By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Phil Grajko.
Roots reggae is one of those musical genres listeners generally tend to regard as an insular world. One drop rhythms, reverb drenched guitar rakings, and soulful vocals mesh, establishing a long-standing characteristic to a music that is at once undeniable.
Now imagine blending in some distinct Caribbean flavor with the stripped down gallop of Appalachian bluegrass. Violins, mandolin, and acoustic guitar shuffling through a laid back Rastafarian beat?
It might be hard to conceive, but give the imagination a break and do yourself a favor by listening to Grayak–a six-piece band based out of Upstate New York that somehow manages to fuse together such seemingly disparate styles with harmony and grace.
“It was an experiment,” says Phil Grajko, the group’s founder, guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter. “I’ve always had a deep connection to traditional roots reggae and Southern Appalachian bluegrass and folk, but what ended up unraveling was beyond all of our expectations.”
While he gives a nod to formative folk/grass artists like Willie Nelson, The Seldom Seen, and NPR’s Bluegrass Hour as sources of creative inspiration, his other group Morning Sun & the Essentials is pretty close to a straight-up roots reggae sound. A full horn section, two vocalists (the other–Michelle–is from the Highlands) and an electric band seem to conjure stark contrast to a group of acoustic folk players.
Grajko assures, however, that the similarities between the two genres are more abundant than what one might suppose. He explains that the main difference is rooted in the timing; traditionally, bluegrass music is played at a much quicker tempo than reggae.
At their heart, however, each is a trademark style of music from a different part of the world. By pulling out the slower reggae grooves and adorning them with the acoustical purity of bluegrass instrumentation, Grayak achieves a pleasurable fusion that you would be hard-pressed to discover anywhere else.
The sunshine laden harmonies and gentle pluckings of the group’s debut album Made of Light belie a certain sadness that nestles its way into the melodies and lyrics, blossoming into a reflection on loss and triumph of the spirit. In 2012, shortly before the making of the album, one of Grajko’s dearest friends passed away.
“It was a devastating loss,” he remembers. “Everyone involved [in Grayak] knew John. But it ignited a great deal of inspiration in us and a lot of writing followed.”
Grajko recounts the “synchronistic” way that everything came together following his friend’s death. When he was a boy, Grajko’s father would take him to the neighborhood church where he would play and sing hymns and traditional songs. At the same time, Andrew and Noah VanNorstrand–two local brothers–joined Grajko with their mandolin and banjo.
Years later, all three were asked to play together once again in honor of their departed friend, at the same church they had shared a musical steeple under so many years ago. The performances rekindled a creative fire in the trio that had long been slumbering, and the early seeds of Grayak were set into motion.
The VanNorstrand brothers brought a cohesion that floored Grajko (“like one mind in two bodies,” he explains), along with a talented stand-up bassist and drummer. The only missing piece was another vocalist to round out the harmonies.
Grajko called on his sister, who also knew John and felt the significance of the musical journey. Her joining marked the first time that she would record or work with musicians on a project of this caliber, but she took to it with a natural grace.
“It was magic how quickly the chemistry came together,” says Grajko. “You can practice for years with another person, but there’s a family vibe on this record that you just couldn’t make up if you tried.”
Lyrically, Made of Light is not only an homage to a dear friend, but also a spiritual journey for Grajko. The songwriter formerly attended college to study Christian theology, but graduated with a desire to broaden his personal spiritual experience beyond what any one faith could explain.
Eastern philosophy, Zen Buddhism, and Taoism all particularly resonated with Grajko, who soon found himself implementing their all-inclusive beliefs of the present moment into a healing process that allowed for an acceptance and understanding of loss.
“It’s a constant journey, day-by-day,” admits Grajko. “But certainly having an awareness of the individual spirituality we can all practice in our own way is so powerful. I use music as the main vessel for that to come through.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s episode of BTR’s Discovery Corner.
Or, find your own way to interpret Grayak’s music by clicking here.