Published on September 1st, 2014 | by Louise Burton
HOW THIS GROUP OF MUSICIANS IS MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE – ONE GIG AT A TIME
Their home is a converted American bus, which runs on recycled vegetable oil. Should they need it, their electricity is generated by solar panels on the roof. They even have a wood stove for baking bread (which they also use as a heater for when they are in the cooler mountain regions), and a blender powered by an old bicycle wheel.
They’re completely self-sustainable – a travelling community of artists and musicians- and they call themselves The Soulfire Project.
We meet on a hot Caribbean Sunday afternoon, in a small surf and dive shop cum café/bar in Bocas Town, where the band played the previous night, and subsequently where their colourfully painted bus is parked. This was their home for the night.
Later, they will be moving to the Bookstore bar not too far away, where they will be gigging this evening. I discovered them the night before our meeting, when they attracted crowds into a small waterfront bar. These guys are certainly talented, but they are so much more than just a band. I sit down with Cooper Morgan, the founder and brains behind The Soulfire Project, about how it all began…
What was your inspiration and initial goal?
The inspiration was to find a way to travel with likeminded people; travellers, artists, builders, while figuring out a way to sustainably do that whilst earning enough to keep the project alive. After leaving the states, things started to flip around and we focused on playing music in order to sustain ourselves financially.
What was the turning point where sustainability became a focus again?
Little by little we started to realise there were other interests amongst us, like thinking of ways to give back to communities we met along the way. We then turned our interests to sustainability in general; appropriated technology, bio construction, permaculture etc. We started to visit a few different farms in Mexico that have been working in permaculture for many years, and growing a lot of the food they eat, on their own land.
You mentioned sustainability practices. What have you been doing to promote sustainability when you travel?
Organising events in the communities that we pass through, whether it’s impromptu events with the bus parked on the side of the street and an explanation of our vegetable oil system, solar power system, bicycle washing machine; all those sorts of things. We also organise events a month in advance with local governments, inviting all kind of organisations and locals from wherever we are.
This event, ‘Somas Mas’, involves a whole afternoon and evening with workshops, a tour of the bus and its system, making smoothies with the bicycle blender and selling them to make a bit of money – at the same time we are promoting a sustainable way to power a blender.
Have you applied any of these practices in local communities?
We worked with an indigenous family in Boquette, Panama, in the campo [village]. It was incredible. We put in a day-light because they had corrugated roofing and couldn’t see during the day. It’s a recycled plastic bottle filled with water and bleach, and set in the roof, and in the daytime it creates the same light as a 70w bulb.
Before that, the house was really dark even in the daytime. The electricity and lights we installed for the evening, partly so the kids could study after nightfall, was from a water wheel made from a windshield wiper motor. They had an abundant amount of running water, making this a perfect location for this kind of renewable energy.
Where did the bus come from?
We bought the bus in Oregon, in September 2008 for $2500 on a loan from my friend’s Dad. Over the course of a year, we converted the bus to run on vegetable oil, and used recycled building materials to construct the bunk beds in the back, kitchen, rack to hold the [motor] bike, roof rack, shelving, and communal areas.
Where has the journey taken you so far?
We have been on the road for five years now, three years in Mexico, one year in Guatemala, and the last year through El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
You mentioned the bus runs on vegetable oil. Where do you source this from?
From restaurants, and hotel that do a lot of deep-frying, as they have the more significant amounts that our bus needs to move. We normally get 20 litre jugs, which will give us 80km. It is a sustainable way to recycle something that could otherwise contaminate water sources.
You are self-sustained, so how do you fund the project?
To support the project we have to be playing concerts, we don’t have any outside funding, so just to be able to eat we have to be playing and making our own income. If it is in a bar or restaurant, they contract us to play, but for six people that is not necessarily enough to go around. We survive a lot off the donations from people who come to see us.
You guys seem to have a very professional approach to the band, but what is the most challenging part about being musicians on the road?
In the travelling music scene, if you are not setting up a tour with dates and some sort of tour manager, your pushed into the ‘travelling hippy musician’ genre, which is also not the best in terms of substantial pay to sustain a group of six or ten people. It has been an amazing journey and learning process and has forced us to learn on the go, and up the level of professionality of our music and our shows.
When do you see this journey coming to an end?
There is no end! This is forever. Once we have travelled Central and South America, we want to go to Africa. As far as we know, it’s an eternal project.
And if you’re in Central America – you can catch The Soulfire Project in Bocas del Toro, Panama until 14th September, every Sunday night at the bookstore bar in Bocas Town, and other venues throughout the week (TBA).