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“So I Wander is a master craft of inspiration. Lior’s excellent songwriting abilities combined with his magnanimous open heart takes me on a powerful journey.”
Jah Levi is a music producer, multi-instrumentalist performing song writer, ethnomusicologist, and luthier.
He has toured the world for over 30 years, released 40 albums of his own original music and produced over 200 albums for many world-renowned musicians in a wide variety of genres.
Jah Levi is a pioneer in the field of music and studio technologies. He built the world’s first solar-powered digital recording studio in 1986, and launched three independent music labels. He also produced the first ever independently-released CD, Selassie I Vibration, in 1987.
Today, he runs one of the most well-equipped digital and analog recording studios in the world.
Son of famed folklorist Dr. Kenneth Goldstein, who was a prime mover in the 1960’s American Folk Music Revival, Jah Levi was born in a music studio and raised in a house of music. He was first taught guitar by the late Reverend Gary Davis and later moved on to bass as his main instrument, while learning to play and build hundreds of rare instruments from around the world.
With degrees in ethnomusicology and alternative health (licensed acupuncture and herbalist), Jah Levi has taught workshops in wellness and plant medicine throughout the world while promoting excellent music as a means of bringing people together across political and cultural divides.
Official Website: JahLevi.com
IRIE. We hear you had quite a musical upbringing?
Jah Levi. Yeah, I was born and raised in the studio. I still have the first instruments I played. The first was a rattle, which I played incessantly until a friend of my father gave me a drum from Africa. It was taller than me. I actually remember this being given to me at my first birthday. As soon as I could stand up I was standing playing this drum. I still have it.
Then it was a Suzuki violin. I remember playing along with a hundred other children, playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I hated it.
I told my mother I needed to find another instrument and I found the teacher, Benji Aranof, a well-known folk musician who showed me how to play the banjo. He was amazing. So I took banjo lessons and found out that what I really wanted to play was the bass.
IRIE. You had a lot of great musicians around you. Can you tell us about that?
Jah Levi. Yes, my father was big in the American Folk Revival in the 60’s. Because of his involvement in the music business I was exposed to a lot of the great blues and folk masters of the times. I grew up on the knee of some of these musical giants, one being the late great Reverend Gary Davis. I remember watching him play and asking him if he would show me and I remember the first few lessons I was given when I was six or so.
I loved the bass but as much as I tried I could not learn to sing and play the bass at the same time so as soon as I learned to sing I realized that guitar was going to have to be my instrument as song writer.
Later I got interested in Indian music when my father gave me an album by Ravi Shankar and I decided then and there that I wanted learned to play Sitar.
Somehow I developed this philosophy early on: if I wanted to play an instrument I would have to learn to build it. When I decided that I wanted to build my first sitar I was seeking information and guidance on how a sitar might be built and I was able to arrange a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gained access to their ancient instrument restorations department and got to watch as they dissected, repaired and restored these ancient Asian instruments. And I got tot see from the inside how a sitar was made. From there I proceeded to build this guitar and then I took lessons on it for several years until I became proficient.
This led me to build several hundred instruments from around the world.
IRIE. Sounds like it became an addiction?
Jah Levi. Definitely.
IRIE. So how many instruments do you play now?
Jah Levi. Several hundred.
IRIE. And you build all of them?
Jah Levi. Pretty much. I remember visiting the New York Folk Center, which was run by Izzy Young. I was a young child and I remember just gravitating to his instrument repair workbench. I would just stare at this instrument that was hanging on the wall. It was this very small guitar-like instrument and the back of it was made of an armadillo, which had really long hair and smelled really bad.
He noticed that I was fascinated by it so he took the instrument off the wall and said, “Take this and fix it up.” I looked inside the instrument and it had chunks of meat rotting on the inside. I took it and cleaned it and fixed it and I still have it to this day. That was the first instrument I restored. It is called a charango. Native to Bolivia and Peru. It’s well known for its inclusion in Andean music. It turns out it’s often used in Ayahuasca ceremonial music but we’ll save that for another interview.
