There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In the pantheon of reggae’s great harmony trios, few have been as prolific as Israel Vibration. Still fewer survived the post-’70s decline of roots reggae, and none has continued to produce music as consistently heartfelt and well received as Israel Vibration’s has been over the course of its 21 years. It is fitting, then, that the group’s first and only live album, Live Again!, spans the trio’s career from its seminal 1976 debut, Same Song, to 1995’s On the Rock, itself a powerful reminder that, two decades after its heyday, the topical and Rastafarian broadsides that distinguish roots reggae can still hold sway in Jamaica’s continually evolving musical landscape.
The musical movement of reggae’s harmony trios draws its lineage from late-’50s calypso and mento, the calypsolike folk music that held sway in Jamaica until the late ’40s. The original seven-member Wailers pushed the transition to rock steady and later to ska in the mid-’60s, while trios first took shape in ska outfits like Toots and the Maytals and the Gaylads in 1966. The ska beat slowed in the following years as musicians experimented, and reggae was born. By the time Israel Vibration was formed in the early ’70s, harmony trios were at the height of their popularity, due largely to the influence of American R&B carried across the sea to Jamaica on New Orleans and Miami radio stations.
Stories of reggae stars rising from the ghettos of Kingston to international fame are hardly uncommon. By the time Bob Marley brought reggae to worldwide prominence in the late ’70s, such tales were less a mark of honor than reflections of a simple truth: Reggae was sufferers’ music, and sufferers lived in the ghetto. Yet even Marley (who pronounced I.V. his favorite band after recording its sophomore effort, Unconquered People, at his own Tuff Gong studio) was said to have blanched at the group’s tale of surviving polio, homelessness, and state-sponsored oppression.
“I didn’t get no chance, no job, nothing as a youth,” says Albert “Apple” Craig, who is joined in the band by Cecil “Skelly” Spence and Lacelle “Wiss” Bulgin. “I was just abandoned from early on.”
Committed to the Mona Polio Rehabilitation Center at age 3, Apple’s prospects were bleak. “I would just sit down and sing every day,” he recalls, “because I never have anything else to do.” Skelly and Wiss, who also became Mona residents as youngsters, were in the same situation, and their friendship solidified amid the harsh circumstances.
After several years there, Apple was transferred to a Salvation Army home, and later to the Alpha Boys School. “It’s like a prison camp,” he says about the last institution. “They beat me up there and locked me up in a room with iron bars. One day, me just run outme just break through the fence and run away.”
With nowhere else to go, Apple, then 14, wound up on the streets, sleeping in the bush, in old cars, or “‘pon the roadside.” Though he was starving, he refused to steal, preferring instead to earn pocket change via odd jobs. “I used to clean people’s car glass and things,” he says, “and used to wash cars with my little bucket, an empty paint can.”
About this time, Apple met an old man named Baba Douse, who taught him about Rastafari. “Me and him used to go over to this little airstrip with the small planes,” Apple recalls. “And every Sunday me and him go there and sit up in an almond tree and him just read the Bible to me and explain to me certain things. Him show me what Selassie mean, and teach me the story of the Lion of David and King Solomon.
“Then I used to get visions in the bush when I was sleeping,” he continues. “This before I start the music. I used to envision myself performing onstage in front of millions of people. I used to get all kinds of visions, great visions, and see things in my sleep before them happen.”
Believing himself to be a Rasta prophet of sorts, Apple returned to Mona periodically to visit Skelly and to ask for help from the staff. “But them tell me them not gonna help me unless me trim off me beard and me locks and stop smoke herb and talk about dem Rasta,” he says. Instead, Skelly and Wiss converted and suffered the price. Skelly was kicked off the Jamaican National Wheelchair Basketball Team for growing dreadlocks. Wiss lost his job as a tailor and was banished from the rehab center, as were Apple and Skelly. Making matters tougher, the group members’ withered legs (which required crutches or canes) were often looked upon by their fellow Rastafarians as stigmas imposed on them by Jah and therefore deserved. They found themselves cast out.
