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It's not uncommon to hear stories of a reggae star's rise from the ghettos of Jamaica to international fame. But few performers have endured as much or struggled as hard as the harmony trio Israel Vibration, whose members are all survivors of polio.
Committed to the Mona Polio Rehabilitation Center at age three, Apple stood even less of a chance than most of his fellow patients. "I would just sit down and sing every day," he recalls, "because I never have anything else to do." Skelly and Wiss, who also became Mona residents as youngsters, were in the same situation, and it drew the threesome together. Their friendship solidified amid the harshness of their lives.
Before long, Apple was labeled a troublemaker. "They say me was a bad boy because me always stand up for the rights of everybody and defend the rights and justice of everyone," he states. "They say that me have strong influence over the rest of them youths. Not easy there--me pass through three different institutions, and in the three of them me was like a vice for everyone, always turning up to defend the rights of people. So they called me off as a bad kid."
Though he had yet to discover Rastafarianism, Apple was already displaying an unconscious sympathy for the tenets that make up Rasta beliefs--and that didn't go over well with the Mona staff. After several years there, he was transferred to a Salvation Army home and later to the Alpha Boys School. "It's like a prison camp," he says about the last operation. "They beat me up there and locked me up in a room with iron bars. One day me just run out--me just break through the fence and run away."
With nowhere else to go, Apple, fourteen, wound up on the streets. "I sleep in the bush, or I sleep in old building, in old car or upon the roadside," he remembers. Though he was practically starving, he refused to steal, preferring instead to earn pocket change via odd jobs such as helping people carry bags of groceries to their cars. "I used to clean people's car glass and things," he adds, "and used to wash cars with my little bucket, an empty paint can. That go on for quite a while."
During this time period, Apple met an old man named Baba Douse, who taught him about Rastafari. "Me and him used to go over to this little airstrip with the small planes," Apple divulges. "And every Sunday me and him go there and sit up in an almond tree and him just read the Bible to me and explain to me certain things. Him show me what Selassie mean and everything and teach me the story of the Lion of David and King Solomon.
"So I start to learn these things from the Bible," he continues, "because I used to do a lot of reading when I was in the bush--used to do 'nuff, 'nuff, 'nuff reading and that's how come I learn a lot of things. I used to get visions in the bush when I was sleeping. This is before I start the music. I used to envision myself performing on stage in front of millions of people. I used to get all kinds of visions, great visions, and see things in my sleep before them happen."
Apple returned to Mona periodically to visit Skelly and to ask for help. "But them tell me them not gonna help me unless me trim off me beard and me locks and stop smoke herb and talk about dem Rasta," he says. The employees there had reason to be afraid of Apple's influence; soon, he'd introduced the other children to Rastafari. When many of them converted, Apple took the heat. "I was the first one that rise up in there as a Rastafarian. So they paste up fliers all over the institution and the compound stating that no one must be seen conversing with me. They threaten everyone. Anyone who's found associating with me, they would ban them off the basketball team and take away them job."
Most of Apple's old friends followed orders and stayed away from him. But Skelly refused--and was kicked off the Jamaican National Wheelchair Basketball Team for his decision. Wiss, too, suffered because of his Rasta affiliation. He lost his job as a tailor and was banished from the rehab center, as were Apple and Skelly.
"When they take away Wiss and Skelly's chances, Skelly end up with one of his aunties, and Wiss end up in the bush with me," Apple reveals. "Every day we used to meet together and go off in the bush and sit together. I used to read the Bible, and we used to talk about the Bible a lot and converse about the things we reading."
Around this time, the young men began developing the lovely three-part harmonies that would later distinguish Israel Vibration. "We used to just sit there and sing--sing on hungry belly," Apple says. "They not 'nuff food or nothing, so we just sing, sing, sing. And we never think about recording or anything. It just spiritual vibes, you know?