When Chris Berry answers his phone to chat, he’s just finished loading gear onto a stage for a gig in Ukiah, Calif.
The night before, his band, CB-3, played in Petaluma, just a few miles down the road from Berry’s home town of Sebastopol, Calif.
The proximity to home provided an opportunity to hang out with the guy who unwittingly set Berry on his musical path, which took him through a decade in Africa and nine years of exile from Zimbabwe, and will bring him to Bend on Saturday night (see “If you go”).
In Petaluma, Berry visited with a friend who turned him on to African music, though not necessarily by the noblest means.
“(He) shoplifted the first African music cassette I ever heard, and that basically changed my whole life, hearing that music,” Berry said. “When that happened I was, like, 15, and he shoplifted a cassette of (Afrobeat pioneer) Fela (Kuti), and that was the first time I heard it, and it just affected me so deeply.”
Berry’s friend didn’t even mean to grab the Fela tape. “He would’ve never got it if he knew what it was,” he said. But, as if by fate, Fela fell into the boys’ hands, proving that, sometimes, crime does indeed pay.
Berry politely laughs at the cheesy joke. “I should’ve just bought the damn thing,” he said.
Considering his place in the world of global music these days, Berry may be right. Spurred by that discovery, he traveled to Africa in 1989, where he studied the percussion of the continent’s native musicians. Later, he shifted to Zimbabwe and learned to play the “mbira,” or thumb piano. He became so adept at the country’s music and dance, he was the first non-Zimbabwean to be called “gwenaymbira,” or one whose music summons the spirits, according to his Web site.
But it was a decidedly non-spiritual phenomenon — reality television — that made Berry a star in his adopted home country. He formed a band, called Panjea, and they competed on what Berry called the “southern Africa version of ‘American Idol.’”
They won, and Berry — a white guy from California — became one of Zimbabwe’s leading pop stars. And it was weird, he said.
“(Zimbabweans) had never seen a white man who could drum and dance and sing in their language, so it actually unfairly catapulted me to the top pretty fast over there just because I was white,” he said. “People would show up and try to go behind the stage and try to unplug (me) because they thought I was lip-synching because they didn’t believe it was actually true. Or they would come to the shows because ... they didn’t believe it so they wanted to see it with their own eyes. So it was kind of a novelty thing.”
But it was a very positive experience, Berry said, if for no other reason than the barriers that were broken.
“They had a very narrow view of white people: that we would never touch one of their traditional instruments (or would) look down on their language (or) thought whatever they did was beneath us, because that’s how they were treated by the colonialists,” he said. “So to have someone come in there and be so happy about playing their music, it shattered their stereotypes in a positive way.”
To this day, Berry can go to a new village, play a drum and “everybody freaks out,” he said. “They laugh. They dance. They sing. They’re like, ‘Alright, this is how white people should be!’”
Only one problem: That village can’t be in his beloved Zimbabwe, where he is wanted by the president, Robert Mugabe, for singing songs that criticized the government.
“When (Mugabe) started going south and turning corrupt, we started singing about it and he didn’t like that. It basically was that we didn’t toe the line,” Berry said. “He nationalized all the radio stations and the TV and started controlling the music, and we didn’t like that.”
According to Berry, Mugabe’s administration tried to have him killed twice. After the second attempt on his life, he fled the country. That was in 2001, and he hasn’t been back, despite his desire to do so and the fact he has a home and land there.
“I’m just kind of waiting it out. I do have plans to go back over there,” he said. “I love Zimbabwe. I love the people there. Some of my closest friends are still there — friends so close you consider them family.”
In the meantime, Berry will focus on CB-3, a jam-rock trio he shares with drummer Aaron Johnston and bassist Jesse Murphy, current and former members, respectively, of the cosmopolitan dance band Brazilian Girls.
CB-3 mixes the old with the new, joining the ancient, intoxicating plunk of the mbira with the electrified swagger of the current jam-band scene and a rootsy pop-music sensibility. The trio designed the band to allow for a rotating cast of guest players; currently, that spot is filled by veteran rock guitarist Steve Kimock.
“What we do, mixing the electronic grooves with the African beats, we just create a rhythm bed and a simple chordal structure that Steve can just solo on top of. So what he brings to it is basically improvisation,” Berry said, before breaking the arrangement down to basics. “We kind of try to find artists that we want to hang out and play with, and we make ’em a special guest.”