The world sunk closer to war on Oct. 12, as Middle-East violence escalated and terrorism took center stage. But out of D.C. the message was clear: positivity, peace and unity for all. These words were not preached by President Bill Clinton or a Pentagon official, but reverberated through the crowd amassed to see reggae legends Israel Vibration perform at the 9:30 Club.
Thirty years is certainly a long time to hold a single job, but an even longer time to dominate a musical genre, as Israel Vibration has done with roots reggae since the 1970s. Spurred by innovators such as King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry, roots reggae combined a slowed-down, deep-seeded rhythm, a pure organic sense of instrumentation and heavy political lyrics into conscious music often centered on the teachings of Rastafarianism.
Once Skelly and Wiss, the long-time band leaders, step onto the stage and throw their souls into songs about human equality and following the righteous path, the message becomes clear. The diverse following reggae attracts was apparent at the concert, exhibited by a healthy mix of dreads, conservative cuts and college baseball caps.
Kicking off the festivities were The Abysinians, one of the most respected harmony trios in Jamaican reggae. Also veterans on the scene, group members infuse a healthy dose of Nayabinghi drumming in their act. Looked upon as torchbearers of roots reggae, the two founders still preach a positive message making clear they remain committed to the music and its teachings.
For many fans expecting a wild front-man such as Toots or Lucky Dube, Israel Vibration may be a bit surprising. Skelly and Wiss, who were stricken with polio when they were three years old, walk on crutches. The two musicians met at a rehab clinic for polio victims in Jamaica after an epidemic in the 1950’s infected 50,000 Jamaican children with the disease.
The two men, whose real names are Cecil Spense and Lacelle Bulgin, along with a third member Albert Craig, formed the band and produced their first album, Same Song, in 1978.
The band moved to the United States to take advantage of the country’s medical resources. Skelly and Wiss reside in Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. After a few years off, Skelly and Wiss have reunited with their back-up band of old, The Roots Radics, and have released their second comeback album, Jericho, which has attracted critical acclaim in reggae circles.
The two singers have re-tooled their dynamics, and the duo plays off each other very well. What is interesting about the duo’s approach is that each singer has his own songs. Skelly may step aside after performing a song he wrote, like the hit Why Worry; and Wiss will take the lead mic to perform one of his crowd favorites, such as Hard Road. It is like getting two bands for the price of one, as each singer has his own style.
The duo is backed up by the great musicianship of The Roots Radics, led by sensational bass-player Flabba Holt and bolstered by the strong voices of back-up singers Is Vibe. They performed an exciting two-hour mix of old classics such as Same Song and Greedy Dog with new tracks such as the popular Breeze a Blow. The band is also promoting its three-CD compilation put out by Ras Records titled Power of the Trinity.
With a sound that is both gentle and ephemeral yet potent and powerful, Israel Vibration, like its reggae companions, propels the crowd to nod their head, shake their thangs and appreciate its positive message.