Oregon-born Nahko was born from strife and intermingling identities; his origins are a mix of Apache, Puerto Rican and Filipino cultures. His grandmother forced his mother into prostitution at age 14 and his life began in an act of violence. In the song on the new album, “Dark As Night,” by his group Medicine for the People, he sings, “So thankful, I never thought I’d give thanks for rape/but that’s how I got here today.” That line, filled with a poignant sense of acceptance and forgiveness, equally exemplifies this musician’s power and grace.
At nine months of age, Nahko was adopted by a white American family who raised him as a conservative Christian and introduced him to the world of music. As a child, Nahko was given classical piano lessons and learned to sing in church. He then went on to teach himself how to play guitar and became a piano teacher as a teenager. Questions always lingered about his cultural identity and his past, urging Nahko to set out on his own in hopes of discovery.
Nahko’s journey took him first to Alaska, where he found a job playing piano in a dinner theater. His world view expanded as he left Oregon for the first time in his life and began to consider the alternatives to his Christian upbringing. Nahko began to develop his own music. He played with friends by the river and at open mic nights, hitting upon the folk style that characterizes his music now. “That brought me into storytelling,” Nahko said. “It helped paint my pictures for me. I appreciated the Kerouac mentality of being on the road and rebelling against the system. I hadn’t yet dialed in to where my angst was coming from, but finding folk music and indie rock helped start to channel it.”
The journey continued in Hawaii, where Nahko moved a few years later to work on an organic farm and where he continues to reside. As he moved around, meeting people who would impact his songwriting, Nahko’s curiosity about his origins grew. This urge drew him to search for his mother and through the internet he found her almost a year later. His identity crisis was only beginning to unwind as he got to know his siblings and was introduced to his father’s family via Facebook a few years later. Discovering the news of his biological father’s murder in 1994, Nahko was given an opportunity to forgive the man he had always carried so much hate for. He then went on to visit his father’s murderer in prison, an experience that compelled him to truly consider the idea of forgiveness. As the pieces of his past fell into place, creating an image of diversity and connecting identities, Nahko began to explore his disparate past in song. The musician used the music to reconcile his family’s trauma and find a sense of overarching oneness.
His first album with Nahko and Medicine for the People, “On The Verge,” came out in 2010, reflecting this exploration. The group’s second album, “Dark As Night,” followed in the spring of 2013 and further expanded on Nahko’s evolving ideas about self-discovery and acceptance. There is also an underlying theme of social and political change woven throughout the songs. Bridging the music and activism worlds, Nahko has promoted and raised awareness with organizations that range from climate change awareness (350.org) to myriad projects surrounding first nation rights, energy policies, environmental and social justice issues with elders such as Winona LaDuke (www.honorearth.org) and birthing clinics (Bumi Sehat, Bali) to teaching cultural respect and accountability through music at schools all over the world.
Medicine for the People is backed by the tribal hand percussion and rhythms of Hope Medford. She is known for her sensual hypnotic world beats infused with maternal soul. Hope has played percussion for nearly 20 years, drawing inspiration from our natural world, the feminine spirit, and people of many cultures. Having studied traditional music in West Africa, Peru and Brazil, she currently brings her African Djembe and Afro-Peruvian Bajo Cajon drums to the stage to co-create the urban roots sounds for which Medicine is known.
“I think our music promotes the bridging of all tribes,” Nahko said. “The lyrics and the stories and our energy as a group break down people’s walls. You’ll find us in the most unique places on earth because it’s real, raw, and honest storytelling about what we’ve been through and what we believe in. And that’s why people connect with it. I think that’s the most important thing you can do with music.”
Nahko And Medicine For The People
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $15 in advance, $20 on the day of the show