Cycle-powered band lives its message.
Byline: Serena Markstrom
MCKENZIE BRIDGE – As they had so many times before, three Ginger Ninjas last weekend loaded speakers, drums, guitar, keyboard, bass and other gear onto their bicycles. And pedaled to their next performance.
The band has been lying low up the McKenzie River, staying at a cabin in the woods, rehearsing, booking a tour and getting some much-needed rest. They also took time to schedule a couple of local shows before it’s time to join crew members and gear up to play both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, among other upcoming shows.
Band founder, songwriter and guitarist Kipchoge Spencer grew up on the McKenzie River about an hour outside of Eugene, the son of a logger-turned-carpenter and a social worker-turned-poet. The band is staying close by at a friend’s second home in exchange for doing some yard work.
The Ginger Ninjas also have made friends with the folks at the nearby Holiday Farm Resort, where they played a last-minute gig Aug. 8 and where they have another performance scheduled for Saturday.
Bicycles are an important element for this band, not only as a primary mode of transportation (they say they’re the first band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll to tour by bicycle, unsupported by automobile), but also as a symbol for lifestyle change. And as a source of power – during shows, the band’s equipment is hooked to generators on bicycles that are pedaled by crew members or fans.
Trying to meet up with the band before its show last week was a humbling task. In the spirit of their car-less lifestyle, I planned to rendezvous with the band downtown at the Lane Transit District Eugene Station, where they were loading their bicycles on a bus for a trip up the McKenzie Valley. But I underestimated how long it would take to bike there from my office and missed the bus. I pedaled back to work and, sheepishly, spent the next hour behind the wheel of my car catching up to my interview.
“Since you missed your bus experience, do you want to try a loaded bike experience?” Spencer, 35, asks me after I arrive.
“Sure,” I said, not really knowing what I was agreeing to.
I climb on a bike designed to make it easier to haul cargo without using a trailer. A company Spencer helped start, Xtracycle, makes the touring bikes that the Ninjas use.
Mine is back heavy and pointed down a gravel driveway, straight toward the “veggie bus” that Spencer drove up from California.
“Just feather the (working) brake as you go down the hill,” bassist Jared May, 29, offers.
“I’m going to fall off,” I say, but all three band members assure me I will be OK.
Finally I shove off, heading straight for the bus. I manage to maneuver to the right and down the hill. No gravel becomes lodged in my face.
And we’re off to the show on our trusty steeds.
This evening on the rural McKenzie River Drive, there are not many cars around. But if there were, they would have to go around our cluster of four bikes bloated by the gear stacked over their rear wheels.
Spencer sold his car three years ago. The other two band members, who are from Florida, parted ways with their automobiles in the past year in order to go on a bike tour through Mexico that saw the Ginger Ninjas play 80 shows and cover 5,000 miles with a fourth member, vocalist Eco Lopez, and three to 13 supporters.
When the band arrived at the Holiday Farm, staff members came out to offer assistance and beverages as the guys unloaded and set up. Brock Wollard, 25, unpacked his drum kit: an ultralight set of four nesting drums that he says some “crusty hippies” delivered to him the day the Ninjas were set to leave Northern California for Mexico.
Wollard explained how the bikes generate power. Rotating tires create friction, and that energy is transferred to a generator and through a regulator. It then goes through an inverter that turns direct current to alternating current and powers speakers that, he says, “make music for the Pleasant Revolution.”
Gringos on bikes draw crowds
In Mexico, the Pleasant Revolution, as the Ginger Ninjas call the tour, was televised. Spencer said he chose Mexico for the band’s first tour in part because there would be less competition for the public’s attention.
“In this country, there are so many people doing weird, cool things,” he said.
When the Ninjas spent a month in California, the group was little noticed. But in Mexico, the band’s tour was an ongoing story with mainstream news outlets.
Spencer estimated that 30 million Mexicans became aware of the Ninjas, or “gringos en bicicletas,” as a writer who traveled to Guadalajara to write a story for Stanford’s alumni magazine referred to them.
In 1996, Spencer graduated from a multidisciplinary “earth systems” program at Stanford that he has dubbed his “how to save the world” degree. He said he hasn’t had a regular job since, but has worked as a river guide, helped start Xtracycle and been a musician.
Spencer also chose Mexico for the band’s adventure because it’s not as developed as the United States. That way, he said, there is more of a chance state governments there can avoid such American mistakes as turning vast tracts of land into car-dependent suburbs.
