What began as a group of like-minded, musically-talented friends jamming around a campfire in Hawaii a mere five years ago, Nahko and Medicine for the People is now an accomplished band that has since opened for Talib Kweli, Michael Franti and are soon heading out on their second Australian tour with Xavier Rudd and Donavon Frankenreiter.
As their name alludes, Medicine for the People uses the slogan “Real Talk Music” to ascribe to the belief that music is just that — organically medicinal. Cleverly weaving poetry and creative writing techniques into story and melody, MFTP believe that music has the potential to heal emotional wounds, awaken minds, and bridge cultural and tribal boundaries.
With an array of voice, guitar, djembe, cajon, percussion, violin and trumpet, MFTP’s sound is a matchless mixture of reggae, blues, funk, and folk that is earth-based and spirit-inspired.
Lead singer Nahko-ese Parayno (meaning ‘friendly little bear’ in Cheyenne), is a multi-instrumentalist, from guitar to flute to piano, and most everything in between. While he enjoys surfing, horse riding, slack-lining, sailing and studying cultural activism, he’s slowly becoming one of North America’s leading indigenous voices.
“I’m concerned for our future. We need to work together to survive and fuse old traditions with new paradigm conditions,” he offers. “If we want to continue existing [as a species] we’ve got to take time for the Earth and for each other. I want to see people using their voices, singing, dancing, and not being afraid to be themselves wisely — to discover their passions, to discover what makes them move, to find their medicine, and use it.”
Although his often weighted lyrics speak of environmental and social injustices, alongside personal and cultural scars, his messages aren’t delivered from a place of burden, blame or negativity. His humour disarms, while he consistently offers hope, light and positive solutions to the trials and tribulations of being human.
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Being human can be great. No matter what is on your plate, be thankful.”
Raised in Portland, and born a mix of Apache, Puerto Rican, and Filipino cultures, Nahko was taken out of the Indian reservation in which he was born, given a new name, and adopted into a white Christian family at nine months old.
“We were raised Baptist, very conservative and home-schooled. My brother and I were dressed the same so that people would stop asking my mom if we were both hers. At the time, being a Puerto Rican Indian Filipino in a white family meant nothing to me. I didn’t identify as such. I never had a second thought about being any different from my brother and sister. Who I was was who they told me I was.”
He was introduced to the piano at age six, which became both an act of divine intervention and his all-consuming devotion.
Soon after realizing his true heritage and family history, he suffered a life-shifting identity crisis.
“Realizing who I am has been a journey and continues to be. Self discovery has certainly been a challenge. But in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been so blessed. I was taken in by a family that loved me and nurtured me into the world — food in my belly and a roof over my head,” he says. “I had to work backwards to reunite with my birth mother, and to really get a sense of who I was in all of this. A foot in two very different worlds. One of white privilege and one of cultural genocide and oppression.”
It was music that became both his freedom and his footing, his release, and his medicine. It helped guide him on a path that allowed him to express exactly what it was he was experiencing. Music became his catharsis.
Eventually, while working as a music director and playing piano for a dinner theatre in Alaska, he began having reoccurring thoughts of farming in Hawaii.
“Pele (Hawaii’s fire goddess) called me in. I wanted to grow my own food, explore, travel with minimum possessions, and dig into my pacific island blood.”
And so he bought a ticket across the Pacific and got right to work interning at a coffee farm in Kona, on the Big Island.
“The aina (land) taught me a lot about who I am through hard work, blood, sweat and tears. Sounds like a metal song,” he jokes. “It gave me respect for the power of the Earth and its elements. It humbled me many times over. I’ve learned the importance of knowing where my food comes from, animal husbandry, and how to earn my meals. I watched food grow and plants produce their magic — all these sacred walks that are linked to the spirit found in all things in existence. I also learned to live off very little, and about letting go of everything I thought I needed to be happy.”
Hawaii also allowed him the time and space to really hone his visions, delve in to his musical talents, discover his purpose and connect with a larger community.
For the first few years, as Nahko and Medicine for the People began to take form, it became a household name to a large gathering of people around the Big Island and parts of Portland, playing one free show after another at farmer’s markets and other local community events.
