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Celebrate Diversity: Latest UnderCover project takes on Bob Marley's Exodus with a mix of local music from Afro-punk to bluegrass 

Wednesday, Apr 1 2015
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Bob Marley would have turned 70 this year. Hard to believe, particularly since his commitment to social justice and revolution is just as relevant today as it was in 1977, the year he released one of his greatest albums, Exodus, featuring now-classic roots reggae tracks including "Jamming," "One Love," and "Three Little Birds."

To that end, 75 Bay Area musicians will come together at the Independent between April 3 and April 5 to pay tribute to Exodus as part of UnderCover Presents, a music series in which Bay Area bands reinterpret classic albums, perform them live, and record them for posterity. Previous UnderCover events paid tribute to Sly and the Family Stone's Stand!, Paul Simon's Graceland, and Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Albums from the UnderCover projects, mixed and recorded at Fantasy Studios, will be available at the show.

SF Weekly caught up with Lyz Luke, the executive producer of UnderCover Presents, primarily to ask her one simple question: Why Exodus?

"I think in this day and age there's lots of music for a click or a pop hit," Luke says. "For Bob Marley, he made music that was political without being explicitly political; there was something different. He lived what he preached. He changed the way an entire culture lived."

Marley recorded Exodus while experiencing his own exile in England after he, his wife, and manager were shot inside of the singer's home. The shooting happened just days before he was set to perform at Smile Jamaica, a free concert for 80,000 people that aimed to unite the island nation's warring political parties. He performed at the event in spite of the shooting, later explaining, "The people who are trying to make this world worse aren't taking a day off. How can I?"

Rupa Marya, the guest musical director for UnderCover and lead singer of Rupa & the April Fishes, sees a strong tie among the themes of Exodus, the current political climate in the United States, and the history of San Francisco. She wanted to incorporate the stories of those who have been displaced — such as the native Ohlone tribe, their sacred songs, and rituals — into her band's cover of Marley's "The Heathen."

"They were the first people in this area who experienced this brutal loss of home and identity," Marya says of the Ohlone. "So, I've been very interested in the stories and struggles of indigenous populations around the world, and it has been extremely rewarding for me to be connecting with people in local indigenous groups."

The themes in Exodus ring especially true for Black Nature, a musician who was a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war. He witnessed his own father's death and was forced to flee his homeland as a teen. Black Nature then went on to form the world-renowned Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, which toured internationally for nine years, appeared on Oprah, and had two songs in the film Blood Diamond. More recently, Black Nature launched a solo act. He brings his powerful experience as a survivor to his rendition of the upbeat but cautious "Jamming" — "Cause everyday we pay the price, we're to live in sacrifice / jamming 'til the jam is through" — with a firsthand understanding of how necessary, in light of all of his pain, those lyrics and music are.

Kevin Carnes, drummer of the surrealist Afro-punk jazz group Broun Fellinis, will transform "Natural Mystic" into an aggressive meets bluesy punk anthem. He believes Marley changed the way musicians approach music. "As an artist, musician, and entertainer, it's important to echo what's going on in our community — it's necessary, and artists like Marley, Dylan, and Public Enemy are storytellers and they tell stories in a way that people can absorb them.

"[Music] allows people to think about something they wouldn't otherwise," Carnes adds, "to meditate on an idea that they wouldn't if it wasn't couched in a song, a rhythm, or a feel."

While Marley was unafraid to address the plight of his people, Exodus exudes positivity in ways that have given musicians and people around the world strength and inspiration. It is one of Marley's most enduring albums, and one that juxtaposes heaviness with lightness.

Another contributor, Chloe Tietjen of the sassy bluegrass band the T Sisters, says of the UnderCover concept, "It invites bands to reinterpret iconic songs, lets people hear it in a different way, and for the artist to develop a different relationship to the music." The T Sisters will be doing an a cappella rendition of "Three Little Birds." Says Tietjen, "It's a really unique experience to hear different bands cover an album that they might know front-to back; it breathes new life into the album."

With a lineup of Bay Area heavyweights that also includes the Coup's Boots Riley and Silk E with Quartet San Francisco, as well as singer-songwriter Sean Hayes, UnderCover Presents Bob Marley's Exodus may feel like a homecoming for those who grew up in a diverse, funky, and very self-aware San Francisco. The show invites audiences that wouldn't necessarily come together to celebrate the city's diversity and ask: What can be done to preserve it?

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Michelle Threadgould

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