Chris Berry's life story sounds like it was written by a Hollywood script writer: a white boy from California becomes a master of African drumming and the mbira thumb piano, and with his worldbeat fusion band, Panjea, becomes an African star, selling a million albums in South Africa.
Berry grew up a rock & roll kid in the northern California town of Sebastopol, where he fell in with a group of kids who got their kicks from shoplifting. As fate would have it, one of those kids lifted a tape from a music store that turned out to be an album by Fela Kuti, and Berry became fascinated by Kuti's music, listening to it for hours on end. Fate again intervened when Berry, now 14, met African drum master Titos Sompa, who had settled in Sebastopol, and Berry became his student on the djembe. After graduating from high school, Berry accompanied Sompa to Africa, where he was sent on a ten-day boat trip up the Congo River to a village where he received further drum instruction. While living in the village, Berry found himself continually fascinated with the African thumb piano known as the mbira, and eventually traveled to Zimbabwe to seek out a teacher on the instrument, finally meeting mbira master Monderek Muchena and becoming his student, an arrangement that lasted ten years, during which time Berry mastered the mbira, learned to speak Shona, and married a Zimbabwean woman, Rujeko Dumbutshena. He also formed the first version of his genre-defying band Panjea, and the group earned platinum album sales throughout Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and elsewhere. When Berry and Dumbutshena relocated to the United States, they formed a new version of Panjea, and the band toured the States with its high-energy show -- a fiery mix of soul, R&B, funk, South African jazz, Afrobeat, dancehall, rap, and traditional African mbira and djembe music, all fronted by the charismatic Berry, who sings in both Shona and English. The band is generally a seven-member configuration, but can swell to nearly 30 players (including a hot horn section) at select shows. A sampling of Chris Berry & Panjea's many albums, most of them released in South Africa, include Vanhu Vamwe (1992), Panjea (1993), Songs (1995), Shona Songs (1995), Marimba Ava Murewa (1997), Knowledge Devoid of Wisdom (1999), Live in Oz (2000), and a best-of, Roots, which collects material from 1996 to 2002. Berry has also released other African-themed albums apart from his work with Panjea, including Hold On (with the Ancient Melody Ensemble) and Beats From the Blue. As a composer, arranger, musician, and dynamic performer (he has been compared with everyone from Sting to Bob Marley to James Brown), Chris Berry is a 21st Century chimera, part hip-hop, part Southern soul, part California sun, and part African gwenyambira, all rolled into one, an inspirational poster boy for the joyful unification of music and cultures. ~ Steve Leggett, Rovi