Keeping the faith
November 30, 2005
Kevin Kinsella was already a big music fan by the time he approached his teens. A product of upstate New York, Kinsella grooved on Motown, ’70s funk and much more.But at the age of 12, Kinsella received a far deeper idea of what music could mean. Driving, of all places, in Ireland, his father’s homeland, Kinsella and his dad heard on the radio “One Love,” from Bob Marley’s then-new collection, “Legend.””My dad and I were speechless,” said Kinsella, now 34, while walking in a rainstorm near his home in Ithaca, N.Y. “When you hear a great song like that, you’re blown away. I felt like the spirit entered the car. I said to my dad, ‘What is this? I’ve got to find out about that music.'”Thus was Kinsella introduced to reggae. But knowing nothing about Bob Marley or reggae music or Jamaican culture, he thought this was just a new, spiritual twist on the American funk he loved.”As a churchgoing person, I recognized the lyrics. I thought, ‘This is the Bible; this is like a Biblical Rick James,'” said Kinsella. “My older brother said no, this is Rastafarian, and explained it all to me.”His mind focused, Kinsella set about collecting as many reggae LPs as he could get his hands on. He discovered the TV program “Night Flight,” which sometimes screened reggae films, like the Jimmy Cliff classic “The Harder They Come.” And he shared his enthusiasm with his friend Elliott Martin, who became Kinsella’s partner in searching out the music wherever they could find it.”We absorbed it by listening to records over and over of reggae songs,” said Kinsella. “And this was long before the Internet, before it was easy to do. We had to go record-hunting, and drive around in his car all over town, listening to Bob Marley.”Kinsella has been captured not so much by the sounds of reggae – the hypnotic, syncopated beats, or the lilting island dialect – but by the foundations underlying the music. What Kinsella heard that day in Ireland, in the Marley lyrics “Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner” and “Give thanks and praise to the Lord,” was a Sunday morning sermon, one that happened to be sung in gorgeous melody.”It was like getting my mind cleaved in half,” Kinsella said, of beginning to learn about the message of reggae. “This wasn’t Tolkien or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia or Harry Potter. This was a living guy, singing about real life. It was as good as any Motown – which I loved – but he wasn’t singing, ‘Baby, baby, baby.’ He was singing about Revelation.”I wanted to make a church for my band that sounded like this.”
Kinsella didn’t form a reggae church band. But he did form a band. In 1986, at the age of 15, Kinsella and another friend, Josh Neuman, founded Tribulations, a band that fused reggae with a harder-edged sound, along the lines of such groups as 311 and Sublime. Two years later, Martin was drafted into the band. After establishing itself as a bit of an international presence – including a tour of Jamaica – Tribulations broke up in 1994. Kinsella was hardly done with music and reggae, however. He, Neuman and Martin carried on and formed John Brown’s Body, a band that dwelled closer to the ’70s-vintage roots reggae that Kinsella first fell for. Practically from the outset, from their early tours in the Northeast and the release of the 1999 CD “Among Them,” their debut on Shanachie Records, John Brown’s Body – named for the radical 19th-century abolitionist – has been hailed as the finest reggae group to come from the States.The eight-piece John Brown’s Body, with a three-piece horn section, performs at the Belly Up Sunday, Dec. 4.Kinsella’s early fascination with the reggae ethos hasn’t faded. It has deepened over the last two decades, and much of this has to do with the increased contact John Brown’s Body has had with the founders of reggae. Two summers ago, the band backed the late Jamaican singer Justin Hinds at the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, not far from Kinsella’s home. Hinds, who died in March, lived with Kinsella and his wife and baby for two weeks. “When you met him, you got the feeling that he was a real Rasta man – old as the sky, young as the morning dew, as the saying goes,” said Kinsella. Last summer, John Brown’s Body backed the Meditations, like Hinds, a product of the ’70s Jamaican ghettos and impoverished villages that produced Marley, Cliff and Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear. From such associations, Kinsella has confirmed his belief that reggae stands for the same principles – especially succor for