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Members include Lascelle (Wiss) Bulgin, Albert (Apple) Craig, and Cecil (Skelly) Spence, who left the group in 1997 over personal differences. Addresses: Record company--RAS Records, P.O. Box 42517, Washington, DC 20015.
When polio struck Jamaica in the late 1950s, many of the island nation's children had not been vaccinated against the crippling disease. Three young victims of the epidemic--Cecil (Skelly) Spence, Albert (Apple) Craig, and Lascelle (Wiss) Bulgin--came together at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre in Kingston, a government institution for young polio patients whose families could not afford medical care. "We grow together like brothers," Craig said. The three boys' paths crossed sporadically as they moved among various institutions, according to Roger Steffens, a reggae historian and founding editor of The Beat. Through it all, however, they shared a love of music. Spence, for example, played in a band called the Hot Lickers and performed on Jamaican TV when he was 12. Craig started writing songs at an early age and taught himself to play the piano by watching his teacher's hands as she played.
In that unlikely setting, under those traumatic circumstances, a seed was planted which would grow into one of Jamaica's most noted vocal groups--Israel Vibration. The trio's concerts, Rob Kenner wrote in Vibe magazine, are unforgettable. "It's not just the sight of three polio-stricken Rastafarians skanking on stage in a tangle of crutches, braces and dreadlocks. Rather, it's their voices--the sweet, achy way Skelly, Apple and Wiss blend their wails into one irresistible cry," Kenner commented. "When the three of us come together," Spence told Kenner, "the forces combine in a triangle."
As a boy, Craig chafed under the restrictions of institutional life. "I was transferred to the Salvation Army Home, then to the Alpha Boys School, which was run by nuns. It was like a prison," he told Steffens. "They beat me up there, and locked me in a room with three iron bars over a little peephole. I used to climb up in a tree. I sit there for days and plan to run away from that place, and I did it. I break through the fence and until this day, I'm free." At age 14, Craig was living on the street, often dizzy from hunger. He washed car windows and begged for spare change, slept in abandoned houses and cars, and bathed at the wharf. "I was like a lonely sheep in the wilderness," he said. "I was like Job."
The teen-ager turned to the Rastafari religion and the dreadlocked outcasts who practiced it, even though "society saw them as mad people. They never look presentable with their big 'locks and sandals made of car tires," Craig was quoted in Vibe. "Some did smell kinda funny, too, 'cause they live inna bush." Spence and Bulgin, meanwhile, left the institutional life--although it is unclear whether they "graduated" or were expelled for embracing the Rastafarian lifestyle. Spence, in any event, was kicked off the Jamaican wheelchair basketball team, with which he had traveled to Germany and New Zealand, when he began growing Rasta dreadlocks.
Around 1969, Craig "was living in the bush near the football field at the University of West Indies," Steffens wrote. "Gradually, he, Wiss and Skelly began to hang out together, smoking herb, reading the Bible, reasoning, and--miraculously--learning that the blend of their three voices was attracting an enthusiastic crowd that would clap and cheer and urge them to record their music." The trio crafted a name which reflected both the children of God and the resonance of music. "We are one of those groups that is born great," Craig has said, "because it was put together by a touch of the Almighty."
In 1976, Israel Vibration started recording their songs--they shared lead vocal duties--with support from the noted Roots Radics rhythm section. The group gained recognition beyond their homeland with the album Same Song. Music critic James Lien has called the late 1970s a powerful period for Rastafari and reggae, and he noted that "Israel Vibration provided one of the era's most forceful messages of peace and spirituality." Professionally, however, the trio found serenity elusive. "Their musical careers seemed to be taking off but, like many Jamaican artists, Israel Vibration's recording career was set back," according to the group's official bio, " by a local industry plagued ... by questionable accounting practices, musical piracy, and a lack of tour support."
In 1983, Craig, Spence and Bulgin parted company and separately traveled to the United States in search of solo careers and better medical care. Eventually, each approached Washington-based RAS Records with hopes of acquiring a recording contract. The label's president, a man known as Doctor Dread in reggae circles, had other ideas, however. Dread was the catalyst behind Israel Vibration's 1989 reunion, which resulted in a string of inspirational and popular roots-reggae releases, including Strength of My Life, Praises, and On the Rock. Once again, the trio was supported on stage and in the studio by the Roots Radics. In the 1990s, the reunited Israel Vibration cracked the reggae and world music charts and the video for their 1995 single "Rudeboy Shufflin" played on the BET network and other cable channels. The song includes the lyric: "Want peace in society, you better put me on your MTV."
Critics took notice. Pulse magazine lauded On the Rock's "haunting melodies, forceful rhythm tracks, and absolutely captivating lyrics." The Washington Post noted Israel Vibration's ability to shift from songs of social injustice to celebratory tunes on the album Free to Move: "Both 'Terrorist' and 'Mud Up' bemoan street violence, and 'Livity in the Hood' insists that education is the way out of the concrete jungle," The Post reported. "But this album isn't entirely grim. The bright, sunny 'Pretty Woman' is propelled by a bouncy ska rhythm, while 'Traveling Man' brings a proselytizer's zeal to a road song."
Due to personal differences, Craig left the group in April 1997. Spence and Bulgin, meanwhile, continued to perform under the name Israel Vibration and launched a tour with the Roots Radics. "The three singers have faced considerable difficulties," Jimmy Cawley wrote in The Boston Globe, "but reggae is, after all, the music of sufferers who prevail."
by Dave Wilkins
Israel Vibration's Career
Israel Vibration began performing and recording in their Jamaican homeland, 1970s; the trio released popular roots-reggae recordings in Jamaica before splitting up in 1983; reunited in the U.S. six years later; signed with RAS Records and recorded a string of albums in the 1990s.
Israel Vibration's Awards
Tower Records/Pulse! magazine selected On the Rock the best reggae album of 1995.
- Selective Works
- Unconquered People, Greensleeves Records, 1980.
- Strength of My Life, RAS Records, 1988.
- Praises, RAS Records, 1990.
- Dub Vibration, RAS Records, 1990.
- Why Are You So Craven, RAS Records, 1991.
- Forever, RAS Records, 1991.
- Vibes Alive, RAS Records, 1992.
- Perfect Love and Understanding, Munich Records, 1993.
- IV, RAS Records, 1993.
- I.V. D.U.B., RAS Records, 1994.
- On the Rock, RAS Records, 1995.
- Dub the Rock, RAS Records, 1995.
- Rudeboy Shufflin, RAS Records, 1995.
- Sugar Me, RAS Records, 1995.
- The Same Song, Pressure Sounds, 1995.
- Free to Move, RAS Records, 1996.
- Feeling Irie, RAS Records, 1996.
- Live Again!, RAS Records, 1997.
- RAS Portraits, RAS Records, 1997.
- Billboard, September 28, 1996.
- Boston Globe, September 7, 1996.
- Dub Missive, January 1997.
- Echoes, September 2, 1995.
- Pulse, June 1995.
- URB Magazine, January 1996.
- Washington Post, August 25, 1996.
- Additional information was provided by RAS Records' press materials and the liner notes from the album IV.
Israel Vibration Lyrics
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