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Israel Vibration, reggae, disability, polio, alla zoppa

[cross-posted from the Reggae Research Network website]

I thought I should add to the network a little of the research on reggae music that I have done. In the 2013 book Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability, I explored the relation between polio and pop music, which includes the reggae vocal trio Israel Vibration. While in the network we have talked a lot about reggae bass, and felt it through sound systems, this work gave me a chance to think about the other end of the register, as sounded by the offbeat guitar / keys chopped chords that do so much to define the music too.

From Shakin’ All Over:

… In the case of reggae group Israel Vibration, the fact of institutionalisation was formative for the group: separation from the majority effected a stronger minority identity, since the three original members met and began to sing with each other while they were long-term residents at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre, near Kingston, Jamaica.  The three young men had several points in common: a passion for the close harmony reggae singing popular at the time, an interest in Rastafarianism, and the experiences of polio and institutionalisation. Their first public performance was at the Theological College next door to the centre in 1974. When they left the centre, some other Rastafarians rejected them, seeing their impairments as a punitive sign from God.

Song titles like ‘Tippy tippy toes’ and ‘Level every angle’ emphasise the visual and sonic narrative of disability. It is not difficult to hear the latter as extending the fairly standard post-civil rights and post-Bob Marley rhetoric of one love reggae into a kind of disability rights context. So ‘Level every angle’ becomes at least in part Israel Vibration’s plea for public spaces and design to consider the access requirements of mobility-restricted people, as they sing:

‘Some people are blessed while others are cursed… / From every angle things should be level / And everything would be all right.’

When performing live onstage the singers are able to stand and move around by use of their crutches, while on the cover photography of their 2002 album Fighting Soldiers, they pose with their walking aids in a rundown street. In one image, they hold the metal crutches like rifles and point them at the viewer—a mix of gangster and ‘fighting’ polio survivor. Occasionally Israel Vibration sing songs that resonate with their experience of impairment, while even the reggae accompaniment, with its characteristic and insistent offbeat rhythm and chords, seems suddenly more fitting for musicians with mobility difficulties, where a lilt is no longer so far removed from a limp.

Indeed Israel Vibration invite us to consider reggae music per se as a music of disability, precisely because of its alla zoppa characteristics. Alla zoppa: a musical term for ‘uneven rhythms in a melody’, meaning ‘“limping” or “halting” in Italian … this rhythmic figure is part of the instrumental tradition of representing physical impairments’ (Lerner). In this context, alla zoppa makes us reconsider reggae’s characteristic offbeat rhythm guitar and keyboard, and even more so reggae’s sometimes out-of-time echo dub practices, as less lilt, more stilt. Here may be the appropriate moment to suggest that there is a potentially related observation to be made about tonal ‘imbalance’ and disability too: Joseph N. Straus argues that ‘[i]mbalance and unrest are desirable aesthetically. They propel the piece forward and provide an essential contrast with the normatively balanced and restful beginning and ending’.

The terrific video below shows Israel Vibration performing their 1995 song ‘Rude boy shufflin’.’ It’s all about the male body, and how it moves in the street, contrasted between the rude boy, all the TAB dancers, the youngster skipping, and the band’s movements. Wonderful polio dancing (pun!) throughout and especially from 3.42. A classic of late reggae. One of the 10m+ viewers left this comment on Youtube: ‘Only a Jamaican can dance with crutches and make it look good’. I don’t know about that, but it made me smile. You know, and discuss.