the lowly and poor – that he found in the Bible.”To me, the pinnacle of reggae was the small man, looking out, observing the world. This small voice, looking out at the big world,” said Kinsella who, despite his inner mellowness, can get revved up, and quite humorous, about the state of the world. “You had Bob Marley, from one of the worst ghettos in the world, and singing in words that made kings and presidents listen and say, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ That’s some King David stuff, this poor shepherd guy who became the king of Israel. “Reggae is the song of David, the song of Moses. That’s the reason indigenous people around the world have taken reggae to heart. In the Himalayas, the Native American tribes – they love this music. If you go to these corners of the earth, they’ll be listening to more Bob Marley than Michael Jackson.”If the idea of a bunch of white Americans singing reggae – and espousing the case of the oppressed and neglected – raises suspicions, John Brown’s Body has been seeing less and less of it. Kinsella says the band has been warmly received by fans, peers, and even legends like Justin Hinds.”In the early days, people would say, ‘Why do you sing with an accent?’ And there were melodic nuances, to get into the cadence. People would come slightly incredulous, especially the West Indians, who would cross their arms and stare,” said Kinsella. “But I say this for everyone in the band – nobody’s copping a wannabe attitude, none of the accents or attire or attitude. A lot of people do that, and they overdo it. We’ve tried to be genuine and sincere. We’ve refined our own sense of who we are, with a great love for Jamaican tradition, spirituality and culture. And music. We’re not copycats.”Kinsella has taken his desire not to mimic Jamaican culture to at least one extreme, by largely staying a stranger to Jamaica. He has been there just twice: once, as a tourist, and a second time during the years with the Tribulations, “to play for the tourists,” he said. He hasn’t been back in over a decade.”Someday I’d like to go to St. Ann’s Bay, where Justin Hinds and Bob Marley and Winston Rodney are from. And Marcus Garvey [a Jamaican who preached self-determination, and a return to Africa, for black people]. If they’re all buried there, I want to be there,” said Kinsella. “But I’ve been careful not to idealize a place or time too much. To me, the ’70s were the golden days, spiritually and lyrically. But it would be like me going to Detroit now and looking for the Temptations. You don’t want to be that guy. You can’t ask people to become lost in time.”But Kinsella isn’t thrilled by what has happened to reggae over the last 25 years. There are still musicians connected to the spiritual roots of the music. But in terms of popularity, they have been swamped by those who sing a reggae cousin to gangsta rap. Kinsella lays some of the blame on American cultural imperialism.”It’s corrupted even Jamaica,” he said. “People see and hear all this stuff coming out of America and they see themselves as inadequate. So the message we see in Jamaican music, it’s about the cars and the guns and the money.
That’s a big turnaround from the message of “One Love.” “Something about Jamaica had that great sense of gratitude, of give thanks, of humility,” he added. “I’d much prefer that message than one of violence and vanity and bling-bling.”Kinsella and his mates have walked the line between that bygone era and remaining in the present. They’ve been successful in that; their four album since “Among Them” don’t sound retro, and with their consistently conscious messages, they fail to join the macho posturing of the modern reggae Kinsella derides. On their latest album, this year’s “Pressure Points,” John Brown’s Body stirs some electronic sounds neatly into the mix, and even alter the leadership a bit. Martin takes the driver’s seat, taking writing credit for most of the songs. Kinsella speaks in serious terms about music because he believes that music is power. He knows of how Bob Marley, by writing and singing some songs, got to the point where Jamaican politicians were fighting for his approval.”Music,” said Kinsella, “is the most sincere telling of the human condition. If there were life from beyond that came to visit us, I think what they’d be impressed by is not our weapons, but the music.” And he has an idea that reggae music might be the sound that makes the biggest impact. “This music is creation,” he said. “It’s the wind in the trees. It taps into the source.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com