Considering the odds, how Hopi Reservation-born Casper Lomayesva became a professional musician is a pretty unlikely story. Here is how it started, or, let's just say here are the big three influences: first, as a young boy in Kykotsmovi Village, he can remember his grandfather singing all the time in the cornfields and encouraging him to sing along; second, the invasion of the Bob Marley generation of Jamaican musicians, from an island to the high desert; and third, he moved to the city.
This leads to a fourth thing. After moving to Mesa he connected with an enormous number of musicians, who then formed Casper and the Mighty 602 Band, a group that established itself as one of the first reggae acts of the 1990s to build an audience of fans on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. He won't put it in so many words, but the fact is now, at the age of 51 and on the brink of a new venture and stage of life when he gets his engineering degree from Arizona State University this year, he can look back and say, yeah, he was one of the leading lights to bring reggae to the reservation, and then Flagstaff and all of northern Arizona.
"I had left because there is more opportunity in the city," Lomayesva says. "I came to Phoenix and all of the recording facilities were here, with lots of access to studios in the Valley. But I knew the inspiration was within me. I knew I had a calling ... Radical Mix ... the Rastafarmers, they were the guys that helped us to get our scene together."
His 20-year-old band 602 played one of the many music festivals in the metropolitan Phoenix area this spring, including a Caribbean festival in the West Valley and a Native American event for the Scottsdale craft arts show crowd. While he's been keeping his heels relatively cool on the music side of things, he says he's still accepting as many invitations to perform as he is turning them down and it would be quite easy to feel like the "calling" has been answered.
"I don't perform as much music because I am a senior at ASU," he says on the phone from the desert where he does land surveying as part of his day gig. "But the music has always been there, and you have to go on. I am not going to spend a lot of time lingering. Since 2012, this is part of a bigger calling. Doing something else, with a good job, a good trade. I didn't know I was going to live this long. So I needed to use it, if you know what I mean."
Now, looking back, he says, "602 was at least partially responsible for inspiring bands that did pretty well," adding his own band had been previously inspired by the wave of reggae bands who came to the Four Corners area to play in the 1990s. "It was above and beyond just being Hopi, when Bob Marley and Ziggy Marley and Dennis Brown, the crown prince of reggae, come, it's like Haile Selassie had come from Jamaica. They were coming to sing to us. It was more of an invitation."
One particularly important organization had a lot to do with bringing these artists to the community.
"Cultural Connection in the early 1990s not only inspired me, it was part of something brand new," he says. "Cultural Connection was a group of our friends from the Hopi rez, and there was one guy who we called the bwana from LA, Jerry Gordon. He was the outside but was also the glue who brought it all together. But reggae music, for all Indian native people, is Jamaican gospel. It keeps evolving but the message never changes."
Just the remoteness of where the spirit of the movement took hold is daunting to think about, at least in terms of distances covered. During a period when conflicts in all manner of life with the Peabody Coal Mine issues arose, when social activism and reggae fused to the very heartbeat of the Hopi and Navajo view of their own place in history, Casper and 602 played 53 shows a year, eventually doing national tours and then international engagements. They did tons of fundraisers and special events as part of the social activism in the far-flung Native American communities scattered across the Southwest.
Ten years ago, Lomayesva was invited by folk artist Pete Seeger to play Seeger's 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden, sharing the stage with Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. He also headlined the Native Music Rocks tour at Hard Rock Cafes across the country, and rocked such venues as the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
"It was a calling and a burden all at once," he says. "One of the most painful times I had to go through was doing 53 shows from the communities, all kinds of shows for the homeless, for protesting the Peabody Coal Mine, doing all of the booking and the promotion. That was before I had management."
With the new security from an engineering profession, Lomayesva has also moved into new terrain musically, and expects to start booking shows for an entirely different style of music.
"Highest Conspiracy is a different band with a horn section for that newer audience," he says. "The concept has changed, but it’s still real life music for real life issues."
Visit caspermighty602band.com to learn more and listen to Lomayesva’s music.