Joshua Alo has had a guitar strapped to his back for a very long time.
It all began with disobedient boy and a forbidden guitar, tucked quietly in a closet in his father’s Aiea home in central Oahu. Alo couldn’t resist the urge to pluck the strings when his father was away from the house. But his defiant behavior was rewarded one day when he was caught, red-handed, strumming one of his father’s favorite songs. Recognizing his son’s talent and ambition, and perhaps the futility of trying to keep the guitar out of his hands, Alo’s father relented and gave him the six string.
He’s been virtually inseparable from the guitar ever since. In 1999 Alo enlisted in the United States Air Force and left Oahu in search of worldly opportunities. He took a position as a mail transportation manager, a job that kept him out of battle but repeatedly put him in war zones and third world countries around Southeast Asia. Alo was dedicated to his military position. When his time was up he re-enlisted, and then extended his deployment for a year.
All along Alo carried his acoustic instrument and the reggae beat that flows through him across 26 countries. Always traveling with a guitar, Alo had the opportunity to play to large and small crowds in Japan, Italy, Brussels, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and jammed regularly with other soldiers in Baghdad.
His music is conscious roots reggae, a genre grown from the seed of Rastafarianism that inherently carries a message of social issues, oppression and spirituality. It’s also music that’s closely associated with resistance to war and the military.
His songs tell the tale of his life, of his personal spiritual walk, and carry a message of faith and self-awareness.
All 12 original, polished roots tracts were recorded while Alo was on active duty and stationed in Venice with Italian roots band Zion Love. Though his sound is by far more Jamaican than Hawaiian and his message comes across with a lot of Rasta terminology, Alo says that he is a Christian.
The music on Alo’s debut album, Answer Your Calling, resonates with the solid one-step reggae beats of an artist who emulated Bob Marley in his formative years. Alo’s personal flair comes in the form of unexpected guitar solos and heartfelt, personal lyrics. An unusual hint of tranquil ukulele strumming gives the album an island vibe and makes it unmistakable that Alo is a Hawai‘i boy through and through.
When Alo told me his story over the phone last week I discovered that his voice is disarmingly melodic. His sweet timbered words flowed over the lines with a rhythmic tempo and his infectious laugh came easily. He spoke with an unidentifiable accent that stems from his local upbringing and branches with the flavor of time spent speaking and listening to foreign languages around the world.
He’s on his way to Maui for his debut performance after nine years of military service. I wanted to know how he balances his musical message of unity and love with his choice to become a soldier for a country that enforces peace with guns.
Jessica Armstrong: Tell me about growing up in Hawaii?
Joshua Alo: Oahu is like no other place in the world. Out of all 27 countries I’ve been to there’s no better place to grow up than Hawaii. The vibes of the people and the aina are majestic and inspiring. I learned to play the guitar by ear. It was just me and a lot of late nights listening to Marley tracts until I got every note right.
Has it always been about reggae music for you?
Well, as soon as I started strumming it was roots reggae. I listen to The Wailing Souls, The Black Roots from England, and, of course Bob. I like a lot of R & B and blues stuff too. Not the “meet you at the club, go home and take your clothes off” stuff, but like, the Stylistics, Marvin Gaye and Lionel Richie. They’re lyrical inspirations. I’m not a Jawaiian artist.
If creating roots reggae music is so important to you, why did you join the military?
Six months of working for minimum wage was the catalyst of me joining the Air Force, but the bottom line is I wanted to serve and I wanted to support my country.
What was your job in the Air Force?
I was a non-commissioned officer in charge of mail transmission.
You were a mailman?
Not like a mailman that walks up and down the street. I was in full combat dress the whole time. My job was to get mail to the service members no matter where they were. My last station was in the Kingdom of Bahrain. I was in and out of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia and Southeast Asia all the time.
I’ve seen so many soldiers open letters, and do it slowly because of the scent of a perfume. It means everything to them.
Do you think there’s a conflict between writing music about peace and fighting in a war?
The stigma is that appearance is everything. I did it to serve. I really want to get across to people that we’re here to serve the nation. When I’m in uniform people look at me like I’m George Bush himself or something. There’s a stigma attached to me because I wore a uniform. My weapon is my guitar, and my message is that it’s not the soldiers who make the decisions but the leaders, and even the leaders have a master. The Armed Forces are a great peace time organization, too.
So you’ve felt some tension then?
Yeah, I wrote a song about it for my next album, called “Hold On.” It’s a rebuttal to the criticism I receive from being in the military and doing conscious roots reggae. People of understanding know that what I say is true.
Tell me about making the album?
I recorded it in Venice, Italy. It was hard because I was sick and working 13 hour days, but great because there are reggae people out there, too. The people there have so much aloha, in the Italian way. Where I recorded my music no one spoke English, but when it comes to music you don’t have to communicate with language. Music is its own language.
Where did you get the inspiration for the songs on your album?
These are my experiences. They come from my spiritual walk at that time. It’s a visionary record of love and spiritual warfare. I let life write my songs. Some songs took me three years to finish, but the most inspiring songs I wrote in 10 minutes and I don’t even remember writing them. Music is the realm to the spirit and your life is a record.
What about the love songs?
My wife to me is an angel. The love songs that I write are so easy because when I sing about her I just sing the truth. It’s not easy being married to a service member. She has stuck through it, held it down and I love her. That’s why I wrote “Hold On.” Behind every service member is a family that’s under a lot of pressure.
Where did the album’s title come from?
The river that’s pictured on the cover is a very special place to me. It’s in the mountains in Italy where I would go to meditate. One day my friend was with me and she asked me what my greatest fear is. That’s not the kind of question you get every day. The next day I came up with the song “Answer Your Calling.” My greatest fear is not cultivating the blessings that I was given and choosing myself over others. I don’t think I’m some great guitarist, but this is my calling and I use what I can to help other people.
Speaking of spiritual callings, you aren’t a Rastafarian. Does that make you less credible as a roots reggae artist?
All I’ll say is that I’m a Christian reggae artist. It’s a sensitive issue, all the guys from the band I’ll play with are Rastas. Reggae music is a back-to-Africa music. I can only speak for myself, but people of understanding know we all come to it eventually.
Have you always been this spiritual?
No. Every tree grows branches and then leaves, and then, hopefully, bears fruit. MTW