Reprinted from Modern Drummer Magazine, June 2009



A Rainforest Band Tribute to Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia at the Starwood Festival


October 24th, 2008, sadly, marked the passage of a beloved pioneer of jazz/world music fusion: keyboardist Merl Saunders. The Grammy-nominated album Blues From the Rainforest, also featuring Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and percussionist Muruga Booker (Weather Report, P-Funk, Free Funk), was an early New Age hit. This blend of Amazonian Rainforest sounds, tribal rhythms, synthesizers and electric guitar, gave birth to Merl Saunders & the Rainforest Band. This was one of several Merl Saunders projects, often with Jerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead family, like the albums and appearances of Garcia/Saunders, High Noon, Legion of Mary, The Jerry Garcia Band, Jazz is Dead, and others. Ten years of performance and four albums later, the band was retired when Saunders suffered a stroke.


In a special tribute to Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia, we are pleased to report the return of The Rainforest Band! It will take place at The 2009 Starwood Festival in Sherman, NY (July 21-26th), one of America’s biggest and oldest spiritual & multi-cultural events, run by the Association for Consciousness Exploration. The last appearance of Merl Saunders & the Rainforest Band was at Starwood in 2000, so it is a fitting place to debut their re-launch. (Starwood is known for such milestones, such as the first American appearance of Baka Beyond, and the first performance of Babatunde Olatunji with Halim El-Dabh.)


Included are veteran members Tony Saunders (Merl’s son) on bass, percussionist Muruga Booker & Shakti (Global Village Ceremonial Band), guitarist Michael Hinton (Country Joe & the Fish, High Noon) and Bill Thompson (Blues From the Rainforest) on keyboards/synthesizer, joined by special guests Ken Kozora on keyboards, Perry Robinson on clarinet, and Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum. They guarantee an evening of terrific music ranging from the spiritual to the funky, with some special treats for the Deadheads, dedicated to the good work Merl and Jerry did for the Rainforest Action Network.


Speaking of Sikiru Adepoju, who Mickey Hart calls “the Mozart of the Talking Drum”, Starwood will also feature Sikiru Adepoju & Heart Beat: an incredible assembly of global talent in the tradition of Planet Drum. Sikiru, a veteran of Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion, has combined members of his 2003 band Afrika Heartbeat and other premier artists to form this more universal ensemble, including steel drum & djembe artist Douglas “Val” Serrant (featured on Airto Moreira’s album Life After That), Guitarist Peter Fujii (from the classic Pharoah Sanders album Rejoice!), percussionist Deen Badarou (from What Will Tomorrow Bring by Femi Kuti), trap drummer Deszon X. Claiborne (from the Don Cherry album Multikulti) and DJ Deegan Mack Adams, engineer for Infinite Studios (Turf Talk - West Coast Vaccine by The Cure). Sikiru has played with just about every Mickey Hart project since 1990, including the Grammy-winning albums Planet Drum (1990) and Global Drum Project (2008). He’s recorded with Stevie Wonder (Jungle Fever, 1991), Muruga Booker & Babatunde Olatunji (Circle of Drums, 2005), Airto Moreira (Life After That, 2003), and the String Cheese Incident (On the Road, 2004), among many others.


Also on the bill is the dynamic Middle-Eastern drumming & dancing troupe Raquy & the Cavemen! Combining elements of Egyptian, Israeli and Indian music & dance with the hard-rock influence of drummer Liron Peled, Raquy Danziger weaves truly electric and eclectic rhythms guaranteed to get you on your feet! (Both bands will also appear and offer workshops at the Beachland Ballroom July 18th in Cleveland, OH, with tribal belly-dancing from the Druga Dance Company.)


Other Starwood acts this year include that terrific Cleveland Jam Band The JiMiller Band, featured at the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, the Further Festival, the 10,000 Lakes Festival, and House of Blues. They’ve opened for PHISH, Rusted Root, Blues Traveler, Little Feat and String Cheese Incident. Also from Cleveland, that Great Lakes bard Alex Bevan, who’s opened for everyone from Seals & Croft, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Pure Prairie League to Billy Joel. Plus other acts: Awen, Revel, Odd’s Bodkin, Kari Tauring & Drew Miller, Witch Disco, Pyrosonic, and Josh Sherman: BioRhythmia.


The Starwood Festival is a blend of over 150 classes on New Age, tribal and magical spirituality, with cutting-edge ideas and counter-cultural speakers. It’s a six-day camping event held near Erie, PA at a private, clothing-optional campsite, with around 15 concerts. It has featured such prominent authors as Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, Phyllis Curott, Paul Krassner, Isaac Bonewits, Stephen & Ina May Gaskin, Jay Stevens, Janet & Stewart Farrar, Ralph Metzner, Patricia Monaghan, Robert Anton Wilson, and SubGenius Rev. Ivan Stang (Praise “Bob”!) to name a few. Classes on Witchcraft, Druidry, VooDoo, Native Ways, Eastern Mysticism, Ceremonial Magic, and Shamanism by prominent authors are side by side with Ethno-Botany, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Bio-Feedback, Green Technology, Quantum Physics and Virtual Reality. See their website at for further details.