these separations and placeholders like money. I don’t know, I’m sounding like a lame hippy right now but we make these placeholders and they don’t stand the test of time because they’re a mental idea put into the physical world. They make a certain amount of sense for a certain amount of time and then don’t again. Then we lose our minds. If you want to find the happiest people on the planet you don’t look for wealthy, well provided for people.
aqnb: It’s like the idea in [Milan Kundera’s] Unbearable Lightness of Being, in a way. Where the burden of having all your immediate needs met already is potentially more frightening than the reverse.
CS: Yeah, I completely agree and it’s really inspiring. That’s the whole history of music in Jamaica; it’s what the Rastas did. I don’t speak with any authority because I’m not well-versed in the history of it. But on some large, metaphysical level there’s this system where man took the power and the Rasta says, ‘what power did you to take? I’ve got a seat in Zion, I’m the King.’ They walk around like that. They’re kings of the earth; they’re fed by the earth. There are flowering fruit trees all over their neighbourhood. You starve there if you’re lazy; if you don’t want to look around you and interact with your environment. And these men are like, ‘what did you take? You didn’t take anything. You took the idea of authority but you have no authority and it’s meaningless’. It’s really powerful because it strikes at the heart of everything.
aqnb: Is there a real sense of community there?
CS: The Congos HQ is this meeting ground for the whole neighbourhood and the whole music community in that area. There’s four Congos’ but they’re all Congos, really. There’s the drummer who runs a Ital food shop and the guy that would take care of us and drive us around if we needed to go somewhere. They’re all Congos.
aqnb: How do you think that compares with where you live in LA?
CS: The part that I live in and the part that I love is East LA, which is Highland Park, Boyle Heights, that kind of area. It’s just a really real community. There’s a huge Mexican-American presence and those are the people I spend most of my time around; the businesses I frequent and the restaurants that I got to.
My culture decided that without a certain amount of income you can’t live well. But here there’s this whole community of people that live joyfully and eat fresh food and celebrate and do so on very little means. That becomes my new mother because my mother kicked me out of the house.
It’s so funny because for some people the encouragement of immigration from Mexico up into the LA area is the dissolving of their world and they see it as such a threat. But to me and a lot of my friends, and anyone interested in living in a sane way, it’s such a blessing. Heaven and hell are the same thing, it just depends on our perspective.