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World Music Features

Joseph Israel

By Matt Scheiner
Published November 30, 2007

If the beauty of reggae lies in the voice of the Rastaman, then Joseph Israel’s voice may surprise you. The white reggae singer, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and currently resides in Fayetteville, Arkansas, breezes through his tunes like a true-blooded Jamaican, but away from the mic his excitable, energetic speech hovers somewhere between SoCal cool and Vermont hippie.

If the beauty of reggae lies in the voice of the Rastaman, then Joseph Israel’s voice may surprise you. The white reggae singer, who was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and currently resides in Fayetteville, Arkansas, breezes through his tunes like a true-blooded Jamaican, but away from the mic his excitable, energetic speech hovers somewhere between SoCal cool and Vermont hippie. Tall, with a thick mane of dreadlocks and an imposing red beard, the only thing that separates Israel from his Rasta brothers is that he doesn’t subscribe to any one religion: He is just a lover of God, offering interviewers “Greetings in the name of Yahweh.”

Israel, aka Joseph Montgomery Fennel, grew up a child of reggae, being exposed to its vibes by his parents and uncle. His musical education and development coincided with the evolution of Fayetteville’s live music scene that was being fueled in part by Jose’s—a club owned by Israel’s father. As Israel began forming his own style, he became more and more enamored of Rasta culture and, between frequent trips to Jamaica and the time spent dedicated to his craft, he blossomed into a serious artist with a unique voice and sense of purpose.

Gone Are The Days, Israel’s major label debut, magnifies his devotion not only to his music, but to his faith in a higher being, quest for racial unity and call for the end of all oppression. The album benefits from quality production it was recorded at Kingston’s Tuff Gong studio as well as Shaggy’s Big Yard studio, co-produced by bassist Chris Meredith, and features authentic Jamaican instrumentation from guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith and saxophonist Dean Fraser. Gone Are The Days also gets help from guest appearances by Luciano on “Ruff Times” and Mikey General on “Universal Love.”

Israel says that working with such fixtures in modern reggae was a dream come true. “It is nice to know that the people you have always looked up to are just really good people. They just opened up the creative space to bring me into their world, it was a mutual thing, and a great experience,” he says. “I think there was an original vibration to it, because of where I come from, and my take on the music was refreshing for them.”

Although the album begins with Israel’s voice sometimes falling out of bounds and off-key, Gone Are The Days starts commanding attention by the fifth track, “Mankind,” a classic roots anthem complete with engaging horn line, sweet melodies and conscious lyrics: “Tired of seeing mankind livin’ in misery/Seek first the Kingdom of Jah—you will have his blessing.” After “Mankind,” the album is nearly flawless, with its highest point being “Ruff Times,” the track featuring Luciano. Israel’s voice is at its best, and flows like his Jamaican contemporaries. The lyrics are conscious, and the horn line is begging to be sampled in other reggae tunes.

But despite the album’s strength, the hotshot guest appearances and overall sincerity of Israel’s message, the fact that he is white will likely be a detriment. But Israel says the color of his skin has not really been an obstacle for him. “Music is not white, black, red, or yellow, and there will always be boundaries you have to cross when you are doing something different. People have to realize that anyone can be influenced by [different styles] of music, whether its African, Latin or reggae and play that style.” It’s evident that Israel is not using his physical difference to create marketing buzz. “Music to me was really never to make money or anything. It just always came from my heart. God blessed me with opportunities to share it with people. I’m not out here to become a superstar, I just want to play music,” he says.

The songs on the 15-track album feel like they were created organically, and Israel, who is married and has two daughters, says the tunes came to life while sitting in his backyard. “The album is honestly from my heart. The songs are just ref