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In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, I Saw Two Reggae Legends Unite a Paris Crowd

The Twinkle Brothers have played together for over five decades, but on Saturday they sang as if their lives depended on it.
14.1.15

In Paris, this weekend just gone, there was some fear and much togetherness. Stricken by the wave of shootings that hit the city last week, Parisians looked to each other for a sign that fraternity, one of the founding principles of their republic, had not been forgotten.

On Saturday night, at the historic New Morning club (which has played host to Art Blakey, Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker and more), a band who began life in the early 1960s in Falmouth, Trelawny, on the island of Jamaica, brought its shell-shocked audience together in an act of communion which refused to gloss over the difficult questions that have been asked in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Annons

Twinkle Brothers, fronted by brothers Norman and Ralston Grant, have, they say, released 62 records since 1964. Practicing Rastafarians, their reggae and dub has long had a small but devoted following in the French capital. For over two hours, they issued a call-to-arms for solidarity that went far beyond the simple “One love” message that dorm room reggae aficionados, whose knowledge begins and ends with Bob Marley’s Legend, drool over between hits on shop-bought bongs.

Standing front and centre surrounded by drums, with his now slightly greying dreadlocks hanging down to his waist, Norman Grant was a prophet singing truth to power. Early on, “Repent”, with its chorus of, “There’s room in Zion for everyone”, established the theme of inclusion. But Grant knows that this inclusion is far from being established in our society and his band married the hippy ideals of peace and love with hard-edged social commentary that took in everything from famine to unemployment to the problems of being an exile and an immigrant. “We could play music all night but some of you have a long way to go, some of you have to get the metro”, Grant said at the end of the night, as the kids from the Paris suburbs, where unemployment and poverty rates are often up to three times the national average, prepared to make their way home.

“Babylon is a trap”, the band sang on their cover of Dub Judah’s song of the same name, evoking the struggle of life in a foreign land: “Due to lack of education / Wicked a control the nation / Due to lack of employment / the youth them a turn militant”, Grant sang. Here was reggae as music of resistance, a wind of social change blowing in from Trelawny in the north of Jamaica, a call for unity, a warning about the state of our society that has sounded for decades.

Annons

All live music needs to feel like life and death. It needs an urgency that brings the audience together. If it doesn’t mean something more than yet another date on a choreographed tour, then what’s the point? At the end of last year, I saw War on Drugs play at the Roundhouse in Camden. Nice songs, played very nicely without any urgency, winding on into a nothingness that left the crowd nodding their heads like drugged sheep. We drank diluted beer from plastic cups and went home wondering why we were so tired.

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On Saturday night, a band that has been playing for over five decades sang as if their lives depended on it. They brought, in a time of great pain, truth and urgency to their audience when so many other performers spoon-feed them pre-approved corporate blandness. “PARIS”, Norman Grant, called between and during songs, exhorting his audience of all ages and all backgrounds to stay with him, to stay together. “I want a retribution from this generation… Our job as the 3rd and 4th generation is to clean up the mess… It’s just a message you know. Come together”, he told us. This was music and it felt like it mattered, because music does matter. We left the club energised.

At the march the next day, ordinary people, again of all ages and from all racial backgrounds, came together away from the hypocrisy of their leaders to celebrate liberty, equality and fraternity in their truest sense. These ideals are often betrayed by nations, corporations and political leaders, but in a club and on the streets they remain powerful. “Show your brother love”, was the final message from the Twinkle Brothers, and that was the message on the march too.

At the centre of Place de la Republique, the square that has become a meeting point for those who want to congregate, a group of pro-Palestinians and a group of pro-Israelis had come together, hugging and kissing each other and singing for peace: the vision of a Zion with room enough for everyone.

Oscar was in Paris reporting for Vice.com. Read his piece "Fear and Unity at the Largest March in French History" here. You can also follow him on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow