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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?
"People used to pass through the bush and hear us singing," he goes on. "They would come over by the bush and they would form a little audience and listen to us, and at the end of each song they would clap us and cheer us and give us encouragement. They say to us, 'Why you guys don't try some recording that you can make some money and come out of the bush and live somewhere and have food and clothes and thing like that?' That's where it really started."
In 1975 the group cut its first single, "Why Worry," at Jamaica's mythical Channel One Studio. But after recording several more songs that they hoped to include on an album, they discovered that Channel One engineers had stripped their voices from the tracks and replaced them with singing by others. According to Apple, "We told them that we not gonna deal with it--that these our original songs and they can't use the songs to put other artists on. So we have them rub off the voice from the tracks, and we take back our sound and leave."
Disheartened but determined, the crooners eventually hooked up with producer Tommy Cowan of the Talent Corporation. Under his auspices, they created the inaugural Israel Vibration long-player, Same Song. Even though the recording was acclaimed in some quarters, it took four more years before the appearance of a followup, the seminal Unconquered People (issued on Bob Marley's Tuff Gong imprint). Despite this new affiliation, though, the musicians' lot had not improved much. "We was getting ripped off; we wasn't getting the money," Apple complains. "Cowan was making like megabucks because album was making a big hit in Europe. He make a lot of money and buy big house and car, and we still living in the bush."
After they left Cowan, the producer retaliated by releasing several unfinished tracks under the appropriate title Why You So Craven. He also used his muscle as an organizer of Sunsplash and other large festivals in an effort to ruin Israel Vibration. Soon, Apple and his friends found themselves persona non grata in their own homeland.
The group subsequently traveled to America, but because of the actions of a shady manager, they came away from their tour with only $300 and a guitar. Recollects Apple, "I said to my two brethren, 'Let us go to Bermuda, because we can't go back to Jamaica when we don't have nothing. Let's go to Bermuda and do some shows and make some money and come back into America and rent a big house where we each have a different section and start from there.'" But when the group tried to leave Bermuda, Apple discovered that his visa had expired. He remained in Bermuda, while Wiss and Skelly returned to America--but with no contacts and nowhere to stay, they soon ran short of cash and reunited with Apple.
A second visit to the U.S. did not reverse the act's fortunes. Things went so badly that Israel Vibration was widely believed to have disbanded, a rumor Apple dispels. "We branch off doing a 45 here and a 45 there trying to survive. But we never split up."
Of the various Vibrations, Apple had the most luck as a soloist. About the songs "Blue Jeans" and "Rock On," he says, "They did good, get a lot of airplay. I had the phone number of Dr. Dread [of Ras Records] in my pocket from a long time ago, so I let him know that I have some music to deal with, and he say I must come to Washington and check him."
A longtime Israel Vibration fan, Dread quickly signed the group to Ras. The result was 1988's Strength of My Life. "They reactions was great" to the platter, Apple asserts. "It was like a sudden shock to the world. The three of us come out again, and everybody glad."
Israel Vibration's career has been on the upswing ever since. The vocalists have produced eight albums in the intervening years, including 1995's stunning On the Rock and the new Free to Move. Apple is optimistic about the latest disc, but he says what makes him happiest is simply making music with his longtime friends from the Mona Polio Rehabilitation Center. "We always together. Every day, same way."
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