Thursday, November 18, 1999
Joan Baez has been many things. In the late ''50s she was a teenage singer, breathing new life into old folk songs. By the mid ''60s she had become an iconic figure on the New York folk scene, on her way to becoming as active in social and political movements as she was in music. By the ''70s and through the ''80s, her music had almost become secondary to the various social and political causes in which she was involved.
And then in the ''90s, the metamorphosis continued, with Baez returning her focus to music, actively working to improve her instrumental and vocal skills, and producing about an album a year (including 1992''s Grammy-nominated Play Me Backwards).
Saturday''s concert with legendary African drummer Babatunde Olatunji may be a signal that Baez is taking the first steps in yet another direction.
The concert, at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, is a benefit for Window to the West, a nonprofit organization founded by Tom Little Bear to help preserve Esselen Indian culture and native lands. The Esselen tribe is largely dependent on income from Little Bear''s other business, Ventana Wilderness Ranch and Expeditions, which has suffered a huge negative impact from the recent fires in the Wilderness. A couple years ago, Baez got involved with the organization, and has been participating in sweat lodges and other ceremonies ever since.
During one of these visits, Baez says she became enamored with some river stones on the property. At first, she said she asked Little Bear if it would be OK for her to take some home. But then it struck her that she should really be asking the stones'' permission.
"At first, I felt a hesitance from the rocks," says Baez. "So I asked what I could do for them and the answer was very clear: They wanted to know rocks from somewhere else." Ultimately, the rocks went home with Baez and she has endeavored to keep her end of the bargain. Wherever she goes, she tries to find interesting rocks to bring back for the growing community of stones. "Now I have a mountain of rocks around the house."
Baez is aware that, at least to some people, it may sound strange to be talking with rocks. But she says that it''s part of a newly blossoming spiritual awareness.
"It''s symbolic of another step toward the kind of spiritual life I''m comfortable with," says Baez. "It''s less of a one-god theory and more of everything-has-a-spirit. A couple of years ago, I wouldn''t have spoken like this. Ten years ago this would have all been voodoo."
But time spent with Little Bear in ceremony and in the forest has changed some of Baez''s perceptions. Although she talks about the performance moments when she and the audience transcend barriers of all kinds, she also talks reverently about the wilderness.
"When the singing takes off and there''s nothing else to think about, there''s a moment when the audience and I transcend.something. Out in a place like that, in the wilderness, I am probably the most ecstatic of any time," says Baez.
"I know the difference between meditating alone, and meditating with a group. Sometimes when you''re meditating with a group, something extraordinary happens. In the wilderness, there is very much a feeling of privacy, whatever I''m sharing, I''m sharing alone. All I can say is that the feeling [between the two experiences] is very much the same."
Now that the spiritual dimensions of her life have begun to blend with her activism, Baez seems more content to take on smaller, more intimate issues. "The kind of fighting I did 30 or 40 years ago was very conscious of the international scene. Now, you have to choose a little corner of it.
"In all the things I have done in my lifetime, my social actions, this is another phase of it. I feel more at ease with nature than with any other organization or group."
Baez''s reconnection with the Earth is what prompted her to convince her friend Babatunde Olatunji, the renowned African drummer, to visit with Little Bear at the Esselen ceremonial grounds earlier this year.
"I just want you to feel the land," Baez says she told Babatunde. "And then, around the campfire that night, he said, ''I can''t remember a time since my childhood when I have felt this peace.'' So he said, ''We must do a concert for this.''"
That was before the forest fire. So, when Baez was contacted--and Babatunde, in turn--it didn''t take much arm-twisting to convince them to do the concert.
Also appearing on the same bill are the Amah-Ka-Tura dancers, who perform ancient traditional dances; Kumbengo, a group featuring Gabriel Harris (Baez''s son) that performs traditional West African music; and Public Service Announcement, a hip-hop group featuring Baez''s niece, Pearl Bryan.
The 9pm benefit concert Saturday at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz costs $28/advance, $30/door. Call 423-1336 for more info.