VIBRATION KINGS: African hardcore
All in all I spent four and a half months in Ghana, W. Africa. It was a short trip that would influence a lifetime. This was in the spring of 2003. September 11 had come and changed the world. Reggae has spoken to me as a vehicle for the voice of truth. I found myself far away from my home piecing together the ingredients of what would become the reality I know today.
I felt very comfortable in Ghana. The respect that people show for each other in that country I had rarely come across (or at least noticed) in the US. I am not exaggerating or giving more credit than is due when I emphatically state that on my visit to Ghana I experienced the greatest abundance of sweet people in all of my days.
Ghanaians are an incredibly compassionate and understanding community. I couldn’t have felt more different coming from Rochester NY and they would insist that we were connected closely in the human family. I was always being looked after, listened to, and treated as an equal. My fascination with reggae music as an aesthetic and an ethos was matched by most people that I met. It was common opinion that Bob Marley had done some of the greatest spiritual work in the past several thousand years. He was spoken of being in company with such famed personalities as Jesus, and Mohammed, two figures of history taken extremely seriously in that part of the world. Jesus had delivered the gospel, Mohammed the Quran, and Bob Marley came with the reggae music.
I always like to point out that Bob Marley aided in spreading the music of reggae and therefore the ethos of Rastafari to many more people at a much faster rate than Jesus, Mohammed, or any other said prophet who came before him. It is because of this “miracle” that I see him completely worthy of the company he keeps in the minds of the many Ghanaians I spoke with about reggae.
I am fascinated by the power of combination. Different social, political, and technological elements working together to produce a world change in understanding. Yes, Bob Marley was a musical genius who had visions of social compassion, but he was living in a time that was seeing the beginnings of a greater connected world. A world where you could cry out and someone on the other side would hear you. Recording technology had developed and was available in third world states like Jamaica. It is rumored that between 1969-79 more reggae music was recorded than had ever been recorded in a single genre in the history of recorded music. Time, music, and messages were being captured, packaged, and sold.
Capitalism had created markets that encouraged the creation of musical albums and the infrastructure of record companies and pop marketing. Global politics had inspired those disenfranchised by the political economic practices of colonialism to pick up the drums, bass, guitar and microphone and spread the message of how hard it really was to live reasonably in this growing stew of humanity.
In fact, reggae music was proliferated by the greed of record companies who wanted to pick up the pocket money of the well-fed, rebellious, and mostly white youth who were ripe to purchase a packaged revolution. This was the very reason that island records signed Bob Marley and the Wailers.
I could never believe that they were thinking too much about selling records in Africa, or to the African diaspora. Perhaps they underestimated the power of duplication, repackaging, and musical piracy. Perhaps that was not a concern for them. I believe that reggae’s instant global popularity was a shock to everyone involved. I do not believe that those interested in profiting from reggae record sales gave too much heed to the powerful identity politics embedded in reggae music. Through reggae, Rastafarianism pollinates an empowering presence of global consciousness to a world of people who are wondering why and when it got so rough. This music delivers the message to so many that cannot afford it. It is an unintended consequence of the capitalist rollout plan.
I do believe that Chris Blackwell of island records loves music. I also think it goes without saying that his instincts were correct in his assumption that the Wailers would sell lots of records. I think as a Jamaican he was proud to have been the white guy who discovered and gave a platform to these disenfranchised Jamaicans. Much lore and drama surrounds his relationship to the great reggae personalities who played the music. This is all part of the murky mystic surrounding the reggae aesthetic. 20th century ghost stories for the books. Music is modern magic. So many stories seem to imply that there is a price to pay when you deal in it. Be conscious. Spread love.
I began writing this post because I wanted to discuss a band that you have never heard of. I am not sure if they still exist. All of the past had to unfold for me to enjoy the experience I had seeing the VIBRATION KINGS at Akuma Village in Accra Ghana in April 2003. African Kingdoms, Slavery, Emancipation, disenfranchisement, colonialism, neocolonialism, WWI, WWII, Christopher Columbus, Jamaica, Jamaican independence, Selassie, Rastafari, The Skatalites, Bob Marley, the Wailers, Island Records, etc. While I cannot say that the pain and suffering of others would ever be worth my musical revelations, I must acknowledge that the music is a rare positive outcome of a supremely negative history. Heavy music comes from Africa. Heavy music that is, has always been in Africa and will always be played. Reggae and hardcore live in the same house in my head. I realized this watching this group VIBRATION KINGS.
