Natural Mystic

WHEN I WAS a kid, I had a neighborhood girlfriend--it was one of those awkward affairs in which kids pair up to teach one another the first lessons of love. Eventually we drifted apart; later, she ran away from home. Years passed, and one day I was thrilled to see her back in the neighborhood, walking past the house each day from the bus. I desperately wanted to resume our friendship, but feared that maybe the past was too far gone, so I just waited for fate to reunite us. It didn't. A month later she was dead, an apparent suicide.

I guess that was one of my first lessons in love: Your ego and insecurity aren't important enough not to reach out to those you care for. In the rush of daily life, I admit I haven't always followed my own advice, and have had a number of occasions to regret it. One time is right now, after multi-talented spiritual searcher Eric Heim, a.k.a. reggae artist Iya, was shot to death in his south Minneapolis apartment on October 16.

I'm not regretful just because Iya deserved more press. Frankly, that sort of thing seemed very low on the dreadlocked musician's list of values, and my interrogations would've probably seemed more of a nuisance than a nudge. But I just wish I'd spread the word further sooner, because maybe a few more people would've felt the presence of one of the most focused local artists I've encountered in the past decade.

Sunday afternoon, hundreds of friends and admirers--of all races, creeds, and classes--gathered at his home on Grand Avenue to celebrate his gentle spirit and artistic idealism, their wide diversity serving as living testament to the man who'd hoped and strived for intercultural unity and peace. The occasion spoke loudly of a musician I'd been intrigued by for about three years, ever since hearing one of his demos at Funkytown Studios, where he recorded his debut album Send the Love (released this summer on October Records). The music was immediately affecting, oozing a calm, uplifting vocal warmth, and a fresh reggae-R&B fusion that few American artists have managed.

From that moment, I wanted to be on hand to witness Iya's inevitable breakthrough. But he moved at his own slow, sure pace, almost oblivious to music biz machinations, and unconcerned with personal glory. After all, this was a man who was known to sit for hours just watching the birds gather at his backyard feeders. Not out of withdrawal from the world, mind you, but out of appreciation for the simple sanctity of life. The saxophonist/guitarist/percussionist was blessed with a truly world-class singing voice, and possessed a perfectionist's edge that long delayed his recording, but payed off richly in the end.

Among Iya's many complexities was that he was too humble to label himself a true Rastafarian, though he adhered strongly to Rastafarian teachings. He followed a strict vegetarian diet, wore no animal skin, and held fewer and fewer possessions as time passed. He joined calypso-reggae band Shangoya in his late teens, but soon became dismayed that some local musicians didn't always live up to the music's ideals of equality and human dignity. Despite his love for the music, he almost never hung out at reggae shows, preferring the more genuine interaction with his housemates and many friends and visitors.

Which is why Sunday's informal drum jam/memorial dance and block party seemed such a proper end to the sad, shocking week. After the initial assembly, Shangoya leader Peter Nelson broke the silence of the mournful crowd when he told of young Eric coming to see Shangoya in Duluth back in the late '70s. Later when the band's guitarist left, Nelson invited Iya down to join the Twin Cities' premier reggae training ground, from which Iya eventually left to pursue his personal reggae-soul fusion.

In his impromptu eulogy, Nelson seemed almost apologetic for bringing Iya into the harmful ways of the city. After his address, a woman in back spoke the words that were undoubtedly in many people's minds: "Thank you for bringing Eric to Minneapolis." I also salute the Shangoya crew for whatever initial support and motivation they offered young Eric.

Reviewing Iya's debut CD, my only knock on the 60-minute set was that it seemed almost overloaded with good vibrations, a little long on sweet and lovely generalities. I wanted to hear a little more of the brother's specific spiritual thoughts and philosophies. In retrospect, that minor criticism seems both misguided and tragically accurate. If anything, Eric Heim may have believed too much in the power of love, and couldn't accept the darkening social climate, or even recognize his own immediate physical danger. Though Iya's home had been ransacked last winter, he didn't flee the ground-level apartment. Apparently he even tried to reason with his assailants, just as he was known to resolve conflicts for friends in danger, or between youngsters on the block.

Those around Iya's inner circle knew he was a local marijuana supplier, something which current laws, unfortunately, make a very risky business. But in many folk legends, the herbsman holds a sacred status, which seemed almost fitting for the nature-loving Iya, a man who attained a quasi-religious following among his acquaintances. Friends say he preferred to smoke in groups, to ease hostility among visitors, and to bring the members of his nightly gatherings together on a calm common ground. And despite newspaper speculation that he may have been expanding his network, his dealing seemed to most observers harmless, quiet, and contained.

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