After a fairly long drive up and down dirt roads in the maze-like rural neighborhoods of Haiku makai, Michael Franti greets me with a warm smile. He is standing alone in the middle of an unpaved lot between a cottage under construction and a larger expanse of property devoted to the yogic commune of Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane.
I quickly eschewed my preservative-laden coffee for a friendly, organic embrace from the protest music icon.
A tall yet supremely graceful man, Franti leads me down a short path to a deck that opens up to a sweeping view of the ocean and an expanse of dense tropical forest. He introduces me to his six-year-old son Ade and begins to roll out his yoga mat.
Franti has been doing yoga for years. But he first met Modestini and Doane, of Maya Yoga Studio in Haiku, at the Gathering of the Vibes music festival in New York.
“I was looking up into the sunlight and saw a silhouette of a petite woman and a bald man—he coulda been Gandhi,” says Franti. “They were beaming at me and said, ‘Hi! We’re here to teach you yoga!’”
Long-time fans and yoga instructors, Modestini and Doane agreed to follow Franti on tour, teaching yoga daily in exchange for a spot on the bus. Ultimately, the partnership led to public yoga workshops with Franti on acoustic guitar.
“It’s a lot different than just playing CDs in class,” says Franti. “A lot of my songs are about what’s going on in the world and making a positive change. It goes nicely with [yoga] practice.”
Franti’s musical career began in 1986, when he founded an industrial hip-hop duo in the Bay Area called The Beatnigs. With a cult-like following and much critical acclaim, Franti carried the underground momentum and politically active lyricism to the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy.
A few years later, he became the frontman for the collective Spearhead, which became an amalgamation of many musical influences—hip-hop, soul, reggae, funk and jazz—without losing any of Franti’s passion, style or socio-political integrity.
Indeed, Franti’s politics seemed to propel him forward. In 1999 he founded the annual Power to the Peaceful festival in San Francisco with a group of artists as a forum to speak out about the plight of incarcerated journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. After 9/11, lyrics from his song, “Bomb the World” made it onto T-shirts, protest signs and CNN: “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.”
Frustrated by the lack of information about what was going on in the Middle East, Franti decided to see for himself. So he packed his guitar, a video camera and began talking to everyone he could find: U.S. soldiers, an Iraqi heavy metal band, children in hospitals recovering from bomb injuries. He called the resulting documentary I Know I’m Not Alone.
And although he’s been playing music for nearly 20 years, Franti insists he’s “just getting going.”
But how does an activist-musician-filmmaker-father cope with the demands of such a rigorous schedule? How does Franti deal with the negativity, political restraints, ignorance and social injustices that he protests, as well as keep the peace at home? Does he ever just, you know, relax?
Franti starts his morning warm-up sitting cross-legged, upright and breathing deeply. Facing the ocean, he continues with a fluid series of dynamic poses—Sun Salutation into Forward Bend, then Downward-Facing Dog into Four-Limbed Staff Pose, back to Downward-Facing Dog, Warrior I, Warrior II, Triangle Pose and so on.
As tiny beads of sweat collect on his forehead, I take in our lush surroundings. The two-storied, naturally bleached wood deck is nestled amongst an amorphous thicket of wild palms, ginger and bamboo. A gentle swoosh of wind through the trees merges with the distant sound of rushing tides, interrupted only occasionally by wild birds, a helicopter or the moo of a cow.
Franti is in Relaxation Pose now, on his back. His face is peaceful, and arms and legs are splayed out. Ade, who had been keeping himself busy with a plastic figurine, turns to crawl over to his father. Franti opens his eyes and reaches out for Ade. The two hold each other close and giggle.
With his son in his lap, Franti picks up his guitar and begins strumming. Ade resumes playing, stopping once to swat a mosquito on his father’s knee. Franti laughs.
“They get me everywhere!” he says. “Me and my partner made an agreement to try not to scratch. We figure in 15 minutes it’ll go away.”
“They get me on my ears!” says Ade, frowning.
Carla Swanson, Franti’s partner of little more than a year, is an art director, graphic designer, film editor and motion graphics artist originally from Oahu. She’s done a lot of work in Hollywood films, as well as Franti’s I Know I’m Not Alone documentary.
“She does all our graphics for our website,” says Franti. “We have a great partnership—and it’s great when we can work together.”
Aside from Ade, Franti also has an 18-year old son named Cappy. The whole clan lives in the Bay Area.
