Reggae legends make Israel a Pessah destination

Jamaican musicians will bring a Rastafarian atmosphere to Tel Aviv this Hol HaMoed Pessah.

Israel Vibration 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel Vibration 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Guil Bronstein decided to throw a reggae party during Hol Hamoed Pessah, he knew exactly who he wanted to bring to perform. "Israel Vibration is probably the best example of real roots reggae performing today, and the Roots Radics are considered by most specialists as the best backing band in Jamaica," said the longtime reggae enthusiast, promoter of virtually every reggae show in Israel over the last 20 years, and for 15 years, proprietor of the now defunct Tel Aviv reggae club Soweto. "They are the roots of reggae, and people here love to see reggae legends." With two shows on April 22 at Tel Aviv's Barbie Club (at 8:30 pm and 11:45 pm), reggae lovers will have ample opportunity to partake of the Rastafarian atmosphere transmitted by the veteran Jamaicans who have been performing for three decades. Israel Vibration singers Lascelle "Wiss" Bulgin and Cecil "Skeleton" Spence met at a childhood polio rehabilitation center in Kingston in the late 1970s, together with former member Albert "Apple Gabriel" Craig. Looking for solace to their affliction which still keeps them in braces, they began to move close to the Rastafari faith, and grow their hair in dreadlocks, smoke ganja, and become obsessed with reggae. However, their transformation also got them kicked out of the center, so they decided to form a band. Leaving behind their old lives, the trio worked on their vocal harmonies and busked for money around Kingston. They spent the next six years singing for their suppers and by 1975, Israel Vibration was a vocal force to be reckoned with. By 1977, they were opening up for Bob Marley, and through various configurations, hiatuses and the departure of Craig in the late 1990s, the band has been recording and touring ever since. "It's been a long time that we've been doing this, but people still respond. We're still on the road, and I like that," said Skelly who now lives in Brooklyn, NY, but travels regularly to Jamaica to see his family. THE SIX-PIECE Roots Radics, who will be backing Skelly and Wiss, have played with everyone from Gregory Isaac to Bunny Wailer, Sugar Minot and Prince Far-I. "They're the best, I wouldn't play with anyone else," said Skelly. Israel Vibration has performed in Israel twice before, and their first appearance here in the early '90s at a reggae festival promoted by Bronstein in Achziv, was documented in a film called Reggae in the Holy Land. "At that time, nobody was making films about reggae, and this was the first one to be based on a visit to Israel," said Bronstein, who also produced the documentary. ""Rasafarians were shown on location in the Jordan River, and at the Kotel. They were filmed talking about their feelings about Israel, and what they said was that it was inspirational to them." According to Skelly, his attraction to Israel is based on the awe it inspires in him. "It's part of history, all those places in the Bible. Seeing Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, it's very special for me. The Wailing Wall, man..." he said And of course, Israel held such an esteemed place in their hearts that the band included it in its name, a move that Bronstein explained conveys the deep connections Rastafarians feel toward Israel. "They chose their name because their belief that Israel represents emancipation, from its freedom from slavery in Egypt. When they were 18 and left their rehab facility as they were becoming rastas with dreadlocks, they connected with that concept and it stuck with them," he said. Bronstein fell in love with reggae while studying international law at the Sorbornne in Paris after finishing the army in the late '70s. "Reggae had just arrived on the continent. I remember the first reggae shop opened up across from my apartment in 1978. That, to me, was the golden era of roots reggae music," he recalled. Since returning to Israel, Bronstein has campaigned tirelessly to promote reggae music. His Soweto club was the mecca for reggae culture in Israel, but now he said that the influence has spread beyond Tel Aviv. "Reggae culture is everywhere. Go into the site (the Walla reggae portal in Israel) and you'll see that every week there are shows at kibbutzim and clubs," said Bronstein citing seven local bands regularly performing reggae including Tikva 6 who just returned from a two week tour in the US. Despite his claims of music's popularity, Bronstein recently changed the venue of the Israel Vibration show from the expansive Park Ra'anana to the Barbie. But he claimed that it had nothing to do with ticket sales and everything to do with aesthetics. "Ra'anana was too expensive and too bureaucratic. We reggae folk like to relax and enjoy. Reggae's not a mainstream art, and Ra'anana is very mainstream. So we decided to go back to the home of reggae in Israel, the Barbie Club. It's intimate and it has great sound," said Bronstein. While most of the faces who attend the shows will undoubtedly be white, Bronstein is encouraged by the fact that more young Ethiopian Israelis are beginning to turn up for reggae shows. "Some of the young Ethiopians are really getting connected to rasta. But it's a slow build. Most of the youth are more into rap and hip hop culture," he said. An evening with Israel Vibration and Roots Radics is likely to change that.