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New England Island Rhythms: An Interview with Kevin Kinsella of John Brown’s Body

By Brian Knight

The "roots reggae" tone is alive in well in New England. If the Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Steel Pulse are bands that you enjoy, then look no further that Boston’s John Brown’s Body for a complementing vibe. Formed in 1994 out the ashes of another reggae band known as the Tribulations, John Brown’s Body has spent the last five years nurturing their sound through constant touring and recording. The sextet consists of Tommy Benedetti(drums), David Gould (bass), Chris Welter (trumpet), Nate Richardson (guitar), Elliot Martin (vocals) and Kevin Kinsella(guitar, vocals).

After listening to their latest CD, This Day (Shanachie), and seeing them live in concert, I was pleasantly surprised by John Brown’s Body. I guess I have seen too much "bad reggae" in the last ten years – too many repetition, ertatz lryicism and spiritual dislocation. All of these unforunate preconseption were immedialtlt thrown to the side when I heard the excellent musicianship, talented songwriting and passionate vocals of John Brown’s Body. I heard six musicans who were zealous about their playing- they put every ounce of energy and skill into their performance. The fruits of their efforts is an album and live show that is full of energy and spirit. As a result, I was reintroduced to the wonderful world of reggae music.

While embarking on their new tour, the Vermont Review spoke to band front man Kevin Kinsella, who is the band’s primary singer and songwriter. Through our discussion, Kinsella, provided a little bit about the history of reggae music and the development of what we know today as John Brown’s Body.

VR: First of all, how do you define "roots style reggae"?

KK: That’s true. How do you? That is interesting. Well, how do you define reggae? That would be better question to talk about.

VR: Well, do you want to take a stab at either?

KK: OK. Roots reggae. Roots also means culture. Roots reggae is reggae music not really intended for pop. Usually, roots reggae music is almost a cross between the country music of Jamaica and the church music of Jamaica, which are one in the same. They go hand in hand. Their lyrical subject matter is about surviving day to day in a positive way. The one artist who manage to maintain the roots reggae aspect but also reached worldwide international rock audience was of course Bob Marley. Somehow he has some magical force where he could retain the roots quality and "cross over" and reach multitudes of people from all different parts of the world. But when I say "roots reggae", I think of artists like Burning Spear, the Gladiators, Culture and Itals -artists who are only primarily known in Jamaica. When I say roots "reggae music" I also mean old school reggae. When certain people say reggae music today, they might be talking about what we call raga music, which is digital reggae. Synthesizers playing reggae. When I say "roots reggae", I mean all organic instrumentation.

VR: How does this all relate to Dub music?

KK: Dub music was initially done when reggae music in Jamaica was recorded on two tracks. The band would play on one tracks and the vocalist/horn player would lay their part on the remaining track. When the Jamaican were putting out the 45s singles on vinyl, they would run it without the voice. They would sometimes soup it up by pulling different aspects out of the music sonically. That was beginning of dub, or version – meaning no voice. People love dub and it has always been an integral part of reggae music. They have started to don’t more with on multitracking where you could accent different instruments and pull in and out the drums to get different highs and lows. Dub music, as we know it, spawned the 12-inch albums, which helped spawn drum & bass music and techno music. You can’t deny the impact of Jamaican music on Western popular music in the last 40 years. It is pretty much cited in several sources that it is the root of rap music, disco music, and drum & bass music.

VR: You were mentioning some cross over musicians. Could you tell me some?

KK: Crossover is not a bad word, but a group like Third World immediately comes to mind. They have a sound together in such way that reggae is played for popular appeal and dance. Which is fine. God’s intention with music was to get people to dance and have some fun. It is a form of entertainment.

VR: How long has your form of entertainment been together for?

KK: A lot of us are alumni of this band called the Tribulations, which started in 1987. We worked together for seven years until 1994. That band separated and went two different ways. Half us kept going and in 1995, formed John Brown’s Body, which is still kicking it today. The some of the other alumni play in this studio band called Mang Dub – strictly a recording group. Great reggae music. Great dark eerie psychedelic music. We are all still friends and alumni and brothers.

VR: Do you ever get together to play?