“I’m a city person,” says Franti. “I like the anonymity of the city—blending in with the crowd. It’s nice to escape the city to come here but I can never live here [in Haiku]—it’s too rural, too isolated. It’d drive me crazy. Mostly we just come [to Maui] and stop.”
As Franti is talking, his left hand idly holds guitar chords while Ade takes over strumming. We somehow start talking about King Kong.
“I loved that movie,” says Franti as Ade’s eyes grow wide. “We’ve already seen it twice. When he’s fighting the T-Rexes and all the little insects—it’s really disturbing. But it’s really emotional, too.”
It’s hard to believe the movie could be any more of a rollercoaster than Franti’s past year, what with the completion of his documentary, the authoring of the DVD, touring solo with the film, playing acoustically after screenings, touring with the band, recording two studio albums and finishing a book about the documentary. Then, of course, there have been a few natural disasters as well.
“This year’s been such an intense year,” says Franti. “Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, turmoil—it’s been a really emotional year for me and everyone I know. The two things in my life that help me to release are music and yoga.”
Last month, Franti performed at Folsom Prison. While he was there, he asked a lifer, “What is it that keeps you going?” Franti says the inmate said he didn’t have one phone number he could call, that everyone he knew was dead or in jail and no one in his family wanted anything to do with him.
“But the one thing I have,” he said to Franti, “is my ability to give and receive compassion.”
“That’s what I get from my practice in yoga,” says Franti. “To be compassionate with myself and to practice that with other people—sometimes that’s harder than just doing something nice for other people. You start to feel crappy about mistakes you’ve made, your past…”
Franti’s voice trails off. He looks out into the tropical horizon.
“So I still have to think about what I’m gonna let go of,” he says. “It’s kinda intimate, I’m gonna have to spend some time with it.”
This year, he admits, it might the fear of being judged by other people. When Franti first began speaking against the war on tour, he’d get boo-ed on stage, as well as hate mail and threats. He was told he wasn’t being patriotic.
“I know, because of my experience traveling,” he says, “I’m not the only person in the world who wants peace.”
It was a difficult time for him and his family. But what he eventually realized was that he wasn’t on the side of the U.S., Iraq, Palestine or Israel. His allies were the peacemakers, individuals around the world dedicated to ending conflict.
A young woman with an embroidered “K” on her shirt steps onto the deck, casually greets everyone and sits down. Fresh out of her yoga practice, she says she’s having “bad car karma today.” Ade joins in with his own tale of monster trucks. Soon they’re talking about King Kong again. As Franti rocks him in his lap, Ade continues.
“…and she was chased by three T-Rexes! I liked it when she tried to make the mouth close and she could juggle him a little with her feet…”
K walks into one of the cottages and puts on some instrumental holiday music. As “Jingle Bell Rock” permeates the tranquil surroundings, the property caretaker arrives, contemplating out loud if he should climb a nearby tree to get some coconuts. Franti nudges Ade.
“You should get one,” he says.
“Maybe a small one,” says Ade, shyly.
The caretaker and Franti talk about the impending whale season and K asks if anyone wants tea. K described her recent travails with a moldy biodiesel tank and the joys of a newly purchased dehumidifier. Ade finishes a drawing of Kong-inspired monsters, which Franti fills in with color and hands back to his son. Then he picks up his guitar. Leaning forward a little, he starts singing.
“You tell me lies, lies, lies—sweet little lies…”
Ade reaches out, pressing his hand against the strings of the bridge as his father strums, creating a muted, hollow plucking sound that makes Franti smile.
“And I cannot bear the truth…”
Franti cues his son to do it again and laughs, continuing his song.
“Tell me that the whole world is wonderful—that the bank account is full—that we got time—that I ain’t gonna lose my mind. Tell me lies, lies, lies…”
Ade interrupts, wanting help with “trying to make a guy floating” in his next drawing. Franti stops his song, flips his guitar over and uses it as a drawing table while he consults with Ade on the sketch.
“You could put hair on him, too,” says Franti.
“I know,” says Ade, “but he’s a skeleton dude.”
K asks Franti about possible vendors at the New Year’s Eve yoga workshop where Franti will be performing acoustically. They discuss the possibilities of bigger future events, involving many musicians and yoga instructors.
“Maui is the Jurassic Park of yoga,” says K.
“Would you be the Velociraptor or T-Rex of yoga?” asks Franti.
“Mmm… Velociraptor,” says K. “Though I’m T-Rex in chaturanga [a challenging yoga push-up]!”
“I think I’m still one of the one-celled organisms,” says Franti. MTW