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In Full Bloom

Fertile Ground's Musical Harvest

Malik Yusef
From the Ground Up: (from left) Fred Dunn, Craig Alston, Lionel Lyles, Ekendra Das, Navasha Daya, Marcus Asante, and James Collins
Malik Yusef
James Collins at the controls ...
... and as an overachieving teen.
Collins and his sister Tracey
Fertile Ground live at AFRAM in 2000 (below left)

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 7/10/2002

"I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That's what music is to me--it's just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that's been given to us, and here's an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. . . . [T]hat's one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician's is through his music . . . to bring to people something like happiness."--John Coltrane

The black lights inside Gallery 409 make all the white clothing in the room take on a disco-era glow. But there's an earthy, cool air in this crowd of 150 or so that's more Bitches Brew than Bee Gees.

They've turned out on this Friday night in April to celebrate the release of Seasons Change, the third album by Fertile Ground. Just back from a 21-city tour through Europe and Japan, the seven-member Baltimore-based group is about to give the home folk a taste of its latest sounds--straight-ahead jazz with liberal doses of Latin, reggae, and soul.

"You know that seasons change, things rearrange, but you've got to give it time," vocalist Navasha Daya sings. "Just look and you will find a place for peace of mind . . ."

"It's truly satisfying to my soul to hear them play," says Patricia Berry, 43, a longtime fan who credits Fertile Ground with making her "feel justified to stay in Baltimore." "There aren't many musicians who can take you to a higher plane, away from what's going on around you," she says. "They satisfy your soul, mind, and body."

Berry's sentiments are echoed across the crowd, twentysomethings and fiftysomethings alike buckling the hardwood floor as their hips dip to the rhythms. The room exudes a sense of commonality, of unity. "Yeah," Daya says after the opening number, grinning wide in response to the loud applause. "It's good to be with family."

To hear folks tell it, most Fertile Ground concerts feel like family affairs--a feeling that emanates from the band itself, and has only grown with the group's following since it formed five years ago. Intuitively, the musicians on stage seem to know when Daya--whose voice has a trancelike quality, like Chinese medicine balls tuned to lower scales--will hold a single note or scat through dozens. They know when drummer Marcus Asante is going for deep, reverberating licks or if he's feeling frisky. They know when to let the three-man horn section have its way. And they know how to let keyboardist James Collins do his thing.

Fertile Ground's founder and musical director, Collins writes almost all the group's music. He runs its business affairs and those of its independent label, Blackout Studios. He handles promotion and marketing, helping the group sell some 85,000 copies of its first two releases, Field Songs and Spiritual War--nowhere near Billboard-chart levels, but not bad for a local jazz-oriented band that relies heavily on word of mouth to sell CDs.

"James is as talented as he is driven to make the group successful," percussionist Ekendra Das says. "We're not a commercial package, we're not the flavor of a record company, so James is working hard to distinguish [Fertile Ground]." First and foremost, Das says, "the group's success is no doubt a tribute to James' writing skills. He has so much to say, and the music makes people want to take an inner journey."

At 26, Collins is an intense, purposeful young man. When he unfurls from the piano stool, he stands a lanky 6-foot-5 and trains a warm but piercing look onto strangers from beneath a large fisherman's hat. He cites artists as diverse as Lionel Ritchie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bob Marley among those he "loooves" and creating soul-stirring music as his desire. And while he describes himself as so "anal" and focused on temporal affairs that he "can do my taxes while fighting," his outlook on success--what the band has already achieved, and what it may be poised to achieve in the months to come--is free-spirited, even spiritual.

"I'm concentrating on the journey" when making music, Collins says. "I don't focus on the destination--and that's my offering to faith."

Still, it is a calculated offering, one Collins made only after some signs and wonders pointed to music as his calling, his "religion." That, plus Collins' passion for family--a notion he says "has nothing to do with blood"--is what keeps Fertile Ground in full bloom.

In 1995, two years before Fertile Ground was launched, it was already clear that James Collins would have an impact on the local music scene. "Back then it wasn't a group," Derrick Chase, a Baltimore spoken-word recording artist, says. "People just knew James, Navasha, and Marcus. But they sparked a major turn in the [local] entertainment scene--a movement. Baltimore is a hustler's town where people know how to make things happen. James has that, and what he says he can do, he can do."

Elements of the "movement" sparked by Fertile Ground are contained in the band's positive, spiritual lyrics, but it's the group's unique sound that captures listeners--sometimes slow, soulful, mind-elevating grooves that bring to mind '70s funksters War, other times swift Afro-Brazilian tempos, straight out of Carnival.

