It all began during the 1950’s when a great polio epidemic struck Jamaica. When he was a small child, Apple Gabriel and his mother would go to the river and while she did the laundry, he would play around. One day when he was three and a half years old, he remembers being sat on a rock alongside his mother with one foot resting in the water. “Take your foot out of the river!”, shesaid, while the young Apple observed a small frog at the bottom ofthe stream. The next morning his mother was unable to wake him up. When he finally managedto open his groggy eyes, Apple Gabriel’s lower body was paralyzed.A couple of days later, one of his feet began to atrophy. At the hospital the doctor diagnosed him with polio. Shortly after, Applewas sent to Kingston’s Mona Rehabilitation Clinic to be treated for the illness. Here, he became first acquainted with his future bandmates, Cecil “Skeleton” Spence and Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin, who had also been afflicted with the disease.
The physical discomfort of his body, however, did not limit Apple. He began learning to play the piano and experimenting musically. Later on he was sent to Salvation Army Home, a boarding school led by nuns, which he remembers as a prison. The boys were frequently beat up and seldom allowed to walk around freely. One day Apple Gabriel planned an exit and managed toescape. He was finally freed from that bastille, only to find himself in a much darker situation. He ended up living on the streets for a while. Without a place to sleep or food to eat, he would clean car windows in exchange for small change. Other times he would beg on the streets. “I was like a solitary sheep in the desert. I would bathe in the docks, naked in front of others”, he remembers.
Apple’sfaith probably saved himfrom a life of further misery. One day he met a Rastafari called Baba Douse, who bought him his first pair of shoes and trousers and introduced him to this new faith. During the night, this man would sit with him under an almond tree and read the Bible. He would teach him about Haile Selassie and this spiritual ideology and recovered the young boy’s desire to live once again. Rastafarianism also joined Apple’s path to Spence’s and the rest of the band, which later became known as Israel Vibrations.
The guys would hang out together, meditate,and improvise musically.Their sweet sounding voices and spiritually inclined lyrics began to attract crowds. This is probably where it all began. Now, many years later, the trio considers their union to be somewhat unworldly, for they were able to share their visions of the world, their faith, and musical talent to create a strong and timeless bond. As one of their songs says, “Get Up and Go”, is practically their philosophy of life. A living lesson in fortitude, the vocal trio overcame adversity, a crippling and debilitating illness, and poverty to become one of the finest roots groups in Jamaica’s history. More than fifty years later they continue to spellbind crowds all over the world with their resonating sound and spiritual lyrics. Although Apple Gabriel decided to go solo in 1997, the other two bandmates continue to tour the world.
Last night Israel Vibrations played a show at Anfiteatro Tito Puente in San Juan. Having been more than fifteen years sinceI had witnessed one of their concerts, I decided to buy a ticket andrelive old memories of one of my favorite reggae bands. Once the groupfinally came up on stage a little after midnight, I couldn’t help but feel touched by their mellow beats, smooth voices, and the gentle and funky swaying of their fragile bodies supported by crutches. Afflicted by an illness uncommon nowadays to most of the developed world,polio hasprovento be not an impediment for this group, but more of a way of uniting and distinguishing this extremely talented and steadfast band and making their story quite unique from the rest.