There may be no other American musician who's made the Iraq War more fundamental to his recent work than Michael Franti. His 2006 album, Yell Fire, was inspired by his 2005 travels to Baghdad, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. He produced and directed a film, I Know I'm Not Alone, documenting what he saw on that trip.
Franti, 41, has been making socially conscious reggae-rock with Spearhead for more than a decade. But his recent Middle East travels have taken his activism to a new level.
"After years of writing and reading about war in the Middle East, I began to grow really frustrated with the news, hearing politicians and generals explaining the economic and political costs of war, without ever talking about the human cost," Franti says at the beginning of the film.
War may have motivated his travels, but Franti says the people he met along the way are what inspired his film and album.
"The film is about people and the things they do to overcome the stresses of war and occupation - chief among these being friendship, humor, art and music," he says on the film's official website.
The songs on Yell Fire are a soundtrack to the film. The music is uniformly resilient, even when it grieves. The title track brims with the defiance of classic protest songs, reassuring the unorganized masses that "a revolution never comes with a warning."
But the disc is more reflective than angry. Bittersweet nostalgia runs through the verses of "I Know I'm Not Alone," until the chorus unleashes an anthem of endurance: "Even though I'm far from home, I know I'm not alone."
Clips from the film have been posted to YouTube. One is a music video set to the acoustic guitar track "Tolerance." The video pans images of children Franti met on his trip. Amazingly, these children do not all grimace in pain, though they'd have every right to. One Iraqi boy, about 7, sits on a gurney in a hospital, his legs lost in a bomb blast.
But he looks on with curiosity, and his eyes smile as Franti plays guitar. The boy reciprocates by taking a sheet of paper and a pen and earnestly drawing Franti a picture.
"The most powerful thing I learned," Franti says, reflecting on his travels, "is how the gift of music opens all of our hearts."
Michael Franti & Spearhead, Sunday, Sept. 30, Orpheum Theatre, 8 pm