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Cover Story [Issue # 2 ]
Ben Harper: Every Facet Of The Diamond

By Lynne Bronstein

Diamonds On The Inside ( CD Virgin )
Listen to Ben Harper on the ONE WAY CD 2

In today's music scene, where everyone is supposed to fit easily into a "genre," Ben Harper refuses to fit. And that's fine with him and his fans.

Since his 1994 debut album Welcome To The Cruel World, Harper and his backup band The Innocent Criminals have created songs that defy categorization via a myriad of musical influences. If his style - or lack of a particular style - doesn't jive with the strict boundaries of the current pop scene, it has certainly not dissuaded Harper's loyal audiences, who travel great distances to see him and who often swap bootleg tapes of his concerts. Harper's devotion to musical diversity continues with the release of his latest album on Virgin, Diamonds On The Inside.

On Diamonds, Harper tips a hat to reggae's founding father Bob Marley with the opening track "With My Own Two Hands," then goes on to explore such genres as traditional blues ("When It's Good"), 70's-style funk ("Bring The Funk"), hard rock ("Temporary Remedy"), and hymns both orchestrated ("When She Believes") and a capella ("Picture of Jesus").

But such eclecticism is what you might expect from somebody with a background like Ben Harper's. "I'm from the Inland Empire - that's a region between L.A. and Joshua Tree," he explains. "It's a wasteland and the Promised Land combined. It's the home of the Kaiser Steel Mill, it's where the Hell's Angels got started, and it's the home of several prestigious colleges. That puts together a fascinating cross-section that breeds itself into creativity in music."

He grew up listening to all kinds of music in his parents' music store, the Folk Music Center, in Claremont, California. "I was exposed to a lot of music," he says, "whether it was folk, blues, reggae - I went in different directions in my teen years as I listened to rock and hip-hop." Eventually, when he went to work in the store himself in his early 20s, Harper discovered acoustic blues and started writing songs in his own voice.

The mid-90s, a period when grunge bands like Pearl Jam and STP ruled the airwaves, was an unlikely time for a songwriter with multicultural influences to gain a footing, but Harper and his carefully selected backup band built up a following based largely on word-of-mouth, plus support from a few significant alternative stations like Boston's WBCN and Los Angeles' KROQ. Following his debut album, Harper released Fight For Your Mind in 1995, The Will To Live in 1997, Burn To Shine in 1999, and a live album Live From Mars in 2001.

It was on Burn To Shine that Harper added the Innocent Criminals to the billing. He'd originally come up with the name for his music publishing company. "But the band was the Innocent Criminals pretty much from the beginning." They're like the E-Street Band is to Bruce Springsteen-they back me up but they have their own identity." That band includes, besides Ben himself on vocals and guitars, Juan D. Nelson on bass, Oliver Francis Charles on drums, Leon Mobley on percussion, and Greg Kurstin on keyboards.

Imaginative instrumentation is a hallmark of Harper and his band. One track on Diamonds On The Inside, "Blessed To Be A Witness," features the Thiele Tongue drum. "It's a drum made from the African tradition of wooden slit drums - a log hollowed out with slits that look like tongues and each slit is somewhat tuned," Harper explains. Another unusual instrument, on the track "When It's Good" is described as a "Box of Rocks" and that's just what it is! "The percussionist of the band [Leon Mobley] is very brave - I love brave musicians," says Harper. "We recorded the album at Sunset Sound where people like Janis Joplin and the Doors recorded - it's on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood with all the hookers and pimps and crack dealers. I was stomping my foot during the song and [Leon] says "Wait a minute" and he jumps outside and finds these rocks and this box and a plank and he puts the rocks on the plank for a teeter-totter effect and while I was stomping my foot, he was stomping the box of rocks!"

For the a capella hymn "PictuFor the a capella hymn Picture of Jesus Harper got the famed African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo to accompany him. "That was almost a fluke," he says. "My manager called their manager and said 'Ben would love if you could sing on this' and their manager called back five minutes later to say the group was in San Francisco and would be coming to L.A. for a few days, had one day off, and would love to perform with me."

The tracks that deal with religion on Diamonds On The Inside represent a slight departure for Harper, whose previous albums have featured songs about social problems, including Rodney King and dysfunctional families. On the subject of faith he has this to say: "The role of religion in my life is like the role of soil and water to the life of a tree. It supports the life force. It supports me to grow and be who I am."

"My mother is Jewish and my father is black and I don't have claims to anyone anywhere. I'm ready to be proud of my culture but I'm not ready for my culture to become segregation. Thus, Harper's religious songs don't attempt to convert or preach to the listener. "God and religion in modern day culture shouldn't be such a weight. It gives you bad posture and for me it should strengthen you and lift you up."

Harper admits that recognition continues to be a struggle in areas like radio, where tight formats make it hard for his music to get airplay. But he's had some extra visibility in the last year with two films. He appeared as one of the tribute singers in the documentary Standing In The Shadows of Motown and got to know the guys from the original Motown backup band. "That was a huge honor." He's also the star of a documentary, Pleasure and Pain which has been screening in art theatres around the country and has just been released on DVD.

The film's director, Danny Clinch was photographing Harper for Contemporary magazine when he remarked that he had always wanted to get into film-making and wondered if Harper would like to be the subject of his first effort. Harper replied: "Funny that you'd bring that up-my manager was just talking about having a film done on me." The result is an 89-minute chronicle of Harper's life and times that includes glimpses of his family (including Harper and his mother singing a duet of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time") and footage shot on the road.
What's in the immediate future? Of course, Harper and the Innocent Criminals will be going on the road this spring to promote Diamonds On The Inside. "I haven't been on the road for two years-I'm really excited," says Harper. The time off gave him an opportunity to be with his three children. "I'm assistant basketball coach for my kid's team-it really feels positive to play with my kids."

He'll be looking to do more collaborations, too. "It is my greatest ambition to work with those whom I admire most-whether it's Van Morrison, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon. I've worked with John Lee Hooker, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and I just sang on Rickie Lee Jones' new album."

And as for being labeled, stuck in a niche, or eluding the niches, Harper isn't worried. On being compared to giants like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Bob Marley, he says: "I feel great about it. That means you're part of a tradition. If you can support the comparison, you're gonna be all right. If you can't live up to the comparison, you're gonna be in trouble."

Whatever fame and fortune may be awaiting Ben Harper, it's a safe bet that he'll try as much as possible to retain his characteristic humility.

"I don't know that I'm right," he says. "I'm not telling you I'm right. I'm not telling you you're wrong. I'm not telling you that I know something that you don't. I'm just saying 'This is what I feel' and communicating what I was feeling when I wrote that song."

Diamonds On The Inside

Listen to (Ben Harper) on the ONE WAY CD

Every Facet Of The Diamond Ben Harper Diamonds On The Inside

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