The Soul Messengers are the foundation of what has sometimes been referred to as the ” Motown of the Middle East”. Other than the style of music being made here there’s not many similarities between the Motor City and the Negev Desert in Israel. Located in the city of Dimona, around 3,000 people have established a Hebrew Israelite community made up of mostly African American migrants from Detroit and Chicago. In 1966, while still in the US, their spiritual leader Ben Ammi had a vision that he and his followers should settle in the Holy Land. That became a reality in 1970.
Some of the key members in establishing this community were musicians. The first group that came out of the Dimona community was the Soul Messengers. The three core musicians were the late Yehuda on guitar, a singer named Shavat and the bassplayer Prince Heskiyahoo (fka Charles Blackwell).
Heskiyahoo was born in Georgia, lived for a while in Chicago before settling with his family in Gary, Indiana. He started singing at an early age imitating his mother who sang in a Baptist church choir. When Heskiyahoo left the army after a three year tour of duty in Germany, where he had picked up the guitar, he joined the Metrotones in Chicago which became a popular backing band.
The Metrotones worked with R n’ B singer Alvin Cash on several of his best-known recordings. In 1969 Heskiyahoo migrated to Liberia with a large contingency of Hebrews as a first step in reaching Israel