An artist’s fascinating backstory can’t, by itself, make his music great, but it can certainly enhance a listener’s appreciation of it. If Al Green’s run in the ’70s on Hi Records hadn’t been so stellar, we wouldn’t care as much about his come-to-Jesus moment in 1974, when he suffered third-degree burns from a pot of hot grits thrown by a jilted woman (who committed suicide soon after); yet knowing the tale makes Green’s conversion seem all the more poignant. Similarly, the story of Fela Kuti’s 1975 album, Expensive Shit, heightens the mythic power of his political activism. Nigerian police attempted to plant a joint on Fela in the hopes of arresting him, but he swallowed the evidence; they arrested him anyway, intending to claim his feces as evidence, but he dodged the charge by giving the authorities another inmate’s stool sample. (Call it the ol’ switcherpoo.)
The extraordinary story of a group of Black Hebrew expats, whose music is collected on Soul Messages From Dimona, can stand alongside any of the classic myths of funk and soul. And amazingly, the music itself—a mix of soul, funk, psych, gospel, and Hebrew traditionals—can match the drama of the musicians’ lives. The history of Black Hebrews in America, primarily people who trace their lineage directly to the Israelites of the Old Testament, goes back to the late 19th century. But the Black Hebrew movement enjoyed a resurgence in the ’60s, as many blacks connected the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement with the exodus of the Israelites. One of the largest groups of Black Hebrews at the time, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, was founded in Chicago in the mid-’60s by Ben Carter, a former factory worker who changed his name to Ben Ammi after a co-worker exposed him to Black Hebrew teachings.
Ammi was also greatly influenced by Marcus Garvey, and in 1967, he followed Garvey’s lead, leading approximately 350 followers to Guryea, Liberia, a hundred miles from the capital of Monrovia. Ammi planned the move to purge members of their slave mentality in America, but Liberia was only a way station on the way to his ultimate destination, Israel. Among the original members of the Chicago congregation was bassist Charles Blackwell, who later renamed himself Hezekiah. Blackwell had played in the Metrotones, an R&B band in the stable of the Leaner brothers, who owned several labels (One-Der-Ful, Mar-V-Lus) and started one of the first major black-owned music distribution firms. The Metrotones had to be versatile enough to change their sound depending on who they were backing, from grooving slow-burners like Alvin Cash’s “Twine Time” or the Delta-by-way-of-Chicago blues of Little Milton’s “Blind Man.” For the African trip, Blackwell recruited fellow musicians, guitarist Thomas “Yehudah” Whitfield and John “Shevat” Boyd. The two were initially put off by the turbans and the dashikis, but they came to appreciate the Black Hebrew message of liberation.
The congregation intended to farm in Guryea, but harsh conditions made that nearly impossible; dozens of members of the group fled back to the United States within the next couple of years. But the trio stayed, doing the only thing they knew how to do to feed their families: They traveled to Monrovia and started gigging their asses off. The group, dubbed the Soul Messengers, introduced Liberians, as well as people from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, to modern soul and funk music. The Soul Messengers reportedly played a killer version of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and they added free-jazz and Afrobeat influences to their repertoire. The Soul Messengers soon became the primary breadwinners, not just for their families but for the entire Guryea community of Black Hebrews. The original incarnation of the Soul Messengers was forced to temporarily disband, however, when Hezekiah was chosen by Ammi to be a special ambassador, traveling away from the rest of the band.
That wasn’t the worst of it. While touring in the Ivory Coast, the group was often mistaken for Lebanese (with whom they were warring) or a rival tribe. At one point, Yehudah and Shevat were captured by locals; after a close brush with a machete, the two were rescued by other members of the band, only to be arrested and beaten later that same evening by the police. Both returned to Chicago soon after. Shevat took work as a switchman for a railroad, and Yehudah played in the groundbreaking soul-funk group the Pharaohs, members of which later became Earth, Wind & Fire. Meanwhile, Hezekiah worked on a kibbutz as Ammi made arrangements to be allowed into Israel. The Black Hebrews were initially denied entry because authorities did not recognize their Hebrew lineage, but in 1969, the group was allowed to settle in Dimona, a city in the Negev desert.
The music on Soul Messages From Dimona dates to 1972, when the Soul Messengers reunited: Yehudah and Shevat came to Israel and began recording with Hezekiah and others. Like so much great religious music, the spiritual message of the tracks here is unobtrusive; as faithful as they were, the trio was mainly interested in sounding good. The earliest songs on the set were Black Hebrew-style reinterpretations of Western songs. Most notably, Steam’s pop-gospel-turned-sports-chant “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” got an uplifting makeover as “Our Lord and Savior,” with the signature chorus remade into Ben Ammi’s teachings sung in Hebrew. (Most of the tracks are sung in English.) The group’s technical abilities were a given, but their missionary zeal gives the songs a blistering energy, especially on the climax of “Burn Devil Burn,” built on fierce percussion, organ, and choral singing.
As the reconstituted Soul Messengers grew in popularity, the Tel Aviv office of CBS Records’ offered a contract to the band. Soul Messages From Dimona features songs from four different groups: the Soul Messengers; the Spirit of Israel, a gospel-themed ensemble featuring the wives and sisters of some of the Messengers; the Tonistics, a kiddie-soul group featuring some of the band members’ children; and Sons of the Kingdom, a vocal harmony group that joined the retinue later. The Spirit of Israel’s “Daniel,” released in 1975, is a sonorous praise song that, complete with subtle psych guitar and reggae rhythms, recalls the best parts of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. The Tonistics’ “Dimona (Spiritual Capital of the World)” is less experimental R&B, but the exuberance is plain on the vocals, which claim their home city as a place “where peace and happiness is for every boy and girl.”
The Sons of the Kingdom’s “Hey There” is a mellow number featuring gentle acoustic guitar strums, choral oohs, and lazy horns. It wouldn’t sound out of place between Bobby Womack and Bill Withers in a classic-soul DJ set, which is to say that there’s nothing about it to suggest that it was recorded a world away. In the same sense, their “Modernization” is a very smooth, socially aware soul track that opens with traffic sound effects (typical of many songs about inner-city pressure of the time), though its preachy anti-science message is unique to Dimona doctrine.
The groups stopped recording in 1978, but the Dimona story continues. Black Hebrews live there today, though they weren’t granted full legal residency until 2003. Yehudah is now Thomas Whitfield again, a born-again Christian living on the South Side of Chicago, but Hezekiah still lives in Dimona, along with Ben Ammi, and is active in the Black Hebrew community there. And the music endures: On the best track of the collection, “Go to Proclaim,” the Soul Messengers channel Willie Mitchell’s brassy Southern soul for a contemplative, spiritual that can stand alongside Al Green’s gospel work. Sung entirely in Hebrew, it’s a stirring merger of the secular and sacred. We’re in a time when the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins get to steer the dialogue about religion, but the Soul Messengers’ message feels like the one that’s going to last.