On Maui, we’re bombarded with reggae. To us, it has become as mass-produced as something served by a fast food chain, and sometimes just as tasteless. Reggae has permeated our everyday lives—it’s played on our radios, finds its way onto our iPods and headlines our big concerts. In truth, reggae has become so commonplace that many of us give it the same attention we do a mynah bird on the side of the road. That is, very little.
However, Israel Vibration demands your attention. This trio-turned-duo holds a place of prestige in reggae circles. Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin, Cecil “Skelly” Spence and Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig initially met as children, at a Kingston rehabilitation center where they were receiving treatment for polio. While there, they became interested in music, as well as heavily involved with the Rastafari movement. The administration of the center offered the boys an ultimatum: become less involved in Rastafari or leave. Fate soon saw them singing for their suppers and sleeping under the stars.
While they briefly went their separate ways, fate once again intervened when they reunited in Kingston. It was then that Israel Vibration—the band’s name is a reference to the Twelve Tribes of Israel branch of Rastafari—was conceived. To this day, Rastafari remains a central theme in Israel Vibration’s music and in the band members’ daily lives.
Israel Vibration has fought disease, religious bigotry and poverty. On top of these battles, they had to combat the devolving music scene in Jamaica during the 1980s. Rather than compromising their culturally inspired roots reggae sound to cater to club-friendly dancehall, the group decided to walk out halfway through the recording of 1981’s Why You So Craven. Eventually, the group became so dissatisfied with the music industry within Jamaica that they relocated to New York. Later, the group disbanded and its members sought solo careers. This was only a slight setback; the group reunited, exemplifying Marcus Garvey’s belief that “Strength is Unity.” Their reunion was heralded by the album Strength of My Life. The group has been releasing strong albums since its conception, and 2007 saw the release of Stamina.
As with all good music, Israel Vibration’s message transcends time and circumstance. Their earlier works are still as poignant as when they were first produced. Even better, Israel Vibration continually evolves its musical style and updates its social consciousness. They have realized that a different time means different people and ideas. The remaining members, Wiss and Skelly (Apple Gabriel left in 1997 to pursue a solo career), are certainly not beating a trite protest drum that people fail to notice. Rather than ignoring their tumultuous past, they help to bring positive understanding and facilitate discussion about polio by appearing on stage with a variety of crutches.
And their live shows are certainly entertaining as well as educational. If you think it’s impossible to skank while on crutches, you obviously haven’t seen Israel Vibration perform. Their powerful vocals and inspirational lyrics are backed by the Dub ensemble, Roots Radics. Together, Israel Vibration and Roots Radics musically intertwine to create a message that speaks to people of different lifestyles, locations and social statuses. This is feel-good music that encourages people to be good.
So yes, Mauians have been in a relationship with reggae for a long, long time. As with most relationships, it sometimes becomes a tad mundane and a little too routine. But Israel Vibration is like the sly look across the kitchen table that makes you fall in love all over again—and, of course, happy the kids aren’t home. MTW