Kore Ionz perform at Bumbershoot 2011 with Prometheus Brown of Blue Scholars on September 4, 2011.
Image: Absalom Shantz

Seattle-based reggae band, Kore Ionz, discuss their local roots, their new record and how it feels to be shunned by Rastafari bands

Music / The anti-war movement has an associated body of protest songs that, arguably, illuminated with Beethoven and detonated with Dylan. But it was black convict and social outcast Lead Belly who may have started the tradition as we know it today–disguising “Goodnight Irene” as a folk song and taking his lead from expertly crafted slave songs. “Irene” had the facial features of a proper love song, but the song’s internal structure was cleverly designed as an opposition to injustice.

Since the most famous era of “political lament by a six string” has been over for four decades now, one can’t help but notice when a band, mainstream or not, pops up delivering us something other than girls kissing girls, monster balls or moves like Jagger. In this instance, it’s the Seattle-based reggae band known as Kore Ionz and their newest project, World War Free.

“When people ask me today what the [band] name means, I tell them that in this world in which we live and try to understand, there’s always a yin and yang going on,” says frontman and songwriter Daniel Pak. “Duality. Without hate, there would be no such thing as love. Without war, there would be no peace. Ultimately, without a negative energy, there could be no positive.”

As you may have already noticed, Pak is one of those people who make you wonder if old souls or past lives maybe exist. This thirty-something local boy, a fourth generation Korean and fifth generation Japanese and whose family has been on Oahu for over 100 years, says things like, “when atoms, the building blocks of all matter that make up our world, are in their ionic state, they are charged one of two ways: either negatively or positively.” He goes on to say that, physically, ions are in a state of chaos, colliding with one another, often violently. Eventually his metaphor for war and peace, and the impetus for the band’s name become clear, “Only when oppositely charged ions come together, in agreement, and bond, can anything stable be created.”

And the Band Played On

What we know about Pak is that he came from a family of activists, scholars and musicians, and, likewise, his band members are the offspring of their well-educated, socially conscious parents whose backgrounds range from members of the internationally recognized steel drum band, Bakra Bata, to professors on both coasts and one who’s the Kenyan ambassador to Egypt. The band’s keyboard player grew up playing in Hawaii’s prisons, where his father volunteered for 40 years.

But for a reggae band composed of this many walks of life, Pak says “life” hasn’t always been easy on the big black stage.

“We once performed with a Rastafari band, and they certainly had intense pre-judgments and some racism going on before the show started,” he says. “Just really negative, negative energy. They were especially angry when the promoter told them that they were going on before us. Funny thing is after we got off stage, the whole band came up to us, eyes wide open, and admitted how judgmental they realized they were, and how they were leaving the venue better people than when they arrived.”

Pak admits that he’s felt the same negative vibe from a few local bands, and even from members of a legendary reggae group whom he asks me not to mention because, “All we got is love.” And the thing is, it’s hard not to believe him. On stage, Pak is love. His band embraces love and showers the crowd in love, and pretty soon the entire venue is covered in that word it takes some of us years to even say, let alone bathe in.

Reflecting again on moments of criticism, Pak continues, “It’s like my dad always told me, ‘You just have to have shark skin.’ Today, people from Ethiopia, Sudan and Gambia will come up to me after a show and tell me how much the music means to them, and those are some of the most humbling moments, being fully aware that we are playing music that has evolved from their history and culture.”

On War and Words

Musically speaking, these guys sound like a mixture of the Wailers and Rufus Wainwright. Baffling? Perhaps, but the band’s diverse musicianship and the clean, but not squeaky clean production, mixed with Pak’s almost liturgical voice deliver anything but what’s expected from a traditional reggae album. As songs with a social consciousness fade from the airwaves, we find refuge in the few stations that play bands like Kore Ionz, and we should thank these stations for their early impressions on musicians like the guys in this band, and others aspiring to be like them.

World War Free is a new sound for Kore Ionz, and one can’t help but examine the cover art (two bullets with flowers growing out of them) and wonder about its subtext.

“War has and always will be about competition,” Pak says. “For food, resources, energy. In the cave man days, tribes would fight to survive…then over the course of thousands of years technology advanced and now, in our modern age, it’s at the point where we could make ourselves extinct with one bad decision.”

What Pak and his band give us, as listeners who care about the state of the world, are songs like “Marionettes,” “Belltown” and “‘Ohana”–the piano an interpretation of time, and jazz-like horn riffs a reminder that if art cannot be judged by its effectiveness, it can be effective in inderect ways.

“The intention of the music and the message,” he says, “is to give people a glimpse of the truth in a way such that it just might uplift them to go do something to change it.

“Is peace achievable? I think the answer to that is within each and every one of us individually. Do I support a government that carries out war every day? Do I buy products from companies that support a government that carries out war every day? Does the music I listen to and the television I watch help convince me to buy products from companies that support a government that carries out war every day? Hmmm…”

What World War Free is not is a repackaging of Bob Marley’s catalog. The band is attempting to move the conversation forward, and time will tell if others join in.