For Joss Jaffe, today’s global political climate runs rampant with false promises.
The Oakland, California world music singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist shares this widely held notion in his latest reggae-infused single, “Promises,” with Mykal Rose.
“Ultimately, I think politics is always divisive. Peter Tosh would call it ‘politricks.’ But yes, this period in time has been especially unprecedented. Although I do not call out Trump by name in this song and take the approach of an old-school reggae song, where we speak in metaphors and allegory stories, clearly it references the cascade of lies and falsehoods that seem to never end,” Jaffe said.
“However, yes, the song also speaks to the timeless, and sadly, seemingly ever relevant problems this poor type of leadership brings, and it’s not just limited to the U.S.”
Throughout “Promises,” Jaffe and Rose quickly unstitch the increasing fallacies Trump and other controversial political figures continually weave into society’s fraying fabric. Vibrant horns, thumping drums, bouncy bass, breezy synths, spirited organ and peppy electric guitar seamlessly undo each tumultuous thread.
Rose eagerly chants, “Promises are a comfort to a fool/All they wanna give is promises/We know the golden rule/Yet they wanna use you like a footstool.” In response, Jaffe soulfully sings, “Step on you to reach that goal/And cast you aside when you played your role/Promises that keep on saying/But then you look at them and see they’d never change.”
“My vision for this song is something that’s uplifting and triumphant over adversity. Something that rises above the current moment, however difficult it is, and gets back in touch with the universal consciousness,” Jaffe said.
With honest, reflective lyrics and a hypnotic reggae sway, Jaffe and Rose triumph with “Promises” as a fitting theme song for our turbulent political and social times. The track serves as the duo’s second dynamic collaboration since the divine, glistening “Elohim” with Shimshai in 2015 for Jaffe’s Dub Mantra Sangha album.
“Mykal Rose has always been one of my longtime heroes of reggae music. We have a mutual friend named Siah who is his guitar player and produces some of his songs. Mykal is a true legend; rocksteady in the studio and always pushing everyone to capture their best possible take. It was a true blessing,” Jaffe said.
For “Promises,” Jaffe collaborated remotely with Rose and producer Tim Donlou to bring the 6-year-old track to life in a Santa Cruz studio. The track’s production and release were temporarily delayed due to the devastating wildfires that continue to sweep northern California.
“We wrote the bassline and tracked the riddim. We set it down for very long periods of time, but we never forgot that track. When we had the opportunity to have Mykal sing the hook, we knew that was the one we wanted him on. My vocals were then made much later, just this past year. It was quite a layered approach, but it really worked out,” said Jaffe, who first met Donlou at University of California, Berkeley in 1999.
“We initially wanted the song to come out in October or even earlier, but Tim had to evacuate for six weeks. It was super scary. Every day we would look at the fire map and pray his house didn’t get burned. Amazingly, his house was spared, but it was a close call. Just a few lots away and up the road everything was completely incinerated – a perfect analogy for 2020.”
Jaffe also worked with Los Angeles animator Elyse Filigheri on a lively video for “Promises” filled with colorful illustrations of instruments, beaches, wolves, wings and other symbolic objects. In a sense, the animated video serves as a timeless mini-film to document periods of intense global political and social division.
“Even while making this song over the course of the last year, and before the election, with so much political chaos, I knew at some point in the future things would shift, and this current climate would be in the past. I didn’t want to create a ‘period piece’ and wanted it to have a long-term relevancy. I think she did an amazing job making that version take flight,” Jaffe said.
Morning Star Traveller
Jaffe also takes flight with the airy, ethereal instrumental, “Morning Star,” alongside Donlou in Echosystem, a project that eloquently fuses Jamaican dub and North Indian classical music. The serene, dreamy track blends soft bansuri, tranquil tabla, deep vivid synths, calm bass and pounding drums with acoustically recorded Indian drones and electronic and minimalist dub-style instrumentation.
“We titled it ‘Morning Star’ because it made us all happy to listen to during this challenging, dark time of quarantine and COVID and losing our gigs. We wanted to share this uplifting and hopeful vision with the world,” said Jaffe, who formed Echosystem with Donlou 20 years ago.
Outside of Echosystem, Jaffe uplifts and soothes listeners with magnetic pop, mesmerizing dub reggae and ambient trip-hop on the exploratory, three-track Traveller EP, which dropped this past spring. Produced by Justin Bjur, the majestic, metaphysical title track serves as an atmospheric ode to wanderlust as plucky bass, vibrant percussion and bouncy synth provide the perfect sonic companion.
