By: Eric Liebetrau
In 1966, Chicago steel worker Ben-Ammi Carter founded the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, an offshoot of the Black Hebrew groups that dated to the late 1800s. Emphasizing the foundations of Judaism, the group was powerfully influenced by the rebellious spirit of civil-rights agitators like Marcus Garvey. They also sported a top-notch gospel choir.
Three years later, after a brief period in Liberia, Carter and his followers settled in Dimona, Israel. From these followers emerged three spiritual and musical leaders - Thomas "Yehudah" Whitfield, John "Shevat" Boyd and Charles "Hezekiah" Blackwell - who would form the Soul Messengers, a forward-thinking group that blended Hebrew teachings with American soul, funk and gospel traditions.
The Soul Messengers continued to perform throughout the '70s and '80s, and Soul Messages From Dimona (Numero Group) includes selections recorded between '75 and '78, in addition to songs by Sons of the Kingdom and The Tonistics, many of whose members got their start with the Messengers. The bands often toured as a troupe, performing in traditional garb including dashikis and turbans.
The pulsing funk/soul hybrid "Burn Devil Burn" kicks off the compilation, illustrating the danceable rhythms and harmonized vocals that permeate the entire anthology. "Our Lord and Savior" is a reworked version of Steam's "Na Na Na (Kiss Him Goodbye)" with all Hebrew lyrics. The Tonistics join the party with "Holding On." Listeners will quickly recognize the resemblance to the Jackson 5; they're a kid group featuring Gavriel, known at the time as "the Hebrew Michael Jackson." Though certainly singable, the vocal harmonies aren't quite on par with the Jackson 5, but the beats and horns are tighter.
The slinky, reggaefied pace of "Daniel," a rewrite of the classic spiritual, is a refreshing change of pace, and it's followed by the smooth soul of the Sons of the Kingdom's "Hey There," a slyly sarcastic denunciation of racial stereotypes. "Equilibrium" is the requisite prideful call-out song, featuring the lyrics, "From northeast Africa, there's a special band…known by the name of the Soul Messengers." A short swinging psychedelic blues jam demonstrates the versatility of the band, which is also echoed in the high-octane jazz of "Prince of Zeal."
Despite the obvious religious leanings of the musicians, the message is rarely heavy-handed; "Modernization," which rails against the negative effects of industrial and technological development, is the main exception. Fortunately, the following two tracks - "Heaven of Heroes" and "Victory" - are a rousing return to form, very much in the jazz/funk vein of what Karl Denson and the Greyboy Allstars would eventually dub West Coast boogaloo.
Like the psychedelic and folk rock that emerged from San Francisco in the 1960s, the funk and soul sounds from Chicago in the late 1960s and early '70s had a wide-reaching influence, even traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to northeast Africa. Soul Messages From Dimona is a potent representation of that musical diaspora, a significant musical artifact that can't be replicated. It's also a reminder of why globally focused, deep-digging record labels like the Numero Group (who also put out the Eccentric Soul series, a series of rare disco tracks and more) - a set that includes Anti-, Six Degrees Records, David Byrne's Luaka Bop, among hundreds of others - are so important.
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