From the March 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
American singer-songwriter Jason Mraz—who has staged hundreds of concerts around the world—takes inspiration from his travels and from immersion in other cultures. That was never more true than last summer, when he undertook a rescue mission to Ghana, West Africa, with members of Free the Slaves. The international nonprofit group works to liberate children sold into slavery, sometimes by their own families. “I try not to write songs,” he told a reporter after the trip. “I would rather emote them, and I found myself going back to my room every night just pouring out new songs about what I was seeing.” The 33-year-old pop music sensation based in San Diego is into surfing, blogging, raw food, and a laid-back approach to travel.
Tell us about your trip to Ghana. It started with “Freedom Song,” written by musician Luc Reynaud in a shelter in Louisiana shortly after Katrina hit. I loved it, performed it, and passed it on to my friends at Free the Slaves. Later, they sent me photos of kids in Ghana dancing and singing the song and invited me to come see how powerfully the music was resonating there. We went to the Lake Volta area to work with James Kofi Annan, a former child slave who has spent his adult life liberating slaves and trying to clean up the fishing industry. I arrived full of doubts and insecurities, but the strength of the Free the Slaves activists became mine. James took us on lake journeys. We’d cruise up to a fishing boat full of kids and adults and he would say, “I want to tell my friends about your unique fishing practice. What kind of bait do you use?” Then slowly he’d turn the conversation to the crew, asking, “Who are these little guys?” He’s there to rescue children, get them back to health at a shelter, and work with their parents to make sure they can make a living so the children aren’t vulnerable to traffickers.
Are there places that have moved you to write songs? Many. I wrote several songs during my time in Ghana. I made a return trip to Brazil for a week to absorb the music and culture, and I wrote many songs. New York had a profound effect on me, as well as California. I’m a touring artist who seeks out unique corners of the world to find influences for my music.
Have you ever traveled somewhere because of your interest in yoga? I did yoga and explored a couple of ashrams during a two-week trip to India. I didn’t go there to deepen my practice but more just to see where yoga comes from. I was in Mumbai for a few days, then down to Goa for a week, then on to Karnataka. It was an amazing experience.
What style of traveler are you? A spontaneous one, with little preparation. I pack light. I don’t feel a need to rush through all the major landmarks. Like, if I go to Paris, I might just take a walk, with no map or tourist site in mind, and end up in a neighborhood coffee shop. I guess I’m a traveler who likes to think he’s not traveling. That’s how I ended up in San Diego. I traveled there and found this great coffee shop that I love to make music in and I ended up staying. I’ve lived there for 12 years now.
What has really surprised you in your travels? I’m constantly surprised that no matter where I go, people are similar, just trying to make it. We’re all quiet and shy in an elevator with other people. Most people hesitate to make eye contact. Before I ever traveled to Japan I thought maybe it would be like another planet. But when I got there I realized, oh, these are just humans over here doing the same human thing, perhaps with different resources. It made me feel less timid about going places and more able to just walk through a village in, say, Ghana, looking like the only white guy alive.
Tell us about your book of Polaroid travel photography. I often keep a travel journal. I’ll just sit on the steps somewhere and write. That journal is the best souvenir, allowing me to relive my memories of places around the world. At one point I started to travel with a Polaroid 600 instant camera. I could just snap a picture and put it right in with my journal entry. With a Polaroid, you never know what you’ll get. Because Polaroid film is so rare and slightly expensive, I became very particular about what I shot. With a digital camera I might take a hundred pictures in a matter of minutes, but with a Polaroid, I wait to find a scene I really want to shoot. I look for scenes with depth and perspective, like a long line of lampposts. I love looking up in the trees and at buildings. When you’re comfortable with a place, you forget to look up. New Yorkers never look up. It’s only the tourists.
Is there more to say about your writing? Sometimes on my blog I write from a traveler’s perspective. There are people who never leave their home state that rely in part on travel writing to help them experience more of the world. Knowing that, I also encourage people to explore places near their own communities. I grew up in Mechanicsville, Virginia, for example, which is historically rich. Every time I go home, I do something I missed growing up, such as visiting a historic battlefield.
Are there places you haven’t been to yet that you want to visit? I’ve always wanted to take that cruise to Antarctica to see the unspoiled continent. That would be just a brilliant trip for nature, solitude, and for writing in the journal. To really see Earth, you should visit all seven continents, and that is the only one I have not been to.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.