“We’re staring down the darkness to try to extract medicine from it,” wisdom keeper Jeffrey Firewalker Schmitt explains by phone in an attempt to pinpoint the mission of Saint Disruption, the new project he spearheads alongside acclaimed keyboardist John Medeski.
Saint Disruption’s debut album, Rose in the Oblivion, makes good on that promise to explore darkness in pursuit of spiritual healing, fusing a myriad of styles—jazz, hip-hop, funk, reggae, world music, electronic dance music, spoken word poetry, and beyond—into a seven-track journey of reflection and reckoning.
“This is a native wisdom,” Firewalker contends. “Native people will often say of the industrialized world that one of the reasons that we suffer so deeply and that we’re so out of balance is our lack of willingness to look at the darkness, to look at the shadow, to look at the subconscious. And native teachings basically say that it’s actually in the darkness where we come to know who we truly are. One of my teachers puts it in a really beautiful way—can you name one thing on this planet that doesn’t start its life in the darkness?”
The darkness of 2020, he explains, was the impetus for Saint Disruption’s creation, though the relationship between himself and Medeski stretches back much further—and was born in a realm quite separate from Medeski’s typical musical pursuits. “We actually met in the middle of the Amazon jungle 13 years ago,” he recalls. “We were both, for very different reasons, visiting the same renowned healer, and that sort of set our relationship moving forward.”
While Medeski had traveled to the jungle in hopes of healing himself after a “medical anomaly” had taken him off the road for the first time in his career, Firewalker was on a mission to gather knowledge to share with his many pupils. Still, these two seekers of higher knowledge—of healing beyond the scope of modern medical practices—struck up an enduring friendship based around their “deep devotion to native wisdom traditions.”
Concepts like “indigenous medicine” and “spiritual healing in darkness” may ring off-key to native wisdom neophytes, but Firewalker aims to offer some perspective from both modern and indigenous schools of thought: A former academic child prodigy, Oxford-trained molecular biophysicist, research scientist, and college professor, his pursuit of higher knowledge led him away from Western science and into the world of indigenous healing practices. He now works as a shaman or healer specializing in ceremonial folk remedies.
“I’m a Gemini, so I’ve lived in two worlds since I was a young kid and the challenge has been to make some harmonious sense between being a mystic in training and a scientist,” Schmitt reflects. “I finally had to leave academia because I was spending so much time fighting the politics of narrow thinking that it just didn’t make sense anymore. But I appreciate the global community of science for many things, and I also am a harsh critic in many ways.”
“The failing that I’m referring to,” he continues, “is the death of what we referred to historically as ‘vitalism,’ this idea that there is a vital, energetic essence underlying physical form. And if you look at medical provisions, healing traditions around the world, the unifying belief is that essence precedes substance—that there is something energetic, alive, and conscious—and that is the bedrock, rather than the other way around. Here in the West, we essentially believe that we’re just fancy automobiles, fancy machines, and that consciousness energy arises from that complex machine.”
“I don’t feel at odds with these two parts of my life anymore,” Schmitt adds. “We, as perceiving entities, create models and try to make sense of experience. Science in the West carried out in laboratories and universities, et cetera, is one particular flavor of a self-consistent model that does pretty good at making predictions and helping people have some bearing about how the universe works, but it’s by no means the only science.”
As he tells his students, “Even though it looks different in me because of your conditioning, the considered primitive or outdated or false and foolish indigenous healing practice, indigenous practices in general—whether we’re talking about yoga or traditional Chinese medicine—are all in every way as much scientific pursuits as those which we learn in Western universities. They’re just different tools, different worldviews, and different ways of kind of dissecting the natural world around us.”
With his work as a folk healer, Jeff Firewalker Schmitt typically spends his time traveling the world to educate people on these ancient notions of the extra-physical being. The onset of the pandemic, however, prompted Firewalker to change course. “I had five trips to Europe [planned], some twenty workshops and retreats. I mean, my year was packed and I watched it, within the span of two weeks, all completely disappear,” he explains, echoing the 2020 narrative of so many others faced with the disruption of their usual lives.
Firewalker tapped into his spiritual pursuits, probing for an answer regarding the road ahead. “I went to my altar and I said, ‘Okay, Spirit. I’ve got this luxury of time. What do you want me to do? How do I do this?’ And the answer I got back, it was not subtle. It was a smack upside the head. It was like, ‘Take everything that you’ve seen and learned and felt and perceived as a healing arts practitioner, as a teacher, as a mentor, as a guide in the last twenty years and put it into poetry and music. And by the way, if you do this, and if you do this unabashedly if you do this with complete abandon, you will be supported.'”
With that in mind, he set out to mine the darkness in search of art, to create music that brought its indigenous wisdom tenets to bear in pursuit of prompting reflection and seeking light. When a renowned spoken word poet delivered to him a powerful new piece, the wheels began to turn. As Jeff recalls, “Umar Bin Hassan, The Last Poets co-founder, gave us as an autobiographical poem about the child abuse that he endured as a kid. When Umar gave me that poem, I knew that there was one person in the world that could actually do that poem justice as a collaborator. … I reached out to John. … That sort of has created the bedrock of this whole project.”