Collins says he set out to create "something that starts from the ground and comes to life--that's fertile ground. Our music is tight because when we come together as musicians we're really vibing when we play."

That earnestness is what makes the group's mark and attracts more and more fans, says Gary Dawkins, music director for Morgan State University radio station WEAA (88.9 FM). "When Fertile Ground came out the market was saturated with so-called neosoul artists who wanted to make the money, make their own footprints," he says. The group set itself apart, Dawkins maintains, because the musicians "always play from their hearts."

With artists like Collins on the scene, "Baltimore is becoming like a little Atlanta," says Teddy Douglas, co-founder of the Basement Boys, the local dance-music production team that helped take Crystal Waters national. "Not since Billie Holliday have we had a reputation as a musical city; now we're returning to sort of an industry--James is kind of like a Master P, producing his product and making it available . . . even if [it means] selling out of the trunk of a car."

In its five years, Fertile Ground has seen its audiences grow and expand out of Baltimore and into the international market through tours with major recording artists such as India.Arie, Jill Scott, Gato Barbeiri, and Cassandra Wilson. In June, the band opened for Erykah Badu on the first night of the African American Heritage Festival at Oriole Park in Camden Yards. But Fertile Ground remains committed to charting its own course--on its own label, in its own city.

"The cash flow could be better," Collins says. "But we're cool with the journey. If somebody were to just give me a million dollars, I wouldn't want it--that would take away the best part, the journey to it. The key with being successful in music is to focus on making music, not money. We don't concentrate on doing shows, we work to make historic concerts. . . .

" When Dizzy Gillespie passed away, everybody [mourned] his death. Well, he didn't pass for me. I play his music and he is there, with this strength of presence. I want to have a life as it relates to that."

A few weeks after the Gallery 409 show, Collins is relaxing at his Northwest Baltimore home, a quaint, sunlit place with hardwood floors and walls lined with ancient symbols like the Egyptian ankh and the Hindu Om. In the family room, he pulls out stacks of photo albums and old videotapes. "I'm the type who likes to document everything," he says, and for the next five hours, without taking a break to eat or drink or use the bathroom, Collins revels in family memories.

Collins says his forebears migrated to Baltimore from the Caribbean island of Martinique in the mid-1800s as free people, doctors and merchants. Among the photos are pictures of his maternal grandfather, George Brown Jr., hugged up with notable figures like Lena Horne and Baltimore numbers kingpin Willie Adams. A former Tuskegee airman (which is what got him a date with Horne) and an astute businessperson who owned gas stations and liquor stores, Brown was also something of a protégé to the infamous Adams.

Collins clearly idolizes his grandfather, who died in 1994, and doesn't look twice at Brown's association with Adams. "People like to make certain things look criminal," he says. "When you think of it as part of the fabric of the community, and the [resourcefulness] of writing numbers down on paper--as a business, there were no manufacturing costs." He says he "tries to emulate" his grandfather today, aspiring to Brown's hustle, self-reliance, and role as the head of a loving family.

The photos get put away and the home movies come on, and there is a dimple-cheeked 2-year-old James riding a scooter in a park with his dad while his mother and older sister Tracey make funny faces at the camera. "Our family was always doing things together, every chance we got," Collins says. At home there was always music, strains of Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

The family "had a ball together," Tracey Drummond, 33, recalls. "It was beaches, bubbles, and kites." Their mother had to work extra hard to find activities to keep James focused, Drummond says. "He was a handful, a real handful," acting out in school and refusing to settle down at home, she says. "Little did we know that it was his genius flopping around inside his head."

"I was rambunctious--one of those kids who challenge authority," Collins says. His mother, Clarice Qualls, says he found an outlet for his unending energy in radios and other household gadgets, which he would take apart and reassemble. But after she and her husband divorced in 1981, when James was 5 and Tracey 12, Qualls--a newly single mother raising a male child in the city--worried about her son's energies getting misdirected.

"When he was about 7, I remember getting a call at work that he didn't show up at [after-school] day care," Qualls recalls. Anxiously, she left work early and waited for her son to come home. Eventually, he came rambling up the street with his crew of second-graders. Acting on a tip from day-care workers, Qualls asked her son if he'd been to a nearby 7-Eleven, even though he had no money.

"He looked at me and flung his arms wide, saying, 'Mama, I swear to God, I haven't been there!'" Qualls says--and the chips and snacks stashed under the coat fell out.

Before such behavior could take hold, Qualls swung into high gear, working two and three jobs to provide for her children. She ran a tight, "highly structured" household, making sure the kids had plenty to keep them busy.

