Beyond Reggae: Zion Lion explores music from all over the Caribbean

Zion Lion Reggae Band is not your typical reggae group.

True, reggae is part of the musical repertoire, but the band also plays African zouk, mucosa, zoukous and Afro-Latin influenced songs, all without the need to imitate Bob Marley.

“There’s a stereotype that people who play reggae are a bunch of dreadlocked Rastafarians smoking weed. We definitely don’t do that,” said Myra Atkinson, Zion Lion’s lead singer and steel drum player.

According to an early definition in the Dictionary of Jamaican English, reggae is based on ska, an earlier form of Jamaican popular music, and employs a heavy four-beat rhythm driven by drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, and the “scraper,” a corrugated stick that is rubbed by a plain stick.

The musical group, which bills itself as the “baddest band” to hit the Kalamazoo music scene, is performing on July 8 at Flesher Field in Oshtemo Township. The band’s six members are a combination of several bands from the Kalamazoo area that happened to cross paths and now perform the right mix of reggae and lesser-known music.

Atkinson said their shows include a mix of original music and cover tunes. She and Preston Moore, the group’s founder and drummer, write the lyrics and compose the music for their original tunes, along with Moore’s son.

Moore has been performing for more than 20 years on drums, bass, lead guitar and keyboard. He relocated in 1996 from Chicago to Kalamazoo and two years later joined the Jah Kings, a Kalamazoo-based reggae band. He has a home studio and production label and is dedicating himself to preserving and honoring great artists.

“Everybody knows Bob Marley, but for me, I have been influenced by a combination of African artists like Hugh Masekela and Angelique Kidjo,” Atkinson said. “We’ve all had different influences of different artists.”

The Zouk music they play is based on popular dance music associated mainly with the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as Saint Lucia and Dominica, all in the French Antilles (French West Indies). The music blends a variety of Caribbean, African and North American music styles. It is characterized by frequent use of French Antillean Creole language, the prominence of electronically synthesized sounds, and sophisticated recording technology.

While their name may not be easily recognizable within Michigan’s mainstream music scene, Zion Lion has been together for at least 15 years with various members. The group has played in venues including area breweries and at festivals throughout the state and Rock Island, Ill. and Louisville, Ky.

During their performances, the members take time to give the audience insight into what they’re playing.

“When we’re doing concerts in the park, we do a lot of things that we gear towards children,” Atkinson said. “Some of the songs we include are Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song and Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds.”

Zion Lion’s current members come from Senegal, St. Lucia, Chicago, Virginia and Kalamazoo. In addition to Atkinson and Moore, the band includes John Foster, who plays rhythm guitar; Webster John-Baptiste, bass guitar; Assane Dia-Djembe, percussion; and Joel Finley-Pink, who plays keyboard and bass guitar.

Atkinson, a retired school administrator, played piano and clarinet in middle school and high school and later learned bass and rhythm guitar, all the while becoming a more avid fan of reggae music, which led her to teach herself how to play the steel drum.

When asked if the band is a full-time job for any of its members, Atkinson laugeds and said, “We’d be broke if we didn’t have other jobs.”

Zion Lion
Flesher Field
3664 S. 9th St., Kalamazoo
July 8, 6 p.m.