When I was eleven I started listening to Rage Against The Machine and I got vexed. I remember my 16 year old camp counselor showing me “Killing In The Name.” He kept saying “these guys are so pissed!”
I said fuck this American social complex. Fuck these attempted truths delivered out of context. I made myself a promise never to give in and to focus on living. It inspired me to be political and to question everything. I am sure that the aggression of the music combined with the developing teenage angst often felt by suburban youths were blending into a unique rush of serotonin that I had previously been unfamiliar with. This is not unique. If you know a young suburban man who grew up in the late 20th century, they probably have a soft spot for metal.
So when I was thirteen I was playing in my own heavy music band. We played hardcore. Hardcore was cooler to me than metal. The lyrics were honest and about resisting against the system. They were about perseverance. It had been bred out of punk rock which had been bred out of reggae and had made itself distinct from other heavy sounds that could be mistakenly connected to hair metal without a message. Hardcore music was all about a message and a groove. It was conscious. Heavy rhythms. Polyrhythmic relationships within the music. Driving melodies with deep drum sounds. Bells. Stops. Drops. Cuts to halftime. Double time. Bells, whistles, and plenty of room for aggressive showmanship. It is a very exciting genre.
Rochester was the place to be. In between Buffalo (home of Snapcase) and Syracuse (Earth Crisis) and home to Lethargy (foundation of Grammy winning Mastodon). I was seeing some of the best shows of the era in small town park clubhouses and sunday afternoon non-alcohol serving matinee shows at local clubs. These shows usually involved a packed room of young aggressive men, some young girls, and lots of collective freak outs of joy in praise to the music Gods that would stand before us rocking the room.
Often the sound systems were carted in by the bands to these incredibly small spaces. It was SO loud. You were literally swimming in sound. There were moshpits. There were never fights. There was always camaraderie. I saw my first Che Guevara t-shirt, had my first encounters with the fun police, and smoked my first hit of purple haze in these conditions. Despite what it sounds, this was a very healthy adolescence for me. It provided a community of nice, interested, and caring people that I shared developing ideologies with. I loved it. I lived for it.
In Ghana I did research on Reggae, Rastafarianism, and Pan-African politics. Throughout my research I stayed at a guest house called Akuma Village located near the arts center of Accra, Ghana. This area was a known squatting spot for local rastas. It was a good place to have conversations about the topics I was interested in with the folks who were excited to talk to me about it.
One night, I saw a familiar scene from back home. I saw a group of young men carting huge speakers into the courtyard of the guest house. Gigantic sub woofers of the likes that I had never seen. I could recall that many times traveling around Ghana I had seen young kids building massive speakers on the streets. I never thought too much about how cool that was. However, I soon realized that this was how sound systems were created. These were not JBL, Sony, or any brand name speakers you have heard of. In the third world you build your own. These were custom jobs. Made to handle heavy amounts of bass. To this day, I never again have come in contact with such sonic power.
The guys bringing in the speakers were in a band. The band was the VIBRATION KINGS. I recognized that the singer was a guy I had met from Barbados who had repatriated to Ghana. The set up continued. A small sound check was had. A DJ began spinning some of the best reggae music I have ever heard. He was toasting over riddims and dubbing himself out with reverb from the small analog soundboard he had. The reggae tuesday concert had begun.
No band though. It seemed like this sound system had been set up for a band but no band came. The stage was abandoned. The crowd was forming and I retreated to the outside of my room where I sat outside in a chair and waxed philosophically with a “Rasta” character I had met named Golden Teeth. He was a great guy to talk to. We disagreed on a number of things such as gay rights, drum machines, and cocaine sales. His ability to be a nice guy and listen to my side of the story warmed my heart and I appreciated our friendship. We smoked a joint and gave thanks.
Not a moment later, two armed military guards approached us. I snuffed the joint in my hand tightly. In broken english, the soldier said to me:
“open your hand”
“I don’t have anything”
“you have something, we see it, open your hand”
“sir, honestly I don’t mean any disrespect, I have nothing”
He then forced my hand open to reveal the very small, crushed roach.