KK: We played a couple of live shows when they were kicking it life. Also, we are signed to Shanachie Records, but we also maintain our own independent label called Hightown Records. And we distribute them.

VR: You were in the Tribulations in 1987. How old were you then?

KK: I was 15 years old. I got my musical calling from when I was living in Ireland. That is when I got the word that I was going to play music. Not that I knew at the time, but that is definitely where I got the calling. I was living over in Ireland for some time because my father is from there. (Bob Marley’s)Legend had been released and I heard that song "One Love (People Get Ready)" and really just moved me so deep. It stayed with me. I came back to America and bought his records. I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought it was Christian funk music. I put the record down and I thought it sounded like a Christian Rick James. I kept coming back to it though. In my hometown of Ithaca, New York, where I was born and grown, there was a great reggae show every Thursday. There was a club owner in town who actively brought in the legends of reggae music. I used to go down when I was 15 or 14 years old and see groups like the Meditations and Gladiators……..the Itals………Culture. That fostered such a deep reverence of love for reggae music and the message of righteousness. I saw these people as prophets.

VR:: With the Irish experience, was there ever a potential to go the way of Irish music?

KK: It’s in me; but no, not really – I have been drawn too closely to it. Interestingly enough.

VR: A great part of the John Brown’s Body sound is the horn section. Is that a traditional component of "roots reggae"?

KK: Oh yeah. The beginning out of Jamaican music began right of "manto music" which is the Jamaican’s country music or folk music. There is music called Ska music, which is a mixture of jazz and race records from America and the "mento" sound of Jamaica. Jazz is the foundation of Jamaican music. What is all the bands played in the tourist hotels back in the 1940s and 1950s. They were great jazz musicians. Out of that, they made their own music form called Ska. One of the most famous exponents of that were the Skatalites. They were hugely accomplished jazz musicians. Jazz is the root. So if the jazz is there, the horn will be there too.

VR: It seams that a lot of the music of the Caribbean found its point of entry to America in New Orleans. Is that true for reggae and Ska?

KK: That is what’s interesting. Reggae is one of the greatest melting pots of music on this planet. A lot of people say "Did it go from Jamaica to New Orleans? Or from New Orleans to Jamaica?" I say it seems like it was an equal two way street. Jamaica is so interesting because when you study music of the Western world, you have American music, which is almost two steps removed from Africa. Whereas Jamaican music is almost right in between Africa and America. It draws equally from both sources. It is interesting to note that slaves were banned from having drums in America because it was a form of communication. The drum was retained longer in the Caribbean than in America.

VR: Reggae obviously finds quite a bit of its roots in spirituality. Do you find spirituality when you play?

KK: Definitely. Music is the most divine thing. What is does for people is great to be part of. It is great to see. It is great to feel it for yourself. Music should be free and it is free really.

VR: Your band is named after a abolitionist who was hung for treason in 1859. Is there a political mission with your music?

KK: This band does not come with a set political agenda nor a spiritual agenda. It is not our mission to evangelize people. They can seek for themselves. We do not really draw on the political charge of what John Brown’s Body means. John Brown was a freedom fighter and a guerilla but he was also a man. Was he all sound in the mind or not? So we do not really subscribe to proclaim that he was saviour person but rather a historical figure to be recalled and pondered. Applied to today’s situation, the state is not so different in many ways. We would like to think that the Civil War is ancient history, but really it was only 150 years ago. We are still feeling the repercussions. Abraham Lincoln said of slavery: "we are going to feel this for seven generations". So here we are at seven generations.

VR: What do you think of your newest album, Among Them?

KK: I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I enjoyed it when I heard it the last time. I was proud – definitely pleased.

VR: Any significant developments since your debut album All Time?

KK: This record was made by a touring band whereas the first records, we were getting together once week to play a gig or rehearse. All Time was done in hopes of cataloging our music but the way that is made and the response was great, it led us to make more records.

VR: I have heard that reggae is difficult to play.

KK: It is. It is deceiving because you think it is simple but within its simplicity you can go very deep with it. If you are going to play reggae, it has to be tough. There is no middle ground.

Check out more of John Brown’s Body at www.uprise.com/JBB.