Throughout music’s constantly morphing genres, the truly powerful statements often wear unassuming masks. Folk, bluegrass or blues is frequently most effective when it is most naked — left alone by additional musical tricks or overproduction to stand unafraid in its own existence.
Perhaps in no other form of music is this more evident than in roots reggae. Here, emphasis on technicality or dazzling musicianship usually gives way to stripped-down song structures filled with intense emotion and an honest, authentic delivery that can’t be faked.
Midnite, from the Caribbean island of St. Croix, has built a significant American underground following to complement its undisputed popularity at home in the Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico. Waving the flag of socially, politically and spiritually conscious music based heavily around the teachings and principles of the Rastafarian religion, Midnite is steadily climbing into conversations involving the most influential reggae acts, including Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru and Burning Spear.
In its 13th year, Midnite has developed a reputation for an intense and lengthy live show (many performances easily stretch for three hours). Their current tour supports their third release, Seek Knowledge Not Vengeance (currently available only at performances), and will take them down the East coast, across the South, and will eventually end in California.
The quintet is fronted by lead vocalist and percussionist Vaughn Benjamin, who also writes Midnite’s lyrics — possibly the songs’ most attractive asset. Benjamin addresses various issues common throughout roots reggae, such as racial oppression, misrepresented social history and fundamental Rastafarian teachings — along with a vocal sincerity laden with West African-styled call-and-response chants and spiced with old-school soul. The song “Bushman” attacks middle-class indifference to global race conflicts: “You are worried about the state/ Where you reside/ What about the state of your mind/ You are living in scenic/ places with good graces/ While there is chaos among the races.”
Musically, the band receives its leadership from Vaughn’s brother, keyboardist Ron Benjamin. Songs are heavy with the traditional, reggae-style guitar chop that keeps your head nodding in slow time, but they also commonly possess a maddeningly addictive, trance-like bounce that leads you numbly along. Midnite holds an effective combination of songs drenched in lighter and more melodic vibes, as well as those mixed with an edgier, protest-laced energy.
In the studio and on stage, the band leaves behind the modern tendencies for overdubbing, sampling or remixing their work. What’s left is music standing on the shoulders of reggae forefathers, holding true to the original culture while presenting lyrics and energy drawn from our collective, contemporary landscape. The band’s second album, 1999’s Ras Mek Peace on Wildchild! Records, defied nearly every rule of modern musical engineering: It was recorded using only two channels, and mastered with no reverb, filtering, compression or equalization.
Rising from Jamaican ghettos and the rural West Indies with obscure beginnings through the ’50s and ’60s, reggae found its way onto the global music stage primarily from the songs of the legendary Bob Marley andThe Wailers. While Marley’s music remains an underlying fixture of global popular music, reggae as a whole has subsided into a genre supported almost solely by the subculture that surrounds it.
Reggae rarely sends any of its bigger artists into crossover success, which does much to keep the music untainted by the stain popular attention can bring, but also keeps the best of this genre hidden from the keen eye of even the most devoted enthusiasts. With similar rarity, it seems, we are presented with the opportunity to witness a performance of this music drawn from a well so close to the source.