Always trust the symphony in your head. It’s that call that artist Nahko Bear followed back to his beginnings. On a crisp Pacific Northwest morning where it all began, he’s picking up vibrations with his ear to the ground.
“Through our location, where we were born and raised, and how inevitably we return to those places, lends a lot of experience to our story,” he says. “To return after over 15 years of being away, it’s good to be back. It’s kind of healing in a way. It’s a new place to jump off.”
Nahko and Medicine for the People perform March 16 at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. It’s a special show for the Oregon native who will perform material from his early days, back when he first recognized the faint drumbeat within himself.
“This is a collection of songs from my youth. It’s really a full-power experience to bring them back. It’s raw and intense, but beautiful. I’m excited to share the music from who I was then through the person that I am now,” he says. “I used to be freaked out that people were listening to my songs and having their own transformation, like, ‘wait, this is my story.’ Years later, I realize they were never mine. They’re straight from the spirit and come through me. They’re everyone else’s after that.”
Nahko embodies the spirit of a shaman with an adventurer’s soul. The Oregonian of Puerto Rican, Native American, and Filipino bloodlines was given up for adoption to a white family in Portland, Oregon, at birth and lost all contact with his Native American heritage for over two decades. He was raised Christian and taught to sing, write, and play piano and guitar.
At 17 years old, Nahko was hired as music director for an Alaskan theater production. After two years in Alaska and one year of Hawaii with farming practices under his belt, and while never having met his biological parents, Nahko embarked on a journey to seek them out. After finding his mother and siblings via the internet, he learned the story of a traumatic past, including the murder of his father and grandfather and his grandmother’s equally tragic suicide.
Nahko channels his past pain into his music and sharing his story, finding inspiration in the works of musicians and storytellers like Paul Simon, Conor Oberst and Bob Dylan whose words transcend generations. “The tradition of oral storytelling, of hearing stories passed down, those stories are classics now,” he says. “They help us remember a specific time in history. I tend to consider that’s what my world is right now.”
When speaking about his life and his music, Nahko speaks in colorful ribbons of thought and catches himself when an idea suddenly unravels in an unscripted tangent. “I’m like, ‘uh oh, here I go,’” laughs Nahko. Onstage, his lyrical storytelling ability opens audiences to “Real Talk Music” with songs that reveal honesty, purity and the importance of embracing every moment.
A live performance is a communal experience, and Nahko is mindful of the sacrament he shares with his audience as well as the dual role he plays as the portal and the prayer. “It’s everything. It’s a vulnerable thing to come out and play in front of everyone and remember the words, do the thing,” he says. “For me, my way and the way I deliver, it’s part of my show. I interact, dialogue, talk, tell stories. That’s how I am. It’s me.”
Joining him onstage is a vibrant assembly of musicians joining forces to explore the vast sonic landscape as Medicine for the People. “There is something indescribable when it comes to playing with other people, combining efforts and the chemistry of how things can happen when you can create together,” says Nahko. “It comes down to deep friendships as well, and that’s what I share with my bandmates. I bring them songs and they add their world to it.”
Chase Makai met Nahko in Hawaii, after relocating from his native Australia. The two bonded over a shared love of surfing, skating, and music. Makai joined Medicine for the People in 2011, adding his distinctive playing style on the 12-string acoustic guitar.
Music is the sole focus for drummer Justin Chittams. After moving to Hawaii and graduating as a music major, he has performed with many different local rock, reggae and jazz groups such as N.Y.R., Big Island Swing, Wendell Ing and Friends, The Steppas, Positive Motion and Medicine for the People.
Born in Santiago, Chile, PatoHe played in many bands in Chile including SantoBando, Orixango, Afrik, as well as his own projects in Bali: Gypsy Caveman and Mamba Hitam. He is a multi-instrumentalist playing instruments from around the world including the guitar, bass, percussion, piano, balafon, kora, ngoni, djembe, and anything that can make a sound.
After graduating Berklee College of Music, Max Ribner began a journey to seek music with a message and songs with deeper meaning. His first encounter with Nahko involved playing the horn lines whistled by Nahko in a call and response fashion. Ribner has supported Medicine for the People for nine years and developed a solid reputation as a trumpet and flugelhorn musician, performing with such artists as Esperanza Spalding, Liv Warfield, Lettuce, Sara Tone, Everyone Orchestra, The Shook Twins, Rebelution, Ryan Montbleau, Zach Deputy, Freedom Tribe, Hassan Hakmoun, Dave Stringer, members of Tower of Power, Stevie Wonder and Prince.
While living in his van and traveling across the states in 2012, violinist Tim Snider met Ribner, who invited him to come sit in with Nahko at a small 30-person kava bar in Portland. Snider played strings on the album Dark as Night. He is now touring with the band and has recorded and produced three of his own albums as well as worked with many other artists such as Talib Quali, the Trans Siberian Orchestra, Dave Eggar, Amber Rubarth, House of Waters, Saeeda Wright and the Brazilian artist, Capela.
The combination of such bold musical flavors has shaped a sound so unique that it defies category. Nahko describes the Medicine-style as a mix of hip-hop and folk rock with a world message but refuses to claim professional allegiance to any one genre. “It’s kind of a mystery to me still. I’m influenced by all kinds of music, and I love to play with all those elements when I create. It’s a fun canvas to splash paint on,” he says. “It’s a gift to be able to float between the areas. There’s no need for us to be stuck in the archaic tradition of this, that, or the other. Music is music if we let grace in.”