IRIE. Ok then. You have an incredible studio here. How did you learn about all this technology you use today?
Jah Levi. My mother will tell you that from the age of four I would take everything apart and figure out how it would work and how to put it back together. I started with instruments but then I wanted to know all about the recording machines my father was using and it just snowballed. My father taught me how to splice tape, how to clean the heads and demagnetize, how to get a good sounds from a microphone, how to sodder and change vacuum tubes, all that.
I now own every bit of technology I have ever wanted but it still seems like there are always more pieces to collect, dissect and master. And I love seeing what I can do to perfect sounds in the studio.
My latest acquisition is a Studer A827 Gold, which is a 24-track two-inch tape machine that is the crown creation of Willi Studer, the famous tape machine wizard. It even has his signature on it. He only ever built 100 of these and I bought this one from an old evangelical preacher from Texas who used it just once and never moved it. So it’s basically brand new. That was a score. And the other amazing recent addition to my mastering facility is a Daniel Weiss DW-102 digital mastering system, which gives me supreme control of the sonic characteristics of the audio, keeping it solely in the digital domain. Combined with the best of vintage analog and tube technology, I have the best of both worlds, ancient and modern.
IRIE. Do you have any formal education in music?
Jah Levi. By the time I got to college I knew I wanted to study instruments from all over the world and I found out I could actually major in that. The field was called ethnomusicology. I also minored in Black studies because I grew up in Philadelphia and some of my early political and personal influences were John Africa, the founder of the Move organization, Mumia Abu Jamal, and others.
As long as I can remember it has always been told to me that all civilization comes from Africa so I look to Africa as the roots of everything, including music. The library at Simon’s Rock, where I was studying, was named after W.E.B. DuBois and his work was a major resource for me.
IRIE. Where did you first come across reggae music and how did you become a Rastafarian?
Jah Levi. When my father gave me the Bob Marley album Catch a Fire, I quickly learned that this was a music I wanted to be involved in so he continued to introduce me to great reggae albums.
When I was in school my anthropology teacher gave me the book Rastafari Way of Life, and that’s when I decided to study everything I could about Rastafari, reggae, ital livity, and everything I could find about Haile Selassie I, who was always an inspirational person to me from the first time I saw his image as a child. I remember seeing him on TV a few times and asking my father about him.
I finished my degree and decided I wanted to become a master of building instruments so I went to The Roberto Venn School of Luthiery in Arizona and got my master of luthier certification there. But I realized that there was no way I was going to make a living building instruments. It takes hundreds of hours to build an instrument. So I gave up the idea of doing that professionally and I decided I was going to become a full-time musician.
I moved to Oregon to play with the reggae band Strictly Roots. They lived on this farm in Alpine and had a Rastafarian community that I became part of for a year and a half until I decided to start my own band, Jah Levi and the Higher Reasoning. We’re talking 1984.
IRIE. How did you and Lior Ben-Hur meet and what made you want to work with him?
Jah Levi. Lior was introduced to me through Yossi Fine, Israel’s most popular producer who is a great bass player. He plays bass with me when I am in Israel. When Lior first planned to produce a reggae song based on the Hebrew prayer Shema Yisrael, he told Yossi that he wanted to go to Jamaica and have this produced at Tuff Gong studio and Yossi said, “No. Jah Levi is the one who can produce this.”
Then it turned out Lior had been playing one of my songs, In This Reality, for children in the Jewish community in the Bay Area for years. He asked if he could record this song, and later asked if I would produce it. It was a beautiful connection.
Lior is one of the most heartful musicians I have ever met. Do you know how rare it is to meet a musician who knows how to relate with people in a way that builds everyone up instead of competing with everyone?
He cares about his craft and his impact and he always brings a positive message and a positive vibe to everything he does. I have a deep love for him for that.
Reggae music is journey music and Lior totally gets that. HIs new album is a testimony to this.