“you think that you can come to our country and disrespect us?”
“Absolutely not Sir, I meant absolutely no disrespect”
“well that will be determined by a judge”
“Are you serious? Is that necessary? I had no idea?”
“you had no idea smoking Marijuana is illegal in Ghana? Is it illegal in your country? It is illegal everywhere. You are coming with us. You are going to jail.”
The two guards started to force me out of my seat. My other American friend stared pleading with them. “Guys, how can we take care of this, what do we need to give you?” They told us we could not bribe them. My life started flashing before my eyes of everything anybody had ever told me about judgment in a foreign country. My lack of use of it and the judgement that might be delivered to me as a result. Would I be sent home? Would I actually be stuck in a Ghana prison? What would my parents say? I had been warned by the international school that this was a zero tolerance situation. All of this happened in about thirty seconds and I was scared.
Golden Teeth shot up from his chair. He started yelling at the two military guards like children. I thought he was going to strike them. He spoke very fast in Twi, the language of the Ashanti people of Ghana. They seemed to be listening. The guards smiled. They let go of my hands. Golden Teeth explained that these men had absolutely no authority to take me anywhere. I was a guest of the guesthouse. They had been hired as security for reggae tuesdays, an event that happened each week at Akuma village and they are specifically not supposed to bother patrons. They know this and they know I don’t know it. They are poor. They are paid poorly. This is how they can get a beer. So Golden Teeth said if I offer to buy them a beer each, they will “let me go.”
“Hey guys, you want a beer?”
All smiles from the military.
Informing me of the beer of their choice, a Ghanaian lager called STAR, I quickly scurried over to the bar, paid about $1.50 in cedi’s, the Ghanaian currency and brought the guards some nice cold ones. They smiled. We clinked our bottles, and drank. I would have given them EVERYTHING. It put into perspective many things. I was grateful to Golden Teeth for standing up for me. I felt bad for the guards for being so desperate that they had to pick on me. I felt both lucky and troubled to be a respected patron. I was very shook up.
It was like a bomb went off. Immediately after the scare, the bass player plugged into the massive, custom sound system. A full band stepped on stage and played one of the greatest, heaviest, high energy shows that I have ever seen in my life. It was non-stop. Drum drops, bass stops, cut outs, transitions, rewinds, crowd interaction, calls, responses and insane shredding guitar solos. A massive group of young people jumping up and down to a blend of aggressive dancehall and roots music. I knew this energy. I was raised at parties like these. They were the hardcore shows from America. Except we were in Africa, with the Ghanaian rebel youth. We were at a party. We were avoiding the cops. We were searching for the truth. We were swimming in the power of the sound system. The grooves had the same impact as all of the hardcore bands I had seen. The music was different but the energy was the same. These kids were pissed, and they wanted to celebrate together and get it all out. A notable difference musically, was the level and respect given to the bass frequency.
I never saw the band again. I have looked for them over the years but I never found them. Writing this blog I looked them up again. Despite its many evils, Facebook certainly has the power to connect. As a political dissident and music worshipper, I am appreciative of this ability Facebook has brought me. VIBRATION KINGS have a page. They have 19 likes. Shit ain’t right. I have yet to find any music.
I have heard from friends of friends that certain players of the band VIBRATION KINGS are quite successful in Europe. This is a video of them I think. Their description does state “This is the Best Reggae Band Ever to come out of Ghana and West Africa.” Taking it back to the one night I ever saw them, I would happily agree.
Everything originates in Africa. The hardcore music I loved didn’t grab me like reggae eventually would. I still love it, but I don’t travel around with my best friends having revelation after revelation because I play hardcore. I play reggae. That is because of the bass. Bass frequency really brings things to another level. Reggae celebrates this power. Swimming in the bass is something that everyone should experience. Custom African speakers make this a greater possibility, but you can find it outside of the continent. Special shout outs to my boys Dub Trio for understanding this. We invited them to Rochester in 2005 to open for PANDA! We had purchased our first 18″ subwoofer for the show. The bass player’s wife ran sound. Tenants three floors above the club moved out and we were never allowed to have shows there again. The blend is real and powerful. RESPECT