“A lot of our message is about – obviously riding bikes – (but) more than that, appropriate design so you can ride your bike,” he said.
Spencer’s mother, Lia Gladstone, lives in the area near Holiday Farm. She said she remembers that as a young boy, her son would see trucks carrying recently felled logs down Highway 126 and remark that they were future paper towels.
“He was very aware of the forest,” she said.
During a high school assembly, he stood up and gave a speech about the overuse of napkins, she said.
When asked about that story, Spencer said he made the speech funny, telling his peers to wipe their mouths on their sleeves, because he always has believed humor is a better way to deliver a serious message than lecturing.
Similarly, his aim during shows is not to ram ideology down the throats of listeners, but fold in ideas seamlessly.
“We’re living it,” he said, “so it’s just something people witness.”
As for affecting change, it’s a little early in the revolution to judge. But small examples are starting to emerge.
In Guadalajara, in the southern Mexican state of Jalisco, the mayor went on a ride with the Ninjas. Local bike activists had never been able to get an audience with the mayor, but the Ninjas facilitated one.
“No ecological or social concern is off-limits,” Spencer said. “But we typically focus on transportation.
“I don’t feel like my spiel is very sophisticated. There’s a lot of room for growth and getting excited.”
Spencer pointed out a poem he wrote after a attending a conference with so-called “green people.”
“Everyone came to a peace rally about Iraq but got there in cars,” he said.
He went on to write a nine-minute performance poem called “How Much,” which he said encapsulates his world view most completely.
“How much do I care about peace?” he asks in the poem, which is recorded on the album “Where the Rubber Meets the Road.” “Do I care enough about peace to ride my bike to work?”
Audience has to get involved
Last weekend’s concert was nothing like the shows in Mexico, where the band set up and played in town squares. Within moments, crowds in the hundreds would form.
While the McKenzie River crowd was smaller and considerably further away from the stage than the band is used to, the people there seemed to listen, even if only the children really danced.
“Audience participation is not just optional, but requisite for the completion of the exercise,” Spencer told the audience.
Although reluctant at first, by the end of the show “party pedalers” were lining up to take their turns on bicycles.
Eugene resident Miriam Bolton had spent the day rafting with her daughter and some visitors from Israel. She heard about the show from her river guide.
“We’ve got bike riders here if you need them,” she told the band, pointing to her international visitors and her daughter, but it was Bolton who was first to volunteer. She returned to the table where everyone was eating dinner and watching the band.
“That was pretty fun,” she said.
A little later, the sound cuts off suddenly.
The pedalers reacted and power returned to the speakers.
“That’s what happens in pedal-land when the people don’t pedal enough,” Spencer said. “It’s a good reminder that it really is human powered. We’re so used to relying on our electricity.”
Another pedaler, Katherine Morgenstern, was visiting Oregon from Texas. She said she likes that the band merchandise is made from reused materials.
“It’s original if you think about it,” she said. “I like their sound. The lyrics and thinking are unique. What you hear on the radio is very tiring.”
Morgenstern, who is 51, works for a petroleum company in the high stress world of negotiating oil and gas leases.
“This is our youth. This is our future,” she said. “For them to be this concerned about our future impresses me.”
For souvenirs, Morgenstern scooped up a couple of CDs, a T-shirt and a tote made from a Mexican grain bag.
The band worked through two sets of songs that ranged sonically from reggae to funk to bluegrass, all stuffed with Spencer’s colorful poetry and storytelling.
As the show wound down, a bright moon created a silhouette of tall trees on the hills of the south bank of the river.
“Thanks for coming. Hope to see you next Saturday,” Spencer said. “I really hope to see you on your bikes. We could go on a bike ride after.”
Call Serena Markstrom at 338-2371 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ginger Ninjas
What: Roots, funk, folk, reggae and Americana music in English and Spanish powered in real time by bicycles
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Holiday Farm Resort, 54455 McKenzie River Drive; from Highway 126 about six miles past Blue River, turn right onto McKenzie River Drive
Information: Visit www.holidayfarmresort.com or phone 822-3725
How much: Donations accepted; $10 for optional barbecue
On the Web: View a video introduction to the band and listen to music samples at rgweb.registerguard.com/ticketfiles
Reporter’s notebook: The Ticket blog also includes a more detailed recollection of missing the first bus; more about the Ginger Ninjas; what it’s been like for them to be free of cars; and tips for how to get by with less frequent use of a personal automobile