Qualls, who would later return to college and earn an accounting degree, also schooled her children in money management. "Every month we got one lump sum for everything from bus passes to haircuts," Collins says. From age 10, he banked money and savings bonds received for Christmas and birthdays and, at 16, he bought his first car--"a 1987 lime-green GL Subaru," he says with a grin.

The recollection brings to Collins' mind his father's chief life lesson: Remember to have fun. Right after buying the car, he drove over to his dad's house, "with the windows down and Stevie Wonder blasting on the tape." Standing outside, James Collins Sr., asked his son four questions:

"That your car?"

"Yeah."

"You got a full tank of gas?"

"Yeah."

"You got a girlfriend?"

"Yeah."

"So what the hell are you here for?"

Collins was in fourth grade when Baltimore jazz trumpeter Dontae Winslow came to his school, Mount Washington Elementary, to play. The youngster was captivated by the image of Winslow, eyes closed, flowing on his horn. He went home begging for one of his own--and it wasn't long afterward that Clarice Qualls, ever mindful of keeping her boy focused on positive things, came home with a trumpet in a case. He couldn't wait to get to his room to start tinkering, he says.

"I wasn't what you'd call a natural," Collins says. "I busted my butt." He practiced for hours, working out Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" and other tunes until he got the melodies just right. "You hear about [novice players] making all that 'eeek-uuuhh' noise--well, I only wanted to make pretty sounds." In elementary and middle schools, where his rambunctious, rebellious behavior got him grouped with troubled kids, Collins found that "music grounded me and helped me relate to smart people."

Qualls didn't want her son just relating to smart people. She was determined that he go to college. When he finished middle school, she gathered all her available resources and enrolled him in Towson's private Calvert Hall College High School.

Collins blossomed in an environment where, he says, "teachers challenged you and asked how you felt about issues" rather than focusing on discipline and rote, repetitive learning. He joined the school band and thrived intellectually, but was also torn about leaving his friends in public schools. "It was like, automatically, I developed this huge passion for my dogs, for kids who don't get the chances." He says he learned the difference between "smart kids who were square, and 'dumb' kids who can be ambitious but undisciplined."

Meanwhile, his affable manner and growing prowess as a musician got him elected president of the majority-white Calvert Hall band, and he was recognized as a Maryland Distinguished Scholar in the Arts. In June 1994, Collins graduated high school with a 3.8 grade-point average and a sought-after spot as a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. (The program was created in the late 1980s to attract African-Americans who exhibit talent in the sciences and math but is now open to all ethnic groups.)

At the time, Collins says, it seemed as if "everything I did was celebrated. I had done advanced academics, had [proven] that I could shine, and was creative." He shows pictures of himself posing at the Inner Harbor just after his high school graduation. In a dark tailored suit and silk tie, he looks primed for success, even cocksure, with college around the corner and a career in medicine or engineering beyond that. He was moving toward a bright adulthood; he'd made his family proud. Less than two years later he would come to realize that the future he'd spent years working for wasn't the future he wanted.

I used to talk and walk through life like my soul was a distant land

But then I had a chance to take a glance at my shadows in the sand

So I have seen the queen she looked like me with fire in her eyes

And she told me she would mold me give me strength and make me wise

-- "Black Sunshine," from Fertile Ground's 1998 album Field Songs

It was May 1996, and james Collins was headed to Egypt on a long-planned trip with family and friends. He had just completed finals. With two years of college under his belt and the Meyerhoff scholarship ensuring there would be no shortage of resources to finish, he was on track for that future he'd carried with him out of high school. But that spring Collins couldn't get out of Baltimore fast enough.

"I was literally running to get to the airport terminal," he says. "I left the classroom and the test tubes and just started running. It was like I was free."

Free from what? From feeling like the "poster kid" of black achievement, he says, from a growing feeling that the road he'd mapped out two years earlier was taking him somewhere he didn't want to go.

It wasn't that he wasn't succeeding. Since high school Collins had risen to academic challenges. After scoring 850 the first time he took the SAT, he'd worked doggedly to bring his score up to qualify for the Meyerhoff scholarship. The program required an 1100; on his last test, he scored 1350. At UMBC he maintained a 3.5 GPA.

Still, Collins says, he'd begun to recognize that "with medicine and science, you're dealing with all these bureaucracies, and it didn't feel like, in the end, they are places for healing. I just wasn't excited about it."