The result of that collaboration was “Painstorms”, an ominous march into oblivion scored by ethereal Medeski piano, thundering timpani, and a wash of digital distortion to accent the social distortion at the root of the poem’s message.
Saint Disruption ft. Umar Bin Hassan – “Painstorms”
[Video: saint disruption]
When the darkness of 2020 deepened following the killing of George Floyd in police custody, Medeski and Schmitt’s aims to impart their “medicine through darkness” ethos with Saint Disruption became even more urgent.
“We kind of acknowledged and recognized that at this time in human history, there’s an opportunity to do something musically that reflects artistically those sort of things that we feel humanity could be well-served to grapple with,” Jeff notes. “John and I are very dedicated to this idea of ‘can the music be challenging and evocative and deliver messages that might be interesting or important for people to consider at this time in history?’ So we’re approaching the songwriting, the structuring, from the perspective of native healing as much as from the perspective of music.”
To write Rose in the Oblivion track “Choke A Man“, a browbeaten blues lament sung with gut-churning vulnerability by rising Asheville vocalist Datrian Johnson, Jeff spent several days channeling the anguish of oppression in varying forms. He explains, “I started writing and I would literally go into the same sort of spaces that people go into when they drink ayahuasca or peyote. ‘Choke a Man’ was an agonizing four days of allowing my consciousness, my body, every atom of my being, to be like this funnel for oppression. My goal was [to] create a song with relatively few words that somehow captures a new truth, a new mirror, a new reflection of what it means to be oppressed as a human being … written from the perspective of a medicine person.” A portion of proceeds from the track have been pledged to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“The fact that we wrote a blues song about oppression and put the singer in the middle of the Facebook computer server farm—hopefully it expands people’s thinking about what actually is oppressing us,” he adds. “I think that’s at the core of it. We’re trying to put little breadcrumbs out there through our narratives and through the ways that the music is constructed to hopefully be enjoyable to listen to, but also be kind of like head-scratching and challenging and humorous at times.”
Saint Disruption ft. Datrian Johnson – “Choke A Man”
[Video: saint disruption]
The collaborative scope of Rose in the Oblivion rapidly expanded as Jeff continued to reach out from the darkness in various directions. In addition to Johnson, Saint Disruption recruited a range of local Asheville, NC artists for the album including Grammy-winners Agent 23 and Debrissa McKinney, multi-instrumentalist and producer Michael Hynes, and Austin Haynes of Free Radio. Inspired by a mutual nostalgia for music consumption’s bygone physical element (“These days, you don’t even get like a CD insert to flip through, you get nothing”), Saint Disruption also commissioned ten of Asheville’s most talented visual artists to create works of art corresponding to the different songs on the album. The resulting works will be released as a coffee table book to accompany Rose in the Oblivion, with revenue from sales of the prints supporting the artists who created them.
Now, a year out from its inception, Jeff Firewalker Schmitt and John Medeski have further expanded their vision for what Saint Disruption may become. Taking a cue from the powerful “Painstorms”, Jeff explains, “We’re launching a really exciting project for young poets. John and I, once a month, we’re going to receive recorded poems from young poets around the world. And we’re going to actually do the same sort of thing that we did with ‘Painstorms’ and just release them. So, in some small way, all of these young poets who have really amazing things to say have another outlet to share.”
This, Jeff surmises, is the process at the heart of Saint Disruption: the mutual mission to use ancient wisdom to lead people through the gauntlet of darkness in order to seek out—and, most importantly, to share—the light of empathy and understanding.
“John and I are elders,” he muses. “We’re in our mid-fifties. We’ve seen a lot, we’ve done a lot in different worlds, and what we’re trying to do is bring—through the structure of the music, the structure of the words—an imprimatur of eldership into the picture. … So, yes, indeed, this is different than other projects that John has spearheaded—principally because we are trying to create a community, a movement of musicians, visual artists, forward thinkers to come together and actually make music in a slightly different way.”
Jeff cites the wisdom of revered Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh for context, noting, “He basically said what the Hopi prophecy said, that the time of the lone wolf is over. The time of the lone messenger is over. The next growth phase of this planet is going to require there to be groups of people working together at a high level of harmony and creativity and awareness in order to usher us into the next phase of evolution.”
“What I know at the core is that we’ve got over thirty people involved and we are helping each other, we’re learning, we’re creating or holding each other accountable,” Firewalker says. “That, to me, is the reward. We’re really kind of creating this little nucleus of an art movement. That’s super exciting. To me, that is medicine. That is sacred.”
Succinct in his wisdom, John Medeski adds, “I’m not looking for spiritual music. I’m looking for Spirit to come through.”
Saint Disruption – Rose in the Oblivion – Full Album