Every so often you will meet people in life who are akin to mountains; they may be far and few between, but having them in your life changes it forever. Christopher ‘Puma’ Ptah is one of those people. At times private and reserved, the empathetic fervor that he possesses is powerful. His presence alone draws attention without bragging or boasting – on and off the stage, Puma has an aura that is bright and welcoming. The passion in his voice leaves crowds, and myself, feeling exponentially inspired after every performance. I had the grand opportunity to ask Puma about his beginnings with Thievery Corporation, his current solo projects, Thievery’s Grateful Dead shows in Chicago and his artistic influences. Puma also shared his album from the band’s rehearsals for the GD weekend – the gallery is featured at the end of this interview!
Compose Yourself Mag: How did you become involved with Thievery Corporation?
Puma Ptah: My introduction to joining TC came through working on an album with The Archives – it was produced by Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation. Darryl Burke knew of me through some former mutual band mates and heard some material I’d recorded and invited me to be featured on the album. At the same time, [Thievery’s 2011 album] “Culture of Fear” was being recorded and I was also invited to be featured on that release. When they asked me to go on tour with them I officially made my way into the family.
Seeing people and cultures from different parts of the world on TV and the internet is one thing, but to actually experience them face to face, shake hands and hug those people, see how they prepare their food, smell and taste it and just feel the overall change in energy of a different part of the planet, I wanted to make those memories tangible in a sense.” – Puma Ptah
CYM: Your music career has taken you through dozen of countries across the world; you have a pretty tight schedule, especially when on tour with Thievery. What would you say drives you to make time on tour to capture these moments through your lens?
PP: Traveling made me consistent in the beginning and still now. Seeing people and cultures from different parts of the world on TV and the internet is one thing, but to actually experience them face to face, shake hands and hug those people, see how they prepare their food, smell and taste it and just feel the overall change in energy of a different part of the planet, I wanted to make those memories tangible in a sense. Rob Myers, Lacey Terrell, John Shore were photographers around me that motivated me to learn how to compose and create these memories and visions to share with others. I needed these images for myself initially, but when I started traveling consistently and then going back home to St.Thomas to visit, most of my friends had never even left the island. Never even been on a plane.
Even people around me in the states were “trapped” in their home state – surviving and not being able or falsely convincing themselves that it was not worth it to at least try to see somewhere else out of the country or in the country. This was the attitude in my community of friends and people who I cared about. So, I said let me bring it to them. And it’s not just about travel photography either. It’s about the in between moments in modern day life around us. We humans move so fast. Convenience has sped our life up. Photography, especially documentary photography helps to slow things down and let me and others hopefully appreciate what happened in the last 10 seconds. It still fascinates me that when I dial in and click the shutter button, I freeze a piece of history, a moment that meant something to me and maybe someone else, forever. It amazes me that we have this technology. Imagine the debates and conflicts today, we could eliminate if we had a 35 mm or digital camera 3000 years ago.
CYM: Both musically and artistically, your body of work is so bold and emotional; what is it about these two mediums for you that translate so well?
PP: I grew up with music in my life. There are many musicians in my family, but it wasn’t a skill or a knowledge my mother fixed in my life. Same with photography. I don’t have any formal education in these arts. Self taught for the most part and these art forms found me. I think i’m sort of an introverted empath also and I want people to feel what I and others feel sometimes. At times it can be a little selfish and offensive, but the truth can be offensive. Timing of presentation is key though. I truly believe I can put a whole album in one photo. I’ve seen it in other works but I don’t believe I’ve accomplished this yet. These mediums just allow me to say the same thing in two different art forms. I love performing and have the attention of thousands, but I’m horrible one on one. Photography lets me be more in my comfort zone when having to interact with people, oddly enough. It has become a balance which is difficult to keep but has worked thus far. Making myself and others care enough to act is the goal. I walked into the world of words and images and I’m just trying to use them the best I can to communicate.
CYM: Besides performing with TC, you’ve also recently put out a solo album under the name Puma Ptah. Tell us a little more on that project and how it came to be.
PP: Yes I put out an EP, “In One Accord”, with Honest Music out of Maryland. I was formerly known as Ras Puma, but because of a change of lifestyle and beliefs I decided to go with “Puma Ptah”, which is connected to my love for Kemetic history. The EP is my kick-start to reminding ones and myself that we are all human on this physical plane and being curious to know what would be the outcome if we all truly embraced ourselves and what we love – Showing others how to do this as well. We have to focus on our humanity over our cultural and political differences and begin to actually have natural dominion on this planet we call home instead of harming it because of greed and this flawed competitive attitude and imagination.
