Did you know the Coachella Valley has a growing reggae scene?
Higher Heights is one of the bands that’s come out of that scene, playing shows consistently while in the process of recording the band’s first full-length album. A single, “Indian on the Mountain,” was produced by Ronnie King in 2015 and is available on streaming services.
Higher Heights will be playing at the seventh annual Synergy Music and Arts Festival on Saturday, Nov. 10.
During a recent phone interview, frontman Mike Fernandez discussed his passion for reggae music.
“When I first heard Bob Marley back in 1981, it was the message. I could understand it, but I couldn’t figure out why he was singing about it,” Fernandez said. “If I wanted to dance to it, how would I do it, or how would anyone go about doing it? It was the newness of it, and I had never heard anything like it. It was the Rastaman Vibration album, and it was the days of 8-track, and a friend of mine let me borrow it on 8-track. I fell asleep listening to it; 8-tracks didn’t end and would start over again, and by the time I woke up the next morning, I was kind of indoctrinated. It peaked my imagination.
“I started buying Bob Marley’s music. When I was at school growing up, they were calling me Bob Marley, and I started going by Reggae Mike. It was the music and the power of the lyrics.”
However, for a while, Fernandez did not think all that much about music.
“What happened with me was that I was working a job that was 10-15 hours per day, even on Sundays. I was really stressed out and worked there for 10 years straight,” he said. “When I finally quit working at that job, this music started coming back into my mind—and it was original stuff I never heard. I was working again, but in a much more relaxed atmosphere, and I was more rested. I stopped cutting my hair, given (at the previous job), I had to be clean-shaven and my hair had to be short all the time. As my hair started growing out and the songs started coming back to me, I harnessed those songs and memorized what I was hearing. I memorized the hooks, the messages, and then I built on them and started writing songs, one after another. All this was new to me. It just comes to me through spiritual force—and I harness it.
“I harness it, write it down, and get it a hook. One time, I had a hook, and I woke up to memorize it. I was singing it over and over and over for about 30 minutes. I should have recorded it, and I didn’t. I thought after 30 minutes of repeating it over and over, I’d remember. The following morning, I didn’t remember. I tried to tap into that and meditated on it—it was somewhere in my brain, and I’d repeat the words, and it didn’t sound right anymore. But about two months later, after never letting go, it came right back—and this time, I recorded it. That’s our song called ‘Searching.’ I had that experience of losing a melody on a couple of other occasions, but not anything more than a couple of months.”
While reggae music was born out of the Rastafari spirituality, Fernandez said he does not follow it.
“My music is actually unlike reggae: It’s totally original, because in reggae music you have the ‘roots message,’” Fernandez said. “The Jamaican artists take offense to it. … Unless you follow their dietary rules, you have no right to be singing reggae music and calling yourself ‘roots.’ My music is not that, and I don’t believe that the man they call Rastafari (the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia) is Jesus Christ incarnate. That’s their claim … and all those songs about Jah Rastafari are giving him glory and serving him. My music doesn’t do that. My music is not political and has no political overtones. … Every song has a life and breath of its own.”
When you see Higher Heights perform, you can feel the energy Fernandez is putting out. He explained where that comes from.
“It’s an experience. I’m not moved by music; I’m moved by the story behind the music,” he said. “First comes the lyrics. If the lyrics are telling me something, and I’m connecting to the lyrics—if I can reflect on the lyrics and connect them to an experience of my life—then I can connect to the song. The music comes secondary. I get a wave of energy coming our direction when I sing certain parts of a song that people connect with. I can feel that energy like a tidal wave coming from the crowd toward the band. I can feel that coming through my chest and out my back. In my opinion, that’s important. I’m not just doing music to do music; for me, it takes the magic of what a song is supposed to be.”
Higher Heights has played at the Synergy Festival before, and Fernandez said it’s always a great time.
“It’s outdoors, and I like that it’s in November when the weather is nice,” he said. “The turnout is always pretty good. I like serving the musical community with the music we’re playing. It’s a joy to be doing it. It’s a community thing, and it’s people from all walks of life.”
The Synergy Music and Arts Festival takes place from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at Dateland Park, 51805 Shady Lane, in Coachella. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.culturasmusicartscoachella.com.