Jaffe reflects, “Only got so much time living life on this earth/Like a seed germinates in the dirt/Makes me want to celebrate life/Traveller on a journey don’t know when you’ll arrive/See the world open your eyes.”
“I don’t fit in any genre; I just make the music that interests me and see what happens. These songs were really fun to make, and I feel as an artist they’re setting it up really nicely for the next album. They’re very ‘song style;’ it’s fun to write them as songs and approach them as songs. This next album is going to be the most pop thing I’ve ever done,” Jaffe said.
Next, Traveller ventures to the acoustic reggae Police-esque gem, “Play It Again,” as glistening acoustic strums, intermittent vibrant electric guitars, hypnotic bass and clicking drum taps swagger alongside Jaffe and hip-hop singer-songwriter Kiyoshi, who originally hails from Ann Arbor.
Jaffe soulfully sings, “Moon in the sky, dance in the night/Your friends all arrive, play it again/DJ’s so nice, drop your favorite vibes/The music’s connecting, play it again.”
After ‘Play It Again,’ Jaffe discovers the allure of instant attraction on “Natural Rhythms,” which fuses haunting, echoey fretless bass, shiny interstellar synth, tingling cymbals, propulsive drums and alternating electric guitars. San Diego soul-pop-rock-blues singer Adam Knight provides guest vocals on the track.
Jaffe calmly sings, “I want to be near you, want to be near you/And feel magnetized/Your music gets me high naturally/You’re the light that turns me on/Gives me the strength to carry on/A fire burns so strong/From the dark until the dawn.”
“There’s an ambient element to it, especially ‘Traveller,’ where I’m just singing, and there’s not really a verse and a chorus. ‘Play It Again’ is a much more classic verse-chorus-verse, and then Kiyoshi comes in. ‘Natural Rhythms’ is kind of a blend, and they all have their electro-EDM-meets-chill-reggae with a little bit of hip-hop, trip-hop kind of vibe in there,” Jaffe said.
A southern California native, Jaffe initially discovered his multi-genre vibe while listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna and playing electric guitar at age nine. Three years later, he started writing songs and developed a passion for The Cure and U2.
In high school, Jaffe formed his first band and gravitated toward reggae, ska and rocksteady, which included a deep appreciation for Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Sublime.
“It was this quest of learning how to play reggae, listening to it and falling in love with that music. What I loved about it was the combination of pop music that sounded like R&B a little bit with the verses and the choruses. But then the way they played it was like an African drum ensemble, and the guitar was playing like a drum,” Jaffe said.
As part of his reggae quest, Jaffe learned drums, djembe, conga and tabla while absorbing Indian music and studying vocal music with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. After high school, he traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal for three months in 1998 to study tabla with a professor from Berkeley.
“When I came back, I was a totally different person. This music was really in my body, and I was a beginner. As it happened to be, the most top-level Indian musicians in the world happened to live in the Bay area, and I would go up to Marin County to take tabla lessons with them,” he said.
While attending Berkeley, Jaffe met producer-composer Dave Stringer, who introduced him to mantra chanting and the possibility of combining it with dub music and yoga. That sonic discovery encouraged Jaffe to release a series of compelling “mantra” albums, including Dub Mantra (2012), Dub Mantra Sangha (2015), Dub Mantra Sangha (Remix) (2018) and Meditation Music (2019).
“The reggae guitar and the tabla kinda fit together, and I had this epiphany, ‘If you were a DJ, you could just mix those two together.’ I just decided to do that, and I called it ‘dub mantra.’ The word ‘mantra’ literally means ‘instrument of thought’ or ‘tool of the mind.’ The idea of a ‘mantra’ is that you’re repeating something, and you’re manifesting that,” he said.
Jaffe continues to manifest in different musical forms across the reggae-EDM-dub-world-music spectrum with an intriguing catalog of albums and singles. He’ll release his next single and video, “Sun to Shine,” on Dec. 11.
“I’ve been doing my best to stay focused and crank out some great new tunes while taking advantage of this extended period of time off the road. This is the fifth single we’ve released this year – what I’m calling a spiritual pop song featuring popular yoga musician Dave Stringer and Wanderlust Festival DJ Taz Rashid,” he said.
“Following that will be five more singles in the early part of 2021 culminating in a 10-track album including the last six singles. The style is ‘dream pop,’ and the title is Sun, Mountain, Sea.”
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