With album and song titles like Jerusalem, Elohim, “Yitzhak Rabin” and Masada, it’s clear that African reggae artist Alpha Blondy has got Israel on his mind. Known as the “Bob Marley of Africa,” the Ivory Coast native has been enamored with Israel since visiting the country for the first time in 1985.
“I was welcomed like an old friend – I got to visit Jerusalem and Masada, and it touched my heart,” said the 58-year-old African rasta from his home in Abidjan last week.
A staunch supporter of world unity, Blondy became one of reggae’s most prolific artists in the 1980s and 1990s with Jah-centered anthems promoting morality, love, peace and social consciousness. Appearing with his world class band Solar System, Blondy sings mostly in his native language of Dioula, but also in French, English and sometimes even in Arabic and Hebrew.
An album he released the same year as that visit to Israel was emphatically titled Apartheid is Nazism, but Blondy insisted that the subject was referring strictly to South Africa.
“I’ve never felt any apartheid in Israel,” he said. “I’m not a politician and I don’t let politics take over my impression of things I see. Politicians have their way of seeing things and me, as an artist and a citizen of the world, have my own vision.”
Blondy truly does feel like a citizen of the world. Born a member of the Jula tribe in Dimbokoro and named Seydou Kone, after his grandfather, he was raised by his grandmother but spent much of his later childhood in Liberia and in New York.
“I was lucky to be raised by my grandmother, she gave me lots of love and spiritual direction that has helped me all the way through my life,” he said.
Music also provided a direction for Blondy, first the African folklore music he was exposed to, then Western rock and soul, and finally reggae, especially the roots music of reggae pioneer Burning Spear.
“The first live concert I ever saw was Burning Spear in Central Park – I was captivated by his voice, which was similar to African singers from the villages I grew up near,” he said. “I was also moved by the emotion that carried in his voice. I identified with his Patois [Jamaican dialect] phrasing – even though it was in English it sounded to me like African dialect.”
For Blondy, African reggae is a natural blend, since according to him, the music originated there before being transported to Jamaica.
“Reggae originally came from Africa. Before they were Jamaicans, they were Africans,” he said. “We have a proverb – ‘A piece of wood in the water will never turn out to be a crocodile’ – which means that even though Africans left to go to the islands like Jamaica or the Caribbean, those guys remain African.
So for me, I chose reggae music because it was a part of my African culture.”
Blondy studied English at New York’s Hunter College, and began performing with bands outside in Central Park and in Harlem clubs. However, various scrapes with the law forced him to return to the Ivory Coast, where in 1982, he recorded his first album, Jah Glory, which featured a song about police harassment called “Brigadier Sabari” which became a symbol of civil disobedience in the Ivory Coast.
By 1984, his name was spreading across Europe, and his second album Cocody Rock was recorded in Jamaica with Bob Marley’s backup band. By the time his 1987 album Revolution was released, Blondy was considered one of reggae’s top attractions, and the spate of albums that followed in the subsequent years only added to his reputation.
A bout with depression and a stay in a psychiatric hospital curtailed Blondy’s career in 1993 and 1994, but he rebounded with the spiritual album Dieu and tracks like “Heal Me” which dealt with his illness and recovery. Celebrating 20 years as a recording artist in 2002, he released Merci, which was nominated for a Best Reggae Album Grammy. But despite the accolades, Blondy said his main focus was to bring people of different religions together via his music.
“It’s a difficult task, but one that needs to be attempted,” he said. “My vision is simple – religion divides people but God brings us together. So I have decided I don’t want to put any label on my faith. If people ask me which religion I am, I always answer ‘God.’”
Blondy, who will be headlining the Zion Reggae Fest which is taking place on August 28 in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park along with Jamaican artist Barrington Levy, and local hip hop-reggae band Hatikva 6 and Shabak Samech, said that Israel is among the places he receives the most inspiration.
He still fondly recalls during his last visit meeting Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, the daughter of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and receiving a personal tour of the Rabin Museum in Ramat Aviv. The visit ended up as the inspiration for the song which bears Rabin’s name.
“Singing is my way of encouraging peace, and of giving tribute to all the people who gave their lives in the name of peace – because peace is prime for me,” he said. “That’s the reason I wrote the song for Rabin, because he deserved it. At least he tried to bring peace.”
Blondy, who will be accompanied on his visit here not only by his band but by his wife and four of his children (including a 13- month-old boy), said that he’s looking forward to reintroducing himself to Israeli culture and hearing the Israeli version of reggae.
And of course, to get the outdoor audience in Sacher Park on their feet.
“My band and I are ready to give the very best of ourselves to Israel. We’re honored to have been invited to the festival, and we won’t disappoint. Shalom and l’hitraot.”