I’m talking with one of the most respected reggae artists alive … and I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Between Israel Vibration vocalist Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin’s thick Jamaican accent, a fuzzy cell phone reception, and the din of a lively entourage in the background, what we’re getting here does not resemble “information” in the conventional sense. As far as sonic Rorschach tests go, though, it’s first-rate stuff.
“If you don’t see your mom home, then that rag will go and chew your ear,” Wiss seems to be saying. “That rag know rhythm of life and hit back on that side where our plants kill Aunt Lucifer.”
Even if his words aren’t all making it over the net, however, there’s no mistaking this man’s positivity. Wiss is sending good vibrations through GT’s phone today, and his enthusiasm is downright contagious. Giving 100 percent of himself to the conversation, the 53-year-old musician is closing most of his answers to our questions with a heartfelt “Yeah, mon,” conjuring images of a hip preacher ending one prayer after another with a reverent “amen.”
Like a flashlight beam in a blizzard, a cluster of completely intelligible dialogue unexpectedly bursts through the static. “Even before we started to use real live instruments, we knew we had something special,” Wiss is explaining. “We used to sit around and sing! Sing! Sing! Sing! Sing and harmonize, sing for the breeze, sing for the birds, sing for the animals, sing for the mango tree. Yeah, mon!”
For those not familiar with Israel Vibration’s compelling back story, Wiss is recalling the period of time in the late ’70s when he and his bandmates—Cecil “Skelly” Spence and the now-departed Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig—went homeless after being kicked out of Kingston’s Mona Rehabilitation Center, a medical facility where all three musicians were being treated for polio, which has left the band members permanently paralyzed. As Wiss tells it, the future members of Israel Vibration were expelled from the Mona Center for wearing their hair in dreadlocks in accordance with their Rastafarian convictions. “They didn’t like the ’airstyle at all,” he says. “They said it was a bad influence for kids. They try to change you, try to make you who they want you to be, yunno? But I look at it more like, as you grow, then your true identity will take root, yunno? Yeah, mon!”
And take root it did. Following their dismissal from the center, Wiss, Apple and Skelly found themselves sleeping in a field on beds of cardboard … or, as Wiss more poetically puts it, living “out there where the stars are your roof.” He adds that although he had the option of staying at his mom’s house after being expelled from the center, some inner voice was urging him to live out in the great outdoors instead. “Most people who knew us, they were saying, ‘You guys are bananas, man! You guys are nuts!’ But for us, it was something that them cannot see.”
Wiss’ intuition proved correct. While camping out together, the three musicians forged a distinct style of songwriting and harmonizing that would eventually grab the attention of the Kingston Rastafarian group Twelve Tribes of Israel, which financed Israel Vibration’s first single, 1976’s “Don’t Worry.” That single would catch many listeners by surprise (including Bob Marley, who would later name Israel Vibration as his favorite group), igniting an interest in the group that has allowed its members to record more than 20 albums and inspire countless audiences with their legendarily uplifting live shows, performed entirely on crutches by Wiss and Skelly.
As those in attendance at Israel Vibration’s Catalyst appearance this Sunday will see, the authentically life-affirming tone of Israel Vibration’s performances seems to come not in spite of the adversity the group’s members have endured, but rather as a direct extension of it. This passion extends beyond the music, shining through every syllable Wiss speaks as he offers a parting message to GT’s readers: “The older ones should make sure that the younger ones stay on track, man. I mean, one each can teach another. A young person can teach an older person, yunno? It’s all about being good, man. This creation was made from a good source, so if we can leave it good, well, let’s keep it good, man, because each individual was created by the same almighty Father. Yes, I!”