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Inka Inka Big Big

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Winner of three Bammies, South Bay band proves that reggae is much more than a black-and-white matter

By Traci Hukill

THEY'RE POLITE. They return phone calls on time and say "Please" and "Thank you." They boast a tidy bag of college degrees amongst them and several could, after an hour in the barber's chair and two at Nordstrom, pass for junior execs or engineers scrambling up the corporate ladder.

In fact, they're holding down part-time jobs or scraping by off earnings from Inka Inka, a band that--despite overwhelming popularity with Greater Bay Area audiences, who earlier this year awarded them three Bammies including Best Club Band--is not making anyone rich. Well, maybe a few promoters, jokes one band member, but that's all.

So what's the story? Why are these nice--how shall we put it?--white boys from San Jose and environs hell-bent on making reggae music?

"We have gotten a lot of flack," admits guitar player Greg Schnetz, who with bassist Greg Yeager and lead singer Todd Wilder (a.k.a. Sticky and Spiderman) formed the band in 1989. "There've been a lot of people in traditional reggae circles who think we're where we are today because we're white. ... We played a show in Chicago once before an all-black audience. The manager came up to us after the show and said, 'You guys are lucky you didn't get shot.' "

It makes one wonder what Inka Inka's collective defense against such nasty vibes might be. One exuberant show and a glance at an Inka lyric sheet later, the answer begins to emerge.

This just might be the happiest reggae band ever to drop a dub. From the first number of a very energetic and danceable set, Spiderman is all over the stage, dreads a-flyin', limbs a-flailin', and the rest of the band is right there to back him up, beaming blissfully as they generate a flood of upbeat tunes infused with Afro-Caribbean rhythms. With such a vigorous intro, you might wonder where the show could possibly go, but Inka Inka--so named for Spiderman's onomatopoetic rendering of the sound of a scratch guitar--manages to keep it up.

The itinerant Inkheads, faithful followers from over the hill, have a tough, sweaty job matching Spiderman's pace on the dance floor. Why bother with critics when you're having such a good time onstage?

Then there's the sense that Inka Inka is on a mission. The first song off Myth of the Machine, which earned this year's Bammie for Outstanding World Beat Album, claims: "One by one our rights are taken/One by one we lose freedom/Step by step we're coming for them/One by one we're coming, so/Step back, officer."

"I'm not trying to say, 'Look how bad I have it,' " explains songwriter Spiderman. "It's 'Look how bad things are getting. Look how bad we need to change things.' " When you consider that his first musical experience was in a punk rock band, the overtly political tone of his songs assumes a broader scope. It's more than just racial issues on the line--it's freedom of speech on the Internet, the legality of no-knock policies and checkpoints, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

"There's so much music out there that may sound great or make you feel good but doesn't make you think," Spidey gripes sweetly, and Schnetz agrees. "We like it when people are dancing and having a good time and then buy one of our albums and say, 'Hey, these are really good lyrics,' " Schnetz adds.

It sounds like the equivalent of dating a surfer and realizing, "Hey, he can hold a conversation!" At first it just sweetens the deal, but pretty soon that darling boy holds some genuine appeal. It's a tactic that's obviously working for Inka Inka. Their deft acquisition of all those Bammies and the general success of their three albums suggests that the recipe of one part happy calypso groove to one part conscious message is a combination people eat right up, even if the Inka Inkans are nice boys from San Jose.


Inka Inka: The Bammie winners play on Friday (9:30pm) with Native Elements at the Catalyst (1011 Pacific Ave., SC, 423-1338). Tickets cost $6.50 at the door, $5 in advance, and the doors open at 8:30pm.

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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