SOJA's Brand of Reggae Is Crossing Borders

SOJA's Ken Brownell, from left, Jacob Hemphill, Ryan Berty, Bob Jefferson and Patrick O'Shea started going to reggae shows in their teens.
SOJA's Ken Brownell, from left, Jacob Hemphill, Ryan Berty, Bob Jefferson and Patrick O'Shea started going to reggae shows in their teens. (By Brad Lubin)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

SOJA is on the move.

In the month before headlining Friday's first of three free Weekend's Weekends concerts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, the Arlington-based reggae band SOJA (an acronym for Soldiers of Jah Army) was touring in Europe, after a tour of South America earlier this year.

"This is our first year to jump outside the United States and U.S. territories," says guitarist and primary singer-songwriter Jacob Hemphill, speaking from Toulouse, France, last week. He adds that SOJA has been to Guam several times.

The group performed a dozen concerts in France and one in Belgium and appeared at the Festi'neuch rock and reggae festival in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Pretty good for a band that puts music out on its own label (Innerloop) and whose manager, Elliott Harrington, moonlights as DJ Redemption.

Hemphill says that, thanks to the Internet, "you don't need a [major] record label these days" to develop a profile outside your home town. On MySpace, YouTube and a half-dozen other Web links, you can find an audience (and vice versa) and do some community building.

"We have a different brand of reggae, and people kinda pick up on that."

Hemphill says: "Bob Marley is the king of reggae, and the reason is he invented something new. After him, you get a couple of guys doing new stuff, but a lot of people are just following in his footsteps. We incorporate different kinds of music and keep a very roots and Rasta message but try to say things in a way they haven't really been said before. We try not to use catchphrases that get used over and over, try to personalize our message so that it's really coming from us. The guys who invented [reggae] -- Marley and Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Culture -- all had their own style, so we're trying to take it back to the way they made it."

Though reggae is "definitely the main overtone, we put a lot of rock into it, a little bit of hip-hop," Hemphill says. On the group's most recent album, 2006's "Get Wiser," guest musicians included guitarist Junior Marvin of the original Wailers, percussionist Go-Go Mickey Freeman of Rare Essence and a string quartet led by Eddie Drennon, who was Bo Diddley's music director and electric violinist in the late '60s.

"We featured Go-Go Mickey to put a little D.C. music into it, Eddie Drennon's string quartet to put a little blues into it," Hemphill says. "I have many influences, and when I'm writing songs, I try to let that show through. I'm not necessarily into one kind of music; I'm into songwriters, guys who write killer songs and make it really personal and original. That's what I identify with."

SOJA's members (Hemphill, bassist-vocalist Bob Jefferson, keyboardist Patrick "Ricochet" O'Shea, drummer Ryan "Jah Byrd" Berty and percussionist-Nyahbinghi drummer Ken "Papa Iyah" Brownell) are still in their mid-20s, with roots going back a decade when they first hooked up at Williamsburg Middle School and Yorktown High in Arlington.

Some relationships are even older.

"Me and Bob met in first grade at Nottingham Elementary School, and we have been hanging out ever since," Hemphill says, laughing. "I've known him since I turned 7 years old and had just moved back from Africa with my family after my dad had worked there."

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