Hopi reggae artist to take stage at library
Veteran performer Casper Lomayesva to play his first show in Farmington in approximately 15 years
Editor's note: Casper Lomayesva and the Mighty 602 Band have canceled their performance planned for Friday at the Farmington Public Library because of a family emergency, the library announced in a press release today. The Zia Chicks will perform instead.
FARMINGTON — Casper Lomayesva wears a lot of hats these days — husband, musician, surveyor and college student — but his first task every day involves getting up at 4:30 a.m. and walking his five Chihuahuas around his Mesa, Ariz., neighborhood.
“We have to get out early before it turns into a crematory around here,” he said of the desert heat.
Lomayesva credits the unpleasant summers in the Phoenix area for his decision to go to college at an advanced stage of his life. Though he enjoys surveying, he said working outside in June, July and August is something he doesn’t feel prepared to do for too much longer.
“If it was nice here all the time, it probably wouldn’t have pushed me to go back to school,” he said. “But it’s ridiculous. Like my wife told me, ‘You’re not getting any younger.’”
So Lomayesva is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in engineering and land planning at Arizona State University while also working two part-time jobs for construction companies. If it sounds like the Hopi reggae artist who grew up on the reservation in northeast Arizona has put his once-flourishing music career on the back burner, that’s only partially true — Lomayesva doesn’t tour now at the level he used to, but he’s as enthusiastic as ever about the music itself.
“My priorities have changed a little bit,” he said during a phone interview from his Mesa home last week while planning a trip to the Four Corners this weekend to perform as part of the Farmington Public Library’s Cottonwood Concert Series with his Mighty 602 Band.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Lomayesva and his group were performing 75 free shows a year in addition to their heavy slate of paying gigs. Lomayesva was playing in front of tens of thousands of people at such high-profile gigs as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the American Indian Inaugural Ball in Washington, even a 90th birthday celebration for legendary folkie Pete Seeger at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Kris Kristofferson, Ben Harper and Dave Matthews.
That was all great fun, he said, but Lomayesva wasn’t exactly prospering, and the amount of time it took to maintain his career at that level really wasn’t worth it.
“The music part of it will always be there, but I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” he said.
These days, Lomayesva tends to concentrate on the gigs that intrigue him — like his show this weekend here. He said he was resistant at first to the invitation to play at the Farmington library, given the difficulty of getting here from the Phoenix area and the library’s budget. But when library officials persisted, Lomayesva found himself being talked into the idea after turning it down twice.
“It’s another opportunity to play for my peoples,” said Lomayesva, whose mother is Navajo. “It’s not about money. It feeds my spirit. People out there understand and can relate to our message. This is one of those gigs that, this is why we do this.”
Lomayesva laughed when he recalled his only previous show in Farmington, which he said took place approximately 15 years ago.
“It was a total flop,” he said. “It didn’t work at all.”
If he’s worried about a repeat of that disappointment this time, Lomayesva didn’t betray that feeling. He sounded more worried about driving back to Mesa that night and getting ready to play another gig the next night.
But Lomayesva is used to that kind of grueling tour schedule, one he maintained for years while crisscrossing the Southwest. He said he never faced any skepticism while playing reggae — a musical style most closely associated with Jamaica — despite his Hopi and Diné heritage.
“Not at all,” he said. “On the contrary, it was like wildfire. I was the only Hopi reggae artist in the world.”
That meeting of Hopi and Jamaican culture isn’t as unusual as it might appear at first blush. Lomayesva developed his love for reggae as a young man, when in 1984 a group called the Culture Connection began booking and staging shows featuring well-known reggae acts such as the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Toots and the Maytals on the reservation. Lomayesva found himself right down in front, soaking it all up, and it wasn’t long before he wanted to give that music a shot himself.
“It made me what I am today,” Lomayesva said of that experience. “I was a kid, and I was standing right in front of the stage and watching these musical (groups) do what they did. It was crucial to me.”
Lomayesva may not have been a Rastafarian, but he found the music spoke to him, all the same.
“I can relate to the message,” he said. “It’s Jamaican gospel music. I’m so intrigued by reggae. After seeing all those heavyweights on Hopiland, I wanted to see where they came from. So I went to Jamaica three times.”
That first trip lasted a month, though Lomayesva recounted it as anything but a relaxing island getaway. What he found were Third World conditions and people living in extreme poverty.
“I didn’t go as a tourist,” he said. “It wasn’t no Four Seasons. I had a tent, and I set it up in front of this shack my friend and his family lived in. And my tent was nicer than what these guys were living in.”
It was a rough month, Lomayesva said, but “it taught me a lot about where their music was coming from.”
That kind of authenticity came through in the music he crafted with his Mighty 602 Band. Though literally dozens of players have come and gone through the group since it was formed in 1995 — “Last count was 38 musicians,” Lomayesva said — the core of the group has remained, with William “King Roach” Banks playing guitar and Jackson handling keyboards. In fact, Banks’ son Justin now plays bass in the band, while Jackson’s son Jackson Jr. plays drums.
Lomayesva and the Mighty 602 Band have recorded six albums and 70 songs over the years. The title of its most recent release, 2015’s “Elemental,” fully reflects the nature of those experiences, he said.
“It summed up everything we’ve done — what we are, (what are) the real elements of us,” he said. “We’ll, we’re elements of the earth.”
Response to the album was disappointing, he said, but Lomayesva attributes that to the fact that he wasn’t in a financial position to have CDs pressed for sale.
“I’m a broke-ass college student. I have no money. I have no sponsors, no manager,” he said, explaining that he had financed the production of previous CDs by emptying out his retirement savings. “With ‘Elemental,’ I didn’t have that luxury, so it was an Internet-only release. But it hasn’t fared as well as I thought it would. I think that’s because the audience for it is in remote places. There are still a lot of people with no computers on the rez.”
Lomayesva hopes to have the resources to release the album on CD later this year, along with a “best of” compilation. That disc would feature two songs from each of his albums, he said, along with two more unreleased singles. But if it takes longer to make that happen, he’s OK with that.
“Time is on my side,” he said. “My mentality is, we’ll put it out when we can for those who want it.”
But as he wrestles with those decisions, Lomayesva also has tapped into new energy through a separate musical project. He has put together a second band, this one made up of young musicians, that goes by the name of Highest Conspiracy.
“I needed to be inspired,” he said. “The Mighty 602 was more of a job. I want to rehearse a lot. I need to be doing something musical every day, and in a band like the 602, where the oldest member is probably 55, that wasn’t going to happen. So I hooked up with these younger cats, and we’ve got a full horn section.”
Lomayesva said his involvement in Highest Conspiracy has allowed him to catch his second wind when it comes to music, and he looks forward to seeing where that road leads him. He said he enjoys being the elder statesman of the band and passing on some hard-earned wisdom to younger players.
“You need to put your time into your music,” he said. “It wasn’t my goal to wind up (having a career this long). It found me. I wasn’t out there pursuing this. It was a gift that was given to me to share with others.”
Lomayesva insisted he’s satisfied with what he’s accomplished over the course of his career and doesn’t lose any sleep over what might have happened if he had caught a few breaks.
“I’m cool with that,” he said. “It would be easy to say, ‘I should have done this, I should have done that,’ but I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: The Cottonwood Concert Series featuring Casper Lomayesva and the Mighty 602 Band
When and where: 3:30 p.m. in the rotunda and 6 p.m. in the north amphitheater at the Farmington Public Library, 2101 Farmington Ave.
For more information: Visit infoway.org or call 505-599-1260