By Noah Hubbell
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Donald Kinsey is happy being a family man.
And what a family. Donald, a multifaceted, complex and unfathomably deep blues guitarist/vocalist, plays with his brothers, bassist Kenneth and drummer Ralph, in the Kinsey Report, among the finest modern blues trios. In addition, the bandmembers frequently provide the sonic backing for a man who epitomizes the blues: their father, Lester "Big Daddy" Kinsey. Donald credits Big Daddy with teaching him a respect for the music he makes so well. "This music is just a natural thing for us," he says. "My dad always used to tell us to drive with our music. So our music has always had a certain type of force to it. A lot of people call this force rock and roll. I don't really get hung up on the terminology, but other people do. The most important thing to us in playing music is that it has a feeling, and that it is something that we can really feel and get one hundred percent into."
Donald has taken this same approach throughout his career, bringing passion and authenticity to music he's made alongside artists as disparate as Albert King, Roy Buchanan, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. He even led his own forceful metal-rock band, White Lightning, during the Seventies, years before guitarist Vernon Reid formed the consciousness-raising Black Rock Coalition. The influence of the songs produced by White Lightning--whose label (Island Records) didn't want its members' faces on the cover of its only album for fear it would hurt sales--can be heard today in the sounds Reid churns out with Living Colour.
Despite a lack of support from the image-conscious record industry, whose minions have never determined where to place his music, Donald has always played what he's wanted. And miraculously, he hasn't lost either his creative spark or his determination to do things his way, no matter what obstacles seem to be blocking his path. For example, he refuses to quietly accept the pigeonholing of music through the use of words and labels. "It's another method of separation," he contends. "Anytime you sit up and categorize things and come up with names, it's just another form of separating things. And separation is a way of controlling.
"I see things going on in the music industry that make me say, `Lord, Lord, Lord have mercy,'" he continues. "I see groups that come out of nowhere, ones that have never been on the stage in their lives--and there's the record company putting tons of money into promoting them. Sure, companies can do whatever they want, but the thing that bothers me is that real music always seems to have to take a back seat. That really pisses me off. More power to anybody who can have success in this business the way it is today. But there are people out here really playing the music, and for them--for artists like that--they seem to always have to struggle and fight the industry for a fair chance."
Other fights can be even more violent, as Donald has seen firsthand. He was for a time a semipermanent member of the Wailers, perhaps the greatest group in the history of reggae, and while in Jamaica in December 1976 to perform with the band at a free outdoor concert sponsored by the Jamaican Ministry of Culture, he witnessed an attempt on Bob Marley's life. Donald, whose contributions to Marley can be heard on 1975's Rastaman Vibration and the following year's Babylon By Bus, has rarely spoken about the incident, which is documented in Timothy White's Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, but his memories of the events surrounding it remain vivid. He notes that he was immediately drawn to Marley and the Wailers, even though his blues background would seem to have little connection to reggae.
"When I met these guys, I felt right at home, because I could see where they came from--the struggle in which they lived their life," he reveals. "I could relate to that, knowing where my people came from down in Mississippi and the trials and tribulations they had to go through. Even here in Gary, Indiana [Donald's current home], this is not an easy place. So when I saw what they were writing and heard the music, I felt good to be a part of that."
About the assassination attempt, which involved armed gunmen leading an assault on Marley's home, Donald says, "I couldn't tell you in detail what exactly went on, but my gut feeling is that down there in Jamaica, we just got caught up in some people trying to connect the concert with politics. But we were blessed. Anytime you make it out alive when people have blocked the gates to your house and just start shooting innocent people, you've been blessed."
Marley was wounded in the assault, and Kinsey recalls that afterward the house "looked like a battlefield. I was the only person in the band who wasn't from Jamaica, and I had no idea what the hell was going on. But the real scary part of it was that the concert was two days later. Everybody had just kind of gone underground, and I didn't know where anyone was. I checked out of my hotel: I figured these people were out to get us all, so I went to stay with a friend.