Tuesday, March 6, 2012

That Every Mouth Can Be Fed: Remembering the Extraordinary Desmond Dekker

By Patrick J. Walsh
Eating. Not one of the ‘usual’ places, but an okay option for a hot meal on a cold night.

The food was good. It served well as the catalyst for the larger experience of sharing a meal — the sharing being the more important part, providing the context and meaning, while the food itself provided an opportunity to enjoy someone else’s enjoyment of eating as much as I would the taste of the food on my own plate.

Toward the end of the meal, a little bubbling of chatter on the radio, the other tables a little more sparsely populated, the last of my coffee losing its heat at the bottom of the thick ceramic mug. A brief quiet in the flow of the conversation; and then the first familiar emanations of an irreplaceable presence in the soundscape...

Desmond. Desmond Dekker. “Israelites.”

By that particular point, it had been somewhat more than 15 years since I had seen Desmond Dekker perform live, and more than five since he passed away, on May 24, 2006.

Desmond Dekker at 7 Willow Street,
Port Chester, New York, 05/26/95.
He had been in his late 20s when “Israelites” first made its way from his homeland in Jamaica into the pop radio airwaves of the late 1960s, and then into the top 10 of the U.S. charts and to #1 in the UK — according Desmond the honor of being the first Jamaican musical artist to enjoy international commercial success with a song that was entirely a product of his own culture. As such, it was also the first taste of a marvelously vibrant musical milieu for a generation of listeners in the United States and Europe.

In the mid 1990s, when I stood swaying in the animated darkness of 7 Willow Street in Port Chester alongside some friendly fellow travelers who were equally enwrapped in the experience, as Desmond shared the mystic heart of the composition that had at that point defined the course of his life and career for more than two decades, he was in his mid 50s.

And in 2006, when he suffered the heart attack that would claim him for the choir of a higher stage, he was 64. It is an age that seems very young for dying, for an individual of such energy and spirit.

Fortunately, for those not fortunate enough to have encountered Desmond during his lifetime, as well as those who simply wish that he was still here, the energy and spirit of the man is well reflected in his life’s work.

As his signature song and as the nominal starting point for anyone foraging for information about his music, “Israelites” provides a telling example of the kind of small miracle that occurs whenever Desmond Dekker’s music is embraced by a non-Jamaican audience.

The song’s journey, like that of the artist and his audience, is evidence of the unlikeliest sort of conveyance, from an intensely singular vision imbued with the particulars of its time and style and character, to the far reaches of the world, where it is often embraced even by those who are themselves surrounded by styles and statements that are utterly foreign — and even antagonistic — to its own nature.

Even for the most earnest American ear, it is the kind of composition whose basic elements are as difficult to grasp as those of a Gregorian chant or a hymn in Latin — but equally rewarding, for those willing to listen.

Those interested in the etymology of the song’s title will likely come across descriptions of a particular group of “Israelites” — a local sect of the time whose belief system blended elements of Christianity and Rastafarianism. Whether the name of the song is derived from observation of that particular group or from the Biblical Israelites is probably less important than to simply note the obvious comfort Desmond displays with Biblical ideas and imagery in many of his songs (“Honour Your Mother and Father,” for example, was one of his most popular early compositions).

As a whole, the lyrics express the songwriter’s empathy for the displaced and downtrodden in his own mid-century homeland, and in his vocal performance and musical accompaniment, their bleak outline of the struggles of the poor are elevated into a universal anthem of shared experience.

The lyrics are drenched in the Jamaican idiom, and are likely to be interpreted by an American audience more in snippets of phrases than as entire ideas, initially leaving half-formed impressions in the fashion of a watercolor or an epic poem.

Details filled in by subsequent listening, however, reveal very concrete, carefully observed descriptions of the heartaches of deprivation and poverty: the hardest work for the lowest pay, the disintegration of family life, the empty pocket leading to the empty stomach, the worn clothes leading to the loss of dignity, the suspicion of one’s fellows following the suspicion of one’s own self as desperation gives way to temptation — these themes are each struck in the succession of brief lines, with the whole presenting a vividly impressionistic observation of the experience of being poor.

The musical environment for such observation also presents a challenge to anyone unfamiliar with its genre or genesis. Like many of Desmond’s most formidable compositions, “Israelites” is characteristic of the mid-1960s shift in Jamaican music that is known as ‘rock-steady’ — a brief period which saw the predominant beat of the island’s music transformed from the fast paced, uptempo ska of the decade’s early years to the languorous, bass-dominated reggae that would emerge at its closing.

While less driven than ska, rock-steady is a bouncy, danceable music; its suitability to lyrics embracing the strife of human suffering may well seem a bit bewildering to the uninitiated. The buoyancy of the loping beat of “Israelites” could cause the mind to wander, were it not for the remarkable vocal performance that Desmond brings to the song. His exquisite tenor is the kind of voice that, heard once, remains in the head and the heart like the familiar tones of the greeting of a friend.

The voice and the beat evoke a spaciousness that give the song a broader feeling, expanding it, as it were, to hint at a larger context in a manner similar to the way in which the Biblical allusion at the heart of the lyrics bespeaks the larger experience of all those journeying toward deliverance.

Ultimately, the words and the music and that unmistakable, irreplaceable voice converge to elicit an intense sense of recognition in the plight described in “Israelites,” sounding down the decades from its creation so long ago, during the early days of a new kind of music that emerged largely from the hardest part of life in a place and time that was otherwise abundantly blessed.

Along with the myriad of other recordings that represent the remarkable life and spirit of Desmond Dekker, it is a music that still feeds the soul, even a lifetime after it is first heard.

© 2012 Patrick J. Walsh

For more information:
• The Official Desmond Dekker website: http://www.desmonddekker.com/

Recommended listening:

Exceptional Rhino
Greatest Hits collection.
Early Recordings
Uplifting mid-1990s 

Friday, March 2, 2012

On learning to walk — in space

Recalling the early evolution of the EVA

by Patrick J. Walsh

March 18 marks the 47th anniversary of the first spacewalk. On that date in 1965, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov passed through an inflatable airlock to exit the Voskhod 2 spacecraft and ‘float’ in open space at the end of a 50 foot tether, becoming the first human being to perform an EVA (“extravehicular activity,” in the technical vernacular).

The astronauts of the American Gemini program took their first ‘steps’ in space shortly after Leonov, beginning with Ed White’s landmark EVA on June 3, 1965, during Gemini 4. The U.S. followed White’s feat with a series of spacewalks focused on developing the ability to do useful work while floating in the weightlessness of open space, and along the way, a succession of U.S. spacewalkers encountered a variety of difficulties in controlling their movements and achieving their objectives.

Ed White achieves the first
American spacewalk, June 3, 1965.

Photo courtesy of NASA.
By the conclusion of the Gemini program, during Gemini 12 in November, 1966, the persistent effort to master the art of the EVA paid dividends for NASA’s astronaut team. Through a combination of careful study with his fellow astronauts and innovations in training, tools and equipment, Buzz Aldrin proved during the Gemini 12 flight that a carefully planned extravehicular activity could be carried out without undue hardship or risk.

While the U.S. developed its EVA capability, the Soviets made no attempt to follow up on Leonov’s achievement until the Soyuz 5 mission in January, 1969. Just six months later, the very term “EVA” would take on a whole new dimension during Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would make the first extravehicular activity on solid ground — as the first human beings to walk on the surface of the Moon.

See the “Evolution of the EVA,” in the latest episode of my video series “Five Minutes in Space,” at: 

© 2012 Patrick J. Walsh