“Everyday we used to meet and go off in the bush and sit together,” Apple recalls. “I used to read the Bible, and we used to talk about the Bible a lot and converse about the things we reading. We used to just sit there and sing, sing on hungry belly.”
During this time, the three developed the lovely harmonies that now distinguish Israel Vibration. Their faith in Rastafari solidified along with their setlist, and in 1975 the group cut its first single, “Why Worry,” at Jamaica’s legendary Channel One Studio. Then, under the auspices of producer Tommy Cowan, the group created the inaugural Same Song. But even though the recording was acclaimed in some quarters, the members of I.V. still found themselves homeless and living in the bush four years later. After parting company with Cowan and jumping to Tuff Gong, they found themselves persona non grata in JamaicaCowan used his muscle as an organizer of Reggae Sunsplash and other large festivals to blacklist the group.
The trio journeyed to America in hopes of finding a new start and better medical care, but visa problems and a lack of money hampered their efforts. Things went so badly that Israel Vibration was widely believed to have disbanded, a rumor Apple dispels: “We branch off [as soloists] doing a 45 here and a 45 there trying to survive. But we never split up.” But Israel Vibration essentially disappeared until noted reggae producer Dr. Dread, of Silver Spring-based RAS Records, resuscitated the group’s career with a record contract. The result was one of Israel Vibration’s strongest outings, 1988’s Strength of My Life, whose edifying title track is one of Live Again!’s best numbers. The group continued to record for RAS at a torrid pace through last year’s award-winning Free to Move. The company has now issued I.V.’s entire 14-album catalog, including Live Again!. But while Apple’s decision to leave the group (he cites artistic differences as the cause; Skelly and Wiss plan to continue recording under the I.V. name) does nothing to diminish the group’s status as one of the finest of Jamaica’s harmony trios, it does signal that in all likelihood this is the last great harmony album.
Much like the age of Mississippi Delta blues, the era of reggae harmony trios is nearly over. Remaining acts like the Meditations, the Itals, and the Abyssinians are mere shells of the original groupsand their music reflects it. Performances are tepid interpretations of hits 20 years past. New albums are throwaways (Black Uhuru’s Strongg, most notably) or greatest-hits rehashes. There has been nothing new to speak of.
Only Israel Vibration, in a flurry of crutches and dreadlocks, could still captivate an audience with its fervent declarations of Rastafarianism, its “culture” music for the ’90s. On Live Again!, that energy isfor the first and probably last timefinally captured on disc.
As they’ve always done, the three swap lead singing duties on each song; rather than interlace their voices in the classic style, the backup vocalists provide call-and-response texture, usually repeating tag lines of the lead. Notable successes are Skelly’s buoyant pleas for understanding on “Same Song,” Wiss’ quiet intensity on “Jailhouse Rocking,” and Apple’s ’95 hit “Rudeboy Shufflin’,” a convincing case for Rasta’s continued relevance in an age of slackness and dancehall.
A constant of Israel Vibration’s best music is its powerful preaching of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (a vein of Rastafarianism). “Strength of My Life,” a midtempo affirmation of faith, is a remarkably pure exposition of Rasta’s loftiest ideals. But Wiss’ plaintive cries to Jah on “Licks and Kicks” provide the album’s most moving moments.
Live Again! is not a greatest-hits album, though several of the group’s most popular singles are here. Instead, it strives to capture the essence of Israel Vibration’s stunning live shows. And while the maladies of a reggae concert are surely presentfrequent stoppages in play, fawning intros by an overexcited MC, the requisite Marley cover tune (here, an uncharacteristic “War”)they serve as reminders of the uniqueness of this final album. Ultimately, however, the problems are forgotten when Apple, Skelly, and Wiss launch into their set, performing their silken harmonies for the last time, marking the end of one of Jamaican music’s greatest eras.CP