Fertile Ground builds on its solid foundation


July 14, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

A serene, pretty picture of bohemian Afrocentricity, the two, husband and wife, sit at a conference table inside the stylish, dimly lit offices of Visionary Marketing Group in downtown Baltimore. Both sport dreadlocks: Hers flow down her back, his rain past his ears. She wears a bold yellow and green sarong. He complements her in a loose-fitting, mint-green shirt.

It is here where Navasha Daya and James Collins, founders of the richly eclectic, jazzy soul band Fertile Ground, fine-tune bookings with VMG president and tour manager LaRian Finney. It is here, on a comfortable, sun-drenched afternoon, where the attractive couple discusses what holds the seven-piece band together.

One of the more organic, experimental groups around, Fertile Ground is proudly independent. In nearly a decade, the collective has toured the globe many times, playing regularly in London and Japan. The group's four albums -- Field Songs, Spiritual War, Seasons Change and the latest, Black Is ... -- have altogether sold more than 125,000 copies. Not bad for a band based in Baltimore, a city musicians generally leave to establish themselves and find regular gigs.

"It's still the northernmost Southern city, so you have to go around corners," Collins says of his hometown. "So much of what we do involves creating resources and opportunities for other people."

Daya chimes in. "If you can make it in Baltimore, you can make it anywhere," says the Cleveland native. "This is not a star-struck kind of town. People aren't that impressed that easily. The fact that we have made it this far and got such a following is a testament to our music."

Opening for Maze featuring Frankie Beverly at Pier Six on Saturday night, Fertile Ground has concocted a sound that smoothly folds in various elements of soul, spoken word, blues and reggae. And Afro-Cuban jazz flourishes abound. It's an evocative brew that recalls the early pre-pop days of Earth, Wind & Fire, the poetry-suffused jazz explorations of Doug Carn, the airy, mystical excursions of Caravanserai-era Santana. Though Fertile Ground rambles a bit on the early albums, its lyrics mostly promote communal love and strength. With titles like "Cotton Fields," "Black Sunshine" and "Star People," Collins, the band's keyboardist and chief songwriter, is on a mission to inform and uplift.

"The big part of our satisfaction is putting on the best concert we can," he says. "We're out trying to change lives in our music. We're serious about that."

Fertile Ground was born in 1997. At the time, Collins, now 29, was a recent graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in biochemistry. The call to music, however, was strong. He had been playing the trumpet since he was a boy, writing songs and poetry since adolescence. So plans to enter medical school were ditched soon after graduation. Collins was dating Daya, a graduate of Morgan State University, where she studied music and sang in the school's acclaimed choir. The two, who married three years ago, added drummer Marcus Asante and recorded the debut album, Field Songs, as a demo. The recording was passed around. Responses were positive for the most part, but nobody offered a deal.

"We had to put it out there ourselves," says Daya, 30. "A lot of people only understand a certain way to make it in music. They think videos, record deals, things like that. My husband, James, is an independent thinker. He said, 'We can put this out.' "

The two educated themselves on how to distribute and promote their music. Collins, in the meantime, established Blackout Studios, where Fertile Ground records its music. (Blackout Studios is also the name of the label through which the band releases its albums.) In the early days, the group played colleges and tabletop stages at open-mike nights in the area.

To garner more visibility in the city, Collins reached out to Finney of VMG and to the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, organizations that sponsor heavily attended events like the African American Heritage Festival. With its dynamic, pseudo-spiritual live shows (on stage, Daya, the group's lead vocalist and focal point, wears ceremonial costumes replete with feathers and elaborate makeup), Fertile Ground quickly established a solid reputation in Charm City that spread like spilled wine to other cities: New York, Chicago, Atlanta. The band -- whose other members now include percussionist Ekendra Das, drummer Mark Prince, tenor saxophonist Craig Alston, trumpeter Freddie Dunn and guitarist Joel Mills -- steadily recorded more material, for which Collins eventually secured international distribution. Fertile Ground has shared the stage with such industry heavies as Jill Scott, Chaka Khan, Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson.

Strong compact disc sales (with most of the residuals going to the band) and a tour schedule of about 80 dates a year enable the members of Fertile Ground to focus on music full time. "We do just fine," Collins says of the band's finances. "My wife and I have a house. We ain't hurting. We make the business of sharing art."

"We didn't have anybody to hold our hands and say, 'This is how you do this,' " Daya adds. "There was no elder group who helped us."

Collins says, "The beautiful thing is that now you have a Fertile Ground as an example of how you can make music, make art and feel good about what you do, make a living at what you love to do. You don't have to lose yourself."

Daya beams at her husband. "That's right."

Catch Fertile Ground and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly 8 p.m. Saturday at Cavalier Telephone Pavilion at Pier Six, 731 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $28-$58 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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