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Reggae music has historically been sung by the disadvantaged, and although the members of John Brown's Body don't reflect the standard image of the oppressed or downtrodden, they have overcome a sizable obstacle: They're white and they're from Boston.
"It's definitely a handicap and a challenge," explains Kevin Kinsella, with a patience that suggests he's accustomed to the raised eyebrows that often appear when he proclaims himself a reggae singer. "But the music is still young. You don't have to be a black man from the Mississippi Delta to play the blues anymore, and you don't have to be German to play Wagner and Bach. Sometimes it takes time for music to be universally accepted."
John Brown's Body is certainly helping the process along. While there's no ducking race as a curiosity factor, the band's sound is its most interesting feature. Musically, the players mix themes of hope, praise and celebration with the smooth harmonies and bass-rooted, "conscious" roots that reflect their favored sound, that of the golden era of Seventies reggae. Their newest album, Among Them, proves them worthy successors of that legacy and is perhaps the most persuasive argument for the universal acceptance the group preaches.
Kinsella seems well-suited to his unlikely role as frontman, partially because his experience with reggae has been unusual from the outset. "I first discovered reggae while driving through Ireland with my dad when I was twelve years old," he announces. His father, a food-science professor then on sabbatical, was similarly captivated by the new music. The two immediately headed out to buy the album they'd heard snippets of on the car radio, which turned out to be the Bob Marley classic Legend. "I thought it was Christian funk music," Kinsella recalls. "I just recognized the lyrics from church, so to me it was like the Bible being sung."
When he returned home to Ithaca, New York, Kinsella formed a precursor to John Brown's Body and dubbed the group the Tribulations. He and original bandmate Josh Newton managed to play around town, even opening once for Toots and the Maytals. But things didn't get serious until 1989, when the members headed off to college in Boston. Newton enrolled in the prestigious Berklee School of Music and quickly recruited a full band.
"We were blessed to have such a crack group of musicians," Kinsella acknowledges. But the young virtuosos proved to be green when it came to Jamaican music. "The majority didn't know anything about reggae, so we literally taught them the ABCs. Of course, it was reggae through our eyes, and seeing that we weren't Jamaican, I think it lent a unique flavor to our music."
The group struggled through daily practice sessions to learn the new form, emerging with a melodic blend of reggae and rock. A high caliber of musicianship and an insistence on playing original music rather than relying on reggae standards eventually won the Tribulations strong local support. An impromptu tour convinced Newton to quit Berklee after three semesters. "We wanted to play South by Southwest in 1991, so we set up a tour on the way down and another on the way up," Kinsella recalls. "After that, we just kept going." The following year, the band entered the Yamaha Soundcheck talent contest and surprised even themselves by beating 4,000 other bands and making it to the finals.
"We got flown out to Los Angeles, performed for a TV program and won," Kinsella explains. It was an impressive feat for a white reggae band in the pre-Sublime era. "We were invited to continue and went over to Japan to compete internationally," he goes on. "But for whatever reason, we didn't land a record deal." Seemingly out of nowhere, a frustrated Kinsella stunned his bandmates by quitting the band shortly after the Japanese excursion. "I was young and felt we should have been further along," he recalls. "I thought we deserved more, I guess, and figured it would be better to go out gracefully. I didn't want to become a 'bar star,' so I just decided I was stepping out."
Kinsella also found himself increasingly drawn to the spiritual side of reggae, which had diminished in the Tribulations' sound as it developed a pop bend. "I left the group, stripped it down and started doing acoustic stuff," he remembers. At the time, Kinsella had no plans for his music beyond using it as an aid in his own spiritual fulfillment. But his sparse acoustic roots sound had an unexpected pied-piper effect on members of his former band. Drummer Tommy Benedett and sax player Lee Hamilton announced that they wanted to be a part of it, and three other Tribs soon returned. Now operating with a clearer sense of purpose, the band was soon rechristened John Brown's Body. "We got recentered spiritually and musically and knew what we wanted," Kinsella says of the change. "We just thought it would be better to come with a new name and come fresh."
The new name holds distinct meaning for the group. John Brown was a white abolitionist who in 1859 tried to arm a slave insurrection by raiding a federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He was caught and hanged, but the story of a white man fighting for everyone's freedom captured the essence of the band's new mission. So did the beliefs of reggae's earliest players, bands like the Gladiators and the Meditations and Culture. Kinsella and friends found a sense of spiritual purpose in this unlikely combination of cultural idols. Still, to hear him explain it, a white reggae band doesn't seem at all unusual. "Bob Marley didn't tour the world for the benefit of black Jamaicans only," Kinsella points out. "He spoke to all nations of the earth. I love the humility of roots reggae, that it comes from a small nation looking out on the world and speaks a universal truth. Every motion has a point of origin, and reggae's is Trenchtown, Jamaica. But that doesn't mean it has to end there. It's just the epicenter."