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Better living through Kaleidoscope's chemistry

"We are Atlanta, we are so urban Atlanta, we are MARTA," boasts Pam Howe, the queen bee of the local music and art collective known as Kaleidoscope. "We are creating a musical sound of what Atlanta is to us."

The comment, simultaneously full of hip-hop hyperbole and middle-class self-deprecation (given local mass transit woes), is telling of the Kaleidoscope vibe. And like MARTA, the open-ended, loosely defined group of bands, solo performers, DJs and visual artists of various disciplines, connects Atlanta's mostly white, mostly privileged suburban sprawl with the hip-hop mecca and modern art scene intown. If Kaleidoscope is truly Atlanta, then the city's youthful energy as well as its baffling contradictions are the collective's as well.

Over the last three years, sporadic Kaleidoscope warehouse parties have been a wobbly late-night circus of non-stop rap, rhymes and rock beats, with visual art displays, dance and whatever else might surface, lasting well into the next morning. Beer, wine and water flow freely, while the sweet scents of burning herbs form a hazy cloud on which the collective ride their homegrown magic carpet. The core musicians share the stage with each other and with newcomers, often combusting spontaneous jams and offering newer acts a platform to hone their skills.

The latest of these parties, Local Ingredients, takes place this Friday at the Earl in East Atlanta. Eight musical acts are slated to perform, along with DJ spinning, interpretive dance and video projections.

"Kaleidoscope is about taking advantage of what's positive and what's here in Atlanta to be reaped," says Julian Whisperlink, who fronts the all-white, live-instrument hip-hop group Justin Hale. "To survive, we have joined with each other to form a scene and support each others' art. We joined as a family and overcame the club scene -- and the genre of all our music and art -- and just joined as one group. That's the basic idea of all that we do, to keep it roots-oriented and on the ground. It's a family."

Inspired by the psychedelic chemistry of Atlanta's big city sounds, the collective's impresario Johnny Davidson (who records trip-hop under the name My Cousin Troy) first visualized the offbeat arts co-op in 1992 with several other Atlanta-based artists. "It actually came from doing a lot of acid," he admits. "And from doing music, too."

While the roots of the collective are in the suburbs of Atlanta, Davidson and his early comrades would frequently travel into town to soak up the environment of funky neighborhoods such as Little Five Points; neighborhoods where they'd soon settle. These days, Kaleidoscope defines itself resolutely in terms of its city environment. Still, many members of the almost entirely white collective exude a New Age/hippie-hop outlook that betrays a decidedly bourgeois bohemianism.

"Everything we do is very urban because we all live intown," says Whisperlink. "It's very peace down here, it's very love."

Whisperlink says Kaleidoscope formed mainly because group members were weary of cultural politics in music and wanted to focus on the "feel" of the music. "You know, we'd all had our dramas here and there in each different kind of music [scene] that we have been involved with, so we went ahead and just made our own scene."

Kaleidoscope, he says, serves as a nurturing environment for its members, where various bands and artists can experiment stylistically at their own pace and without fear of rejection. "No one looks at the other and goes, 'Oh, big sister is doing way better than we are.' It doesn't matter, because we're all in this together. We span all music and, at the same time, we try to stay true to what we grew up with and where we're trying to take it."

The group calls itself Kaleidoscope, Whisperlink explains, because "there's so much color and evolution in all that we do, from the basic folk-rock thing to what we have now: the urban, techno, electronic, whatever you want to call it. The basic idea of Kaleidoscope is to stay grounded and produce life."

Currently, the extended Kaleidoscope family includes -- in addition to Justin Hale, My Cousin Troy and Pam Howe's groups pH Balance and Ramadamafia -- acts such as Hunter-Gatherer, Jermy Salas and Associates and Minamina Goodsong. Additionally, dancers, photographers, videographer Frank Lopez and visual artist Karissa Hubbard -- who organized this weekend's Local Ingredients party with Davidson -- contribute to the more than 30 assorted members who make up the core of the collective.

While Davidson insists, "There's not anyone specifically a bigger part of this than the other," clearly some members have attained a higher profile outside the collective. Both Justin Hale and pH Balance, for instance, have released CDs on Atlanta-based Daemon Records, the independent label founded by Indigo Girl Amy Ray, and have toured beyond the city limits. But even Kaleidoscope's leading lights find a sense of community that enables them to learn from and share with fellow members.

"We all speak the same language," says Howe, a local music veteran who was once associated with the Cabbagetown scene of the early '90s. "We all have the same words in common, like 'evolution' and 'self-love.' It's been an amazing feeling being in this family. I feel so glad to be in it with people who are willing to grow and to change. I'm just a little older, so I get to experience all this evolution through the younger members eyes, and it's great."

Unfettered by the world's opinion of them -- and high on the internal vibe their group radiates -- the collective can seem insular in many ways. For a group of people so influenced by hip-hop and so vocal about inclusiveness, for instance, the lack of racial and socio-economic diversity in the group might strike some as odd. Still, they stress earnestly that anyone's welcome to join the party.

"We're all about love and music and friendship and we are celebrating that every day," says Davidson. "That's why we throw these Kaleidoscope parties, it's a celebration. We are trying to shed some light among people who are lost in their everyday routine of bullshit jobs and hating their lives."

More than anything, though, Kaleidoscope fulfills for its members a basic need for community, something that can be difficult to find, whether in the cold, hard city or the remote, alienating suburbs.

"We all want to be a part of something," Howe says. "Everyone does. The real magic of Kaleidoscope is that you can be a part of this. It's fine, it's cool, just come on and join us."

Local Ingredients is held Fri., Dec. 15, at the Earl. Free admission and wine from 7-8 p.m., with a $7 admission (or $5 with a canned food item) after 8 p.m. Music -- including performances by Justin Hale, Pam Howe and Jermy Salas and Associates -- starts at 9:30 p.m. For more information, call 404-522-3950.

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