Increasingly, what he was excited about was music. While carrying a full course load, he'd continued honing his trumpet chops and experimented with other instruments. He joined jam sessions at clubs around town, spending many nights at Wall Street, a midtown joint where "you found some of the best musicians anywhere," he says. "My game definitely went up there, though I still wasn't sold on the fact that I could [make a living as] a musician."

Collins played alongside musicians who would later become members of Fertile Ground--drummer Asante and horn players Fred Dunn and Craig Alston. By the end of his sophomore year, the band was almost in place, but with so much else going on in his life it was "on the back burner," he says.

All that changed in Egypt.

"I remember the look on James' face when [a tour guide] told us, 'Your history didn't start with slavery. You are the sons and daughters of kings and queens,'" says Qualls, who also went on the trip. Collins had boned up on Egyptian history prior to the trip, and he had taken part in the 1995 Million Man March, working as a local organizer. The tour guide's news about African-American heritage wasn't entirely new, nor was his sense of himself in relation to it. Still, there was something about the trip that deeply affected Collins, in ways he still can't fully describe but that he physically felt.

"It was a nomadic vibe that came right up through me. And I literally got sick" during a visit to an ancient temple, he says. "It was like a cleansing, some kind of purification. I embraced Africa--not like wearing a medallion, but feeling the culture. I kept thinking about my career [choice], and I figure either I'm right or I'm wrong. The pathway is the thing. So when I come back . . . it's not like I'm Dashiki Man, but I am feeling myself."

The change was not instantaneous. He stayed at UMBC, graduating in 1998 with an interdisciplinary degree in biochemistry and psychics and modern and African studies. But, telling his story in his sunlit family room, Collins mentions that achievement only in passing, as if it was an epilogue to a long-ago story, or a prologue to something still to come. He still gets hyped when talking about Egypt, though. When he returned Fertile Ground was off the back burner--and soon Collins would make the connection that set the pot boiling over.

In Collins' collection of video memorabilia is a recording of Fertile Ground's first live performance, filmed at UMBC in 1996. About seven months prior to the concert, Collins had met Daya, then a junior at Morgan State, through a mutual friend "who told me she could sing like a bird," he says. Daya introduced herself by singing "Sweet Melodies" a cappella: "I hear your voice as it talks to me/ but it's not the words you say/ it's the curve of your lips that drive me wild . . ."

Daya's voice, not to mention her looks, put a lump in Collins' throat. "I tried not to look at her that way," he says with what can only be called a shit-eating grin. Besides, he says, "I was an instrumentalist and I didn't want to hold her up." Daya says she was trying not to look at Collins "that way" either. She waited six months, then called him about working together.

In the video, Collins and the nascent band are trying an musical experiment, playing a rendition of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" while Daya sang the spiritual "Wade in the Water." A classically trained vocalist who graduated from the Cleveland School of the Arts and traveled worldwide with Morgan State's choir, Daya stands stock still during the performance, eyes closed, hands crossed in front of her stomach.

"She messed me up," Collins recalls. "I was just done. . . . My heart was in my shoes."

It proved to be a serendipitous evening in more ways than one. Before going onstage, the emcee asked Collins how to introduce the still-nameless band. "As we were walking out, I just told the guy to announce 'Fertile Ground.'" he says. Afterward, he says with a laugh, people were buzzing about "a new group that had something to do with dirt." For his part, Collins was buzzing about the synergy among the players on stage. "I was totally blown away," he says. "I knew I had to play with these people again. I mean, I saw us [where we are] today."

Daya saw it too; she'd been primed for a musical career her whole life. The eldest of six children, Daya--whose last name means "compassion" in Sanskrit ("Navasha" means "bright as the light of God" in an East African language)--was raised in a musical household (her father played in a reggae band) by parents who practiced metaphysics, observed non-Western religions, and were vegetarians "before it became trendy," she says. She grew up believing it was her duty "to set an example" for her younger siblings, so when she got teased in grade school about "having 'grass'" on her sandwiches, she learned how to stand her ground as an individual.

"I raised my children to have a duty to life and to others," says Daya's mother, Alima Aziz, who still lives in Cleveland. While she honed her talent at the School for the Arts from fourth through 12th grade, Aziz says, Daya also had to learn "how to keep her head straight, not to get pumped on hype or focused on driving a Rolls-Royce. I told her, 'You have been given a gift that you are supposed to use to do good.'"

Daya and Collins became a couple during the band's first year, but they say they'd already come to see one another as kindred spirits who wanted to make meaningful music. (Daya calls Collins "my twin"; the two consummated their creative and life partnership by getting married June 29.) "It's not about being militant or anything," she says. "It's about opening minds and helping people see their own greatness."

