PICTURED: The crew that worked on “Insanity,” clockwise from top left: Bobby Campbell, Calvin Meuser, Karson Chaves, Brenton Cherrie, Crystal Genavia and Zorba Cruz. Photo submitted

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer



Darren “Zorba” Cruz is feeling the love. 

The veteran musician — founder of reggae band Irie Ites and Ventura Music Award-winning outfits SkaDaddyZ and Strand Quentin — has spent much of 2020 developing a wide-ranging body of work of which he’s particularly proud. Called the Free Love Project, it consists of several songs written by Cruz and recorded in collaboration with a number of local artists — including members of Civil Conflict, IDecline, Ill Repute, Night Demon, Raging Arb and the Redheads and other renowned bands from the 805. The first single is set to be released in early January.

Cruz said that the project came about when the pandemic gave him the rare gift of time to act on some long-held ideas that were always getting back-burnered due to the constant demands of everyday life. Finding himself on involuntary hiatus as a result of the coronavirus, he followed his creative muse.

“The Free Love Project is a project that I came up with in March 2020 beginning when COVID first hit and we were under the stay-at-home order,” Cruz explained. “I just started writing like mad. Songs were flowing out with ease.”

Cruz, like his brothers Brandon (of Dr. Know fame) and Blake (one of the original founders of Stalag 13), grew up firmly ensconced in the Nardcore scene . . . although he would eventually find success down a different path. 

“I grew up playing punk rock, but I had so much in me. Blues, reggae, post-punk,” he said. Songs on the Free Love Project reflect his diverse interests. “It’s going to have every genre. Punk to ska to pop to reggae to obscure stuff and just jams. The sky’s the limit for what we can do.”

To bring the songs to life, Cruz looked to his wide network, posting a call for singers and players on Facebook. 

“I knew all my musician friends were dry docked and not gigging,” he recalled. “I wasn’t prepared for the response! . . . . Some I knew, some I didn’t, some were friends that talked about collaborating on songs together and it just never happened because our bands were working the same circuit.” 

Cruz noted that a few dozen local rockers are participating in the Free Love Project, and that he’s continuing to put out feelers. Many are part of the all-star reggae band Collaboration, recently formed by Cruz (ukulele and guitar) with Dustin Maddalone (vocals), Eric Garcia (drums), Mark Petersen (bass), Crystal “Tal” Genavia (vocals), Mike Menchaca (vocals), Brenton Cherrie (keyboards), Kevin Miller (trumpet), Jess Leedy (sax), Skabone Stan (trombone) and Mark Rojas Jr. (guitar). Also making appearances are Armand John Anthony, Peter DiStefano, Jarvis Leatherby and Robin Ryder — just to name a few.

He’s also working with several local recording studios: The Captains Quarters and Lion City in Ventura, Chingaso Studio in Silver Strand (where Cruz currently lives) and Somis Sound.

The first single, “Insanity,” which Cruz hopes to release in early January, is a pop tune featuring Bobby Campbell and Genavia on vocals, Calvin Meuser on bass, Cherrie on melodica, Cruz on ukulele and Lee Posey and Karson Chaves on percussion. Two punk-flavored singles, performed with members of IDecline, are scheduled for release later that month. Cruz said that he has at least 10 songs so far, which will be released one at a time through the independent digital music distribution service DistroKid.

“It’s going really quickly,” Cruz admitted. “I’m getting overwhelmed! But I’ve been wanting to do this my whole life. So the motivation is there.”

Cruz is also contemplating a record release concert streamed live, and possibly merchandise sales. He could use a little help: If anyone has old recording gear, graphic design talents, etc., be sure to get in touch by emailing him at collaborationband805@gmail.com.

He has yet another plan in the works, too, currently dubbed Cruz Control and featuring himself along with brothers Blake and Brandon, son Dalton, a drummer, and nephew Darren on base. 

But mostly, he just wants to play with other musicians, get his music out into the world and spread some good vibes.

“Let’s just give free love,” Cruz said of his latest project. “I think I’m putting some good out with this. I’m digging it!”

Follow the Free Love Project at Darren Cruz’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/zorba.cruz.56. To get involved, contact him at collaborationband805@gmail.com.