The Spirit of Reggae

Clad in the punchy colors of the Jamaican flag, Ras Michael Wolfe, the lead singer and bongo player, in Jah Spirit provided a lively source of entertainment. He energetically danced and bounced across the stage, which proved to be the focal point of the night. “I loved the singer’s dancing!” Tina Kit ’09 said enthusiastically after the performance. Drawing inspiration from artists like Bob Marley, the Boston-based reggae-Calypso fusion band Jah Spirit played hypnotic beats that were unexpectedly appealing. When the band visited Phillips Academy this past weekend, their second visit to the school, they created a surreal ambiance that charmed the crowd. By the end of their opener, the Underwood Room was packed with an enthusiastic audience bobbing their heads in sync with the carefree rhythms. When they began to play “Stir It Up,” enthusiastic Bob Marley fans cheered loudly and began singing along with the lyrics. Jah Spirit is currently comprised of four members: Wolfe on vocals and bongos, Steve “Ninja” Sidhly on guitar, Henry Fenton on bass and a temporary replacement keyboardist. During the span its career, the band has produced more than 10 albums and is currently in the process of mastering a live edition of their latest performance at the Castle Hill Reggaefest in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Their impressive list of social venues includes music festivals, Red Sox games, schools, museums, aquariums and resorts. Jah Spirit is also an active member of the National Endowment of Arts. At the official starting time of the show, the number of students was minimal at best as Sean Kingston and other popular mainstream songs were blaring from the speakers. However, 15 minutes into the show, a steady stream of audience members began to trickle in, gradually increasing to eventually fill the room. Soon, Underwood’s audience was a substantial mass of latecomers—crowded enough to force students to share chairs, crowd couches, stand and even sit around the borders of the room. The energy level rose palpably, and the awkward swaying on the outskirts of the stage quickly morphed into full-fledged dancing. Over the nearly 30 years the band has been together, Jah Spirit has evolved dramatically. Under Wolfe’s guidance, the band has remained true to its reggae origins and continues to support his creative lyrics and values of creating pure, positive music. “We play music to back up Michael. I mean, he’s definitely the main man,” Sidhly said. Of the rest of the band, he said, “Jah comes from the Rastafari word for God, while Spirit further emphasizes this. But it’s all about positive energy and positive music. We’re not trying to be preachy.” When asked about how he, an American fell in love with a genre of music so rich and full of Jamaican culture, he laughed and responded, “It has a lot of elements and different styles. It’s why I like it so much.” Characterized with lyrical variations and instrumental interludes, less than ten songs were played at Underwood. Jah Spirit did an admirable job of playing contrasting songs, switching seamlessly between quicker, danceable songs and slower ballads. Despite the fun of the night, there were a few negative aspects of the performance. As a genre, reggae has a devout following, but a specialized one. Unlike, for example, mainstream rap and hip-hop, reggae has not historically enjoyed the benefits of everyday, word-of-mouth exposure. Many students commented that although they do not usually enjoy listening to Reggae, the combined distance of Uncommons and the loss of Ryley rendered Underwood as the only location to go to on a Friday night. Dave Knapp ’10 said, “I appreciate [reggae music], but I don’t usually listen to it…I’m having fun though. The singer is definitely my favorite because he’s so energetic.” “I don’t even know what good reggae is, but I really like this,” said Maggie Law ’10. Wolfe has held the band together in a world full of popular culture and mainstream genres with his spirit and penchant for performing. “I love live music,” he said. “It’s all about the energy. When you play back and forth with the audience, there’s a powerful unity of emotion. That’s why I perform.”