Collins agrees, saying that part of Fertile Ground's appeal is that the music "is definitely holistic. It's not about [ego], like, 'Hey, look at me.' It's self-affirming music that's all about loving yourself."

They have walked that path together for five years now, spreading Fertile Ground's feel-good message every chance they get. Opening for national R&B recording artist Rachelle Ferrell at Morgan State in May, they played to more than a thousand people, a much larger crowd than at the Gallery 409 party, but the vibe was still down-home. When Daya, trademark feathers in her hair and jewels on her bare feet, does a series of East Indian and West African dance moves, her energetic movements make even the most elegantly dressed folks in the audience scream: "Go 'Vasha, get busy!"

The dances, Daya says, help her use the stage as a healing ground of sorts. "When I'm out there," she says, "I'm invoking healing energy, literally saying [to the audience], 'Open up, open up!'"

Collins marvels at the transformation of Daya from the woman who wore casual knits and hardly moved onstage in 1996 to the culturally attired whirling dervish of today. "And," he says, "she hasn't even begun to peak yet."

"James has these big visions for what he wants to do with shows," she says. "We are both doing what we were born to do."

I am not afraid

The path I'm on is one that I have made

Reflections of the sun make stellar flowers bloom

I listen for their drum and dance with my friend the moon

-- "My Friend the Moon," from Fertile Ground's 1999 album Spiritual War

It's June 21, opening night at the newly reconstituted African American Heritage Festival, and James Collins is in high spirits. Some 125,000 people have assembled at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, excited at the prospect of seeing Erykah Badu in concert. But while the crowd may be here largely to see the international R&B star, they roar their approval when the emcee announces the hometown opening act.

A few minutes before Fertile Ground is due onstage, Collins is busy backstage. He darts into the band's trailer, grabs a couple of boxes of CDs, and hustles over to a vendor table where family members will sell them for $12 apiece. He pauses to go over the set list with a substitute percussionist. With a minute to go, he bounds up onstage, using one hand to shed shoes and socks, the other to sound-check the keyboards.

Moments later, the crowd bobs to the reggae-inspired beat of "Be Natural," one of Fertile Ground's signature songs. "It's about learning how to love ourselves, y'all," Daya announces, and the crowd responds by flashing peace signs and raised fists, bringing to mind Derrick Chase's assessment that Fertile Ground represents not just a band or a style of music but a movement.

For some people, that movement may begin and end with the groove they feel at the band's shows. But Collins has his sights set on a bigger picture. "A critical part of the city disappearing is the musical climate," he says. "There was a time when there'd be a jam session somewhere every single night. That spoke to me . . . it was my bible and my lifesaver."

In a bid to re-create that climate, Collins joined forces with Chase and several other local artists last year to create Organic Soul Tuesdays, a weekly showcase downtown at the Maryland Art Place's Saratoga Lounge. Artists from a wide range of genres--"hip-hop to bebop," asserts a brochure--are welcome to strut their stuff. "We didn't want to make it a typical swing session that ostracized people, where usually you don't see women or young people," Collins says.

He's also got a proposal in the works to establish a city arts council to promote more bands in public schools. Noting that many of his high school bandmates went on to music careers, Collins says he wants to help create more outlets "for artists who aren't being developed and [whose] talent is going unappreciated." He says he'd like to work to create at least three new school bands.

Such efforts are inextricable from Fertile Ground's musical mission, founding member Asante says--responsibility to the larger community as much as audience size and album sales are the group's markers of distinction and success. "We have to be serious," he says, plucking an example from his own specialty. "I mean, drummers are educators who can communicate history in the rhythms." Asante says that through performance he tries "to inform people of the goings on of the ancestors--whether it's the Moors in Spain or world wars, I'm trying to remind people to remember themselves."

As the group's figurehead, Collins is walking that talk. At the Badu show, he had full run of the backstage area, where notables such as Kweisi Mfume hobnobbed with the various entertainment figures on hand. But while Badu belted out high octaves onstage, Collins stood for a moment just behind the security gate, alone and exhausted after Fertile Ground's performance, looking out into the crowd. Has he been making the rounds, rubbing elbows with the celebs? "Nah," he says with a shrug. A moment later, he crosses from behind the gate and moves into the vast crowd.

Back in the midst of his "family," Collins seems rejuvenated. Ladies get smiles; fellas get some dap. Five years into this stage of his journey, he seems comfortable in his skin.

"Ninety percent of the time I'm enjoying life," he'd said earlier that night. "I'm exactly where I want to be, and it feels like there's nothing I want that's outside of my grasp."

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