A white boy who stole reggae | AspenTimes.com

A white boy who stole reggae

Stewart Oksenhorn

Years ago, Mose Allison sang, half-joking and half-serious, about being the “white boy who stole the blues.”

Kevin Kinsella must know how the blues-jazz singer and pianist who many listeners mistook for being black felt. Kinsella is the white boy – a 27-year-old Boston native – who stole reggae.

“A lot of people can’t get over that hurdle, that we’re Americans playing rasta music,” said Kinsella, lead singer, rhythm guitarist and principle songwriter for the roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. The seven-piece band makes its Aspen debut tonight at the Howling Wolf.

Kinsella and his mates may not have been born into the reggae culture, but they have adopted it fully. The band’s major label debut, “Among Them,” on the Shanachie label, digs deep into the roots of reggae.

Rather than play the slicked-up style of pop-reggae that has become the biggest seller in Jamaica, John Brown’s Body follows the path of reggae’s earliest practitioners, singing the praises of Jah, music and tolerance. On “Among Them,” the band plays the celebratory “Thank You Oh Lord,” the upbeat “Music Is My Only Friend,” and the all-inclusive “Rainbow Chariot,” all in a manner that is more connected to the spiritual side of reggae – based on vocal beauty, group rhythm and devotional lyrics – than its showy, commercial side.

Almost as much as making music, Kinsella seems to have done some deep meditating on the spirit of reggae music. A reggae fanatic since his early teens, when he first heard the music of Bob Marley and the soundtrack to the film “The Harder They Come,” Kinsella has come to the conclusion that reggae is music not only from Jamaica, but from heaven as well.

“I think God was pleased with this humble music being made by this tiny nation,” said Kinsella, explaining reggae’s enormous popularity across the globe. “I think reggae is the poor people’s music, the poor people’s gift. How else could people like Bob Marley and Winston Rodney [better known as reggae singer Burning Spear], people from these poor farms, come to be heard around the world?

“That’s justice. When these people speak, people listen, around the world. Reggae is the poor people’s music, the sufferer’s music and justice.”

But reggae, according to Kinsella, has in large part lost its way in recent years. Many newer reggae bands have embraced a style which is more aggressive in sound and spirit, a form of pop rather than roots music. Kinsella has cringed as a number of respected reggae bands have moved toward the more commercial sound over time. And to Kinsella, it is no surprise that reggae has taken a step down in importance since its height during the ’70s.

“Reggae is not meant to be a commercial music, and when it got so popular, maybe God got displeased. Maybe this music is cursed,” said Kinsella, who began playing reggae in a high school band, Tribulations, that broke up over Kinsella’s determination to stick to the roots style. “Reggae music, to me, is sacred, because it’s calling out to God. All music should be sacred, but reggae, doubly so.”

Apart from the move toward a slicker, guitar-driven sound, Kinsella said that reggae has picked up a lot of baggage along the way. Listeners associate reggae with a variety of concerns – rastafarianism, marijuana, a return to Africa movement – that Kinsella thinks take away from the predominant purpose of reggae, to celebrate the holy spirit, no matter what it’s called.

“Sometimes, I think reggae has this stigma that comes with it,” said Kinsella. “It’s got a religion that it carries on its back; it’s become very nationalistic, a race music.

“Where blues didn’t pick that up. Blues is embraced by so many people. But somehow reggae isn’t allowed that. It’s become attached to this repatriation effort, going back to Africa. But when I first heard reggae, I heard the Bible being sung. It was striking a heartbeat that everyone can relate to.”

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