“I feel like I’m truly living what I believe in. I feel lucky to have found my gift and to be executing it. It has taken me some time to really realize my passion. And that’s OK. I feel like many of us try to rush into it. We get upset and depressed when we can’t figure out what our purpose is. But when we give it serious time and consideration, and silence and patience, it will come into fruition. If you really look deep into yourself, you already know. You just have to give it the space to come out.”
In some songs he journeys to places so personal and raw that some could feel uncomfortable by such unruly openness. In his song, “So thankful,” he sings about being the product of rape, the suicides of multiple native family members, along with the death of his adoptive father. Yet, he is able to deliver the music in such a charismatic, skillful, and sincere way, that listeners can only be inspired by the unabashed courage of his revelations. And never do his lyrics dwell in the darkness of the past, instead he encourages us to seek out the light in any situation or circumstance.
His lyrics seep with importance of staying humble, of erasing blame and of shedding the ego — things that aren’t always found floating around the music industry today.
“Being honest and real about the things we are ashamed of, the things we get angry and depressed about, and the struggle to be a good person are important to talk about because they are things I’m working towards in my personal life,” he admits. “It’s good to know yourself to the core. That is a warrior — one who aligns themselves with spirit and seeks to walk righteously through out the world. I want to encourage others to do the same.”
And Medicine walks their righteous talk. In recent past they have manifested their vision into a 501 C (3) not-for-profit organization that involves collaborations with activists, actors, farmers, acrobats, shamans, and teachers. They’ve held workshops at urban schools, indigenous reservations, and inner city communities, where they encourage youth to live sustainability, to strive for equality, and raise consciousness on climate change and other environmental issues.
“Don’t waste your hate, rather gather and create, be of service, be a sensible person, use your words and don’t be nervous, you can do this, you’ve got purpose — find your medicine, and use it.”
Alongside Nahko are key members Chase Makai, whose explosive guitar strumming sets an energetic vibe to each song; Dustin Thomas, who raps, sings, strums, and beat boxes; and Hope Medford who, also a passionate midwife, provides the tribal rhythms. In the heat of a jam, she is quite the powerful sight to see — eyes rolled back, while an almost euphoric smile paints across her beaming face, as she thunders the djembe and the cajon — a peruvian box-shaped percussion instrument. Her hands moving so fast they nearly become invisible.
Apparently even before seeing them live, Xavier Rudd, had already heard their music through a friend, and immediately took a liking to them. “He came to the first show of our Oz tour and loved us,” says Medford. “That night he said I was “deadly” on the drums!”
Medicine’s shows are very similar to Rudd’s live performances both in energy and intention. Exuberant and powerful, they each carry a balance of ancient rhythms and prophetic wisdom. It’s almost as though these musicians are merely vehicles for transmission – they are simply showing up and holding the space for spirit to move through them.
Their music stimulates listeners to seek the unspoken truths within themselves; revealing unconscious doors they didn’t even know existed. Audiences dance, cry, sing and stand mesmerized. And what’s so incredible about it all, is that these performers seem to be equally as humbled and captivated by the experience in which they themselves are creating.
“It’s been an exciting year, being apart of a growing community with Franti and Xavier, men who have been touring with spirit in their music and intentions,” offers Medford. “We really appreciate Xavier calling us to the fire over and over and reminding us to cleanse and protect ourselves as we travelled. He taught us new ways to respect each other. He carried plant medicine to the local areas we travel so that we could stay connected to the lands which we were journeying. Our tour with him was a rite of passage in many ways. He continues to open powerful doors for us.”
Most of Nahko and Medicine for the People’s members have never even stepped foot on Western Canadian soil, so they’ll be looking forward to a solid gathering of new tribe members and truth seekers this Friday night. “We’re all really excited to get up to Victoria and play for some beautiful people in a beautiful part of the world,” says Thomas.
But let this be a warning – their shows are more akin to a sacred ceremony than a concert, and you’ll walk away feeling like you were more apart of an uplifting and transformational experience, than just a fun night out. The music will make you move, so get ready for a dose of Medicine you didn’t even know you were seeking.
Victoria Event Centre, 11:30pm, Friday Sept, 13 .
By Jessica Kirkwood