Welcome to Sundays at the Sanctuary, where you don't need a jolt of Jamaican java to strap on a groove. (But if you have one in front of you sip away!) When we first heard the song "Israelites" back in 1969 we didn't know what we had -- other than something new and wonderful. Sanctuary contributor Wayne Shelor, whom many have mistaken for a Rastaman, explains.
But first open up this link in a new window: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8Rl1u4YdHw
By Wayne Shelor
of popular music.
I'm willing to bet this Sunday morning that the first "real" Jamaican reggae song to make the American charts was the song "Israelites" by Desmond Dekker and the Aces in 1969.
When I went searching for reggae-influenced songs that got wide-spread AM radio play prior to '69, the best I can come up with is Millie Small's "My Boy Lollipop" (with a English lad named Rod Stewart playing harmonica) ... and the Rock Steady-styled "Hold Me Tight" by Johnny Nash. But in "Israelites" you have the germination of a musical seed ready to spread across the American landscape like ... well like a weed, so to speak.
Reggae music in Jamaica, particularly in the 1960s, was evolving - taking root - after the flowering of Rock Steady, which took bloom after the ska style. And as far as the name of the song -- "Israelites"? Rastafarian is a religious sect of liberal Biblical construction created by followers of the teaching of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican living in Harlem. Garvey "prophesized" the crowning of a black king, and when Haile Selassie was crowned king in Ethiopia, it was seen as a fulfilled prophesy.
Followers then taught that the Africans transported to the Western Hemisphere prior to the Industrial Revolution must have been Ethiopians; they couldn’t have been Senegalese, they weren't Ivory Coasters, they must have been Ethiopians, because only Ethiopians are considered by the Rasta sect to be one of the 12 Lost Tribes of Israel. Thus, the "Israelites." Now you know ...
The song, sung in the loping sing-song patois of Jamaica, decries the workin'-hard-for-slave-wages station of so many Jamaicans, a good -- if abjectly hard-scrabble poor people -- who had little hope of escaping their lot in life. And they dared not resort to the deeds of outlaws such as the American bandit duo of Bonnie and Clyde, mentioned in the song.
Dekker was no one-hit wonder. Before "Israelites" climbed the American charts he had quite a few hits back home in Jamaica. And although Dekker and the Aces never charted again, I still think of him as the First Father of Reggae, the artist who parted the waters between the islands and the North American continent, and who sent up smoke signals so that groups such as Bob Marley and the Wailers and Burning Spear could follow him the promised land.
Dekker died in 2006, but I still picture him wanderin' the Caribbean, singin' for his supper ... and plantin' the seeds, so to speak, of hope, virtue and justice.
Related Minutia: Dekker worked with Bob Marley in a welding shop; The Beatles’ "Obla Di, Obla Da" was a tribute to reggae, Paul McCartney acknowledged the influence (listen to his loping bass-line), and that Dekker even got a name check in the song ("Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace...").