The latest Numero Group import is probably its most conceptually cohesive album to date. And it sounds great too.
"Our success educationally, industrially and politically is based upon the protection of a nation founded by ourselves. And the nation can be nowhere else but in Africa."
-- Marcus Garvey
Or maybe Israel?
While Marcus Garvey voiced a Black Nationalist movement in the 1920s, his words carried on for decades, inspiring various communities like the Nation of Islam and the Rastafari, who even view him as a prophet. The Black Hebrew Israelites were equally influenced by Garvey's doctrine of purity and redemption, but in place of Liberia, their holy destination was Israel. In 1966, Ben Ammi Carter accumulated hundreds of followers from Chicago and Detroit suburbs, preaching their linkage to Judah and the Ten Lost Tribes. Among Carter's followers were some supremely skilled musicians, including Charles Blackwell and Thomas Whitfield who would later help form the Soul Messengers. The road from Chicago to Dimona is a long one, and to reveal the journey would take too much time and ruin part of the fun of unearthing the story yourself. It's enough to say that the tumultuous voyage eventually ended in the desert city, just west of the Dead Sea. As Numero Group describes it, this record is yet "...another stop on the soul diaspora tour." But it might be more accurate to call this an otherworldly musical revelation. The dance floor-filling bass lines, spiritual grooves, and Jackson 5 family chants combine for a sonic journey that's as adventurous and fascinating as Carter's pilgrimage itself.
Soul Messages From Dimona stands out as one of the most conceptually cohesive compilations in the Numero Group catalogue. Certainly this can be attributed to the esoteric nature of the recordings. Then again it wouldn't be Numero Group if it wasn't esoteric. But it's also displayed in other ways. The 16 songs on the album are divided among only four bands with the bulk of the selections coming from the Chicago-based Soul Messengers. There are no brief, minute-long outtakes or rehearsals that often fill up Eccentric Soul track lists. Instead, the tracks are fully fleshed-out with lyrical content that oscillates between general messages of salvation and deliverance, to more specific references to Judaic principles and history.
Anyone familiar with the label's output will recognize the thick slices of funk, cool jazz, and soulful harmonies that make up Soul Messages. But this, more than any other album, seems to encompass all of the flavors and genres of Numero Group's far-reaching discography. The Spirit of Israel provides a slightly psychedelic rendition of the spiritual "Daniel" that's full of background gospel response. "Hey There," by the Sons of the Kingdom, unwinds with an especially "soft jazz" horn refrain before it picks up cadence and develops into a full-bodied mesh of layered harmonies. The Sons' second track on the compilation is a rather clunky, paranoia-filled future jam. The band pleads and wails that modernization will lead to some kind of apocalypse.
One of the most interesting features here is recognizing the different styles adopted by these artists. For instance, the Tonistics' first entry "Holding On" is righteously funky and chock full of teenage spunk. But on "Dimona (Spiritual Capital of the World)" the boys sound more collective and free to linger on harmonies. And certainly this penchant for mixing it up is apparent on the hefty contributions from the Soul Messengers. They switch from freak-soul instrumentals to Hebrew croons to straight jazz. With all of these bands, the unexpected twists in sound are almost always a positive.
There is a noticeable innocence in the words of the Spirit of Israel's second contribution. "A Place to Be" begins with a flock of female singers chanting, "It's a place that's free and easy / It's a world of love and peace." The tone is joyous and carefree, and of course, painfully ironic in light of the Middle East's sociopolitical climate over the past decades. Then the lead singer enters with equally optimistic aspirations: "I just want to live in Israel. Live a life of purity. Away from the wild and wicked world, teach my children how to be free." The song is gorgeously simple with only a light guitar strum providing the background instrumentation. But the way it speaks to the hopefulness and values of the Black Hebrew Israelites is no small measure.
At the time of this music's production, Carter and his Black Hebrew followers were charging toward Israel without reservations. It was the revered holy land, free of the racial struggles and oppression that had afflicted the black American community for so long. The image of Dimona today, as a battered textile industry and placement ground for those Jews that Israel doesn't quite know what to do with, well, that image doesn't matter. Soul Messages is an incredible historical document. It's an exploration of a very specific musical niche that, like all great albums, sounds utterly familiar, as if we've been listening to it for years and years.