It’s not uncommon for teens to love rock, join bands and dream of ditching school to go on tour, all the while wishing their parents were cool enough to relate.
However, those family-fortified musical fantasies are likely to languish in the land of make-believe — unless said teens happen to play with the Partridges (see below) or in the modern-day conscious-reggae band the Black Rebels.
Based in Massachusetts, the multicultural and multigenerational Rebels are rewriting all the rules when it comes to what a critically acclaimed touring outfit — not to mention a nuclear family — should look, sound and act like.
“It’s very good to have a family,” says front man and band founder Manou Afrika Selassie. “This family is very strong.”
The kids are all right
And so the music, too, “is stronger,” he adds during a recent interview. “The kids are talented, and they’re involved with everything — they even help with the writing, which is interesting for everyone, because they have their own knowledge.”
By kids, Selassie means 13-year-old drummer Imani Devi-Brown and 15-year-old keyboardist Kete Devi-Brown, the children of Rebels vocalist Kalpana Devi.
But even before Devi and her kids came on the scene (the singer joined the Rebels in 1994, her percussionist son signed on as the band’s fifth career drummer in 2001, and her daughter joined soon thereafter), the Black Rebels were a family affair. Selassie started the band in his native Dakar, Senegal, with the help of his brother, Dr. Jeannot.
Inspiration for the group came from Jamaican reggae records brought to Senegal by international cargo-boat workers. “By the time Selassie was fourteen, reggae was huge in Senegal,” explained the Valley Advocate in 2002. “Inspired by the music, he began learning English (his fourth language) to understand roots reggae’s Rastafarian lyrics.”
The guitarist and band leader takes his surname from former Ethiopian king Haile Selassie I, who some Rastafarians believe is the second coming of Christ, or a direct incarnation of God. Bolstered by these ideals, Selassie and Jeannot created the Rebels to spread Rasta teachings.
In the early ’90s, Jeannot traveled to the U.S., where he met dancer and teacher Devi. Selassie had been keeping the band going back in Africa, and when he joined his brother in this country, the two brought Devi into the fold as a singer. “When we met Kalpana and the children, we didn’t plan it,” Selassie says. “[They] just came at the right time.”
In the last decade, the Rebels’ lineup has changed significantly. Jeannot moved on to pursue other interests, Selassie and Devi became off-stage partners, and the Devi-Brown children — both sporting waist-length dreadlocks like their mother — stepped in, contributing surprisingly formidable musicianship.
So what happens if the teenaged drummer and keyboardist become afflicted with a case of adolescent malaise? What if they suddenly realize being in a band with their folks is uncool (not to mention sharing the same hairstyle and ideology as the adults with whom they jam)?
Is there room for teen rebels in the Black Rebels?
“When they decide to do their own thing, they’re welcome,” Selassie offers. “They come to this world to do their own work, not to do our work. When they’re ready to go out [on their own], we’ll bless them.”
For now, the brother-sister team attend a school of the arts, where they enjoy the freedom to explore music and are allowed time off to tour with the band. “If we go out on the road for a long time, we’ll a carry a teacher with us,” Selassie explains.
And though the group has yet to tour extensively, that may come in the near future. Having recently released a fifth independent album, Most Together Now, the Rebels have a message to spread. “[It’s] about the unity of the man and woman, to unite the families, to love everyone and not judge by what they look like or who they follow, and to stop war,” says Selassie.
“The message is getting to the people’s mind,” he continues. “But the one thing I’m frustrated with is how to get [the message] to the world leaders. How to play gigs so these world leaders can hear what these young people are really trying to say.”
One way the Rebels are able to further their message of unity is by tapping their multicultural roots (African, Caucasian, Jewish and Indian, to name a few) and writing songs in a variety of languages. “Languages can touch more people. Maybe [the audience] wants to hear a song in Hebrew or Sanskrit or Creole.”
Which the band is happy to provide. In the process, “who we are,” he says, “comes through.”
The family that plays together …
Not all blood relations are able to maintain harmony, but some kin manage to find a beat they can all groove to. From country-music matriarch Maybelle Carter to the littlest rock drummer Rachel Trachtenburg, here’s a list of some of music’s most famous family units.
• The Carter Family — Starting in 1927, these Virginia-native relatives helped shaped country music. The best-known Carters include mother Maybelle and her daughter June (who married Johnny Cash).
• The Jackson Five — Brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael got their start as talent-contest winners in the early ’60s. By the ’70s, they had a cartoon TV show, and by the ’80s, Michael went out on his own … proving it’s sometimes best to stick with the fam.
• The Osmonds — This Mormon family made a name for itself first in 1967 as a quartet of brothers, and later (starting in 1976) with the hit Donnie and Marie Show, featuring the youngest sibs. Today, the Osmonds’ offspring have their own group: Osmonds 2nd Generation.
• The Carpenters — A brother-and-sister duo (Richard and Karen), this group was signed in 1970 and recorded squeaky-clean hits like “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Karen famously and tragically succumbed to anorexia in the ’80s.
• The Partridge Family — Sure, they were only a family on TV (1970-74), but this fatherless sextet formed a rock band and toured the country in a psychedelic bus at least in fiction. And their albums were real, as was David Cassidy’s (aka Keith Partridge’s) teen idoldom.
• The Melody Makers — Formed at the behest of Bob Marley, this quartet (Sharon, Cedella, Ziggy and Stephen) includes the eldest of the reggae superstar’s 10 children.
• Hanson — This mid-’90s trio of teen brothers hit the charts with “MmmBop.” Amazingly, they’ve managed a 10-year (and still counting ) career based on Tiger Beat looks and pop hooks.