It will take centuries to happen I believe, but not enough people believe in this enough to consistently work and see if this will come to pass. Just using the message to get over on people and build income. But hey, this can all be seen as cliche, unrealistic and ignored like it has always been when being proposed and maybe it is at this point in time. This EP is just the balance to my photography. I’ve never been an solo artist – Always apart of a group or band but it was inside of me, wanting to come out and I had to. It’s honestly an experiment. I don’t want to be the typical artist of today and it hurts more than helps when thinking this way. It’s become a conceited and narcissistic field of work that most artists are in denial of, and I don’t want to become that. What the virtual world has done to the quality of music and the way the creative process is not respected anymore, especially by fans, has always made me just want to have one or half of a foot in. Sorry for the downer perspective. Ha! I’m going to continue pushing for forward movements still!
CYM: Now that Thievery has finished the Grateful Dead tributes in Chicago, I’d love to ask about your experience leading through the rehearsals and show at Aragon Ballroom. Did GD hold any meaning to you before the tributes?
PP: [Laughs] This was quite different for TC. At the beginning, most were honestly not Grateful Dead fans – especially not me, but it was because I was partially ignorant. Jeff, Hash and Robby convinced who needed convincing to make this happen. Hash, who has been a fan since high school and was super pumped, sent me the music to learn and I was like, ‘Here we go!’ He first sent me “Fire On The Mountain” and I’d heard the song passively but this time I had to admit I enjoyed the song!
When we got the airport, we were driving away and saw Phil Lesh outside of the terminal. Hash rushed to the door like a little kid and started yelling to let him out – Even the driver rushed out.
I listened to the lyrics and the writing style made me put my chin in my hand and just think, which is what I want people to do when I write. I listened to the musical version that the three of them made and that was it for me. They sent me “China Cat Sunflower” and then I got kind of bummed again because it was such a hard song to learn. A few of us got together in Hash’s basement and Hash, Robby and Jeff were very patient with me and told me to just figure out my own flow and go with it. I said absolutely not – even though the Grateful Dead weren’t very consistent themselves live, it was just a pet peeve of mine. I played these songs all day for nearly a week, and even though I made them mine in a sense I tried to sing them as close as possible to the studio versions, especially “China Cat Sunflower”.
When we finally got to Chicago we had a full band rehearsal, which was so refreshing – I documented the whole night. It was emotional for me because we don’t get together like that often unless on stage and sound check. The night of the show was so different than other shows. I felt so happy for Hash because he saw these guys as musical heroes. I mean when we got the airport we were driving away and saw Phil Lesh outside the terminal. Hash rushed to the door like a little kid and started yelling to let him out. I was the only one to stay in the van. Even the driver rushed out. In that moment, I really saw what this meant for him and the countless others who were celebrating the GD50 weekend and their whole lives because of that band. It was pretty intense.
CYM: Do you find differences in the work you produce when on break VS being on tour? Are you more motivated when you’re on the road?
PP: I just have more freedom when doing solo work. I can be Christopher Smith more than Puma. That sounds weird but I have to be compatible and mindful of others when in a group especially with other writers and singers. I hardly write when I’m on tour – I’m mostly taking photos. I’m not the person who writes everyday and has a stack of lyric books. I’ve had those habits in the past, but I don’t get attached to my writings. Sometimes I’ll have writings pile up, pieces of paper, scratch pads, notebooks – I’ll go to throw them away and a friend always stops me, so I then just tell them to keep it. My perceptions change constantly and it’s hard for me to share a belief that doesn’t exist anymore. I’m definitely inspired and motivated on the road to write but to actually sit down and start writing and organizing my thoughts to share is a slow process.
CYM: Any exhibits regarding your photography for 2015?
PP: This past January marks my first exhibition, which was successful even though many told me to expect the contrary. A lot of people came, even members of SOJA stopped by on their way to the Grammy’s to support! The exhibit was based on my recent trip to India at the end of 2014. My current plan is for when tour season is over, and I have some free time to travel solo. I’ll be making a major trip and then have an exhibit when I come back. This year I’m going to Ethiopia to do some documenting in Lalibela, and hopefully if time and funds allow, I’ll continue my trip into Nepal to join a friend who has been documenting the effects of the earthquake.
Sat – August 1 WXGR Reggae Jam, New Hampshire
Tues – August 4 Hinge, North Hampton, MA
Grateful Dead Tribute Rehearsals | Chicago, IL July 2015
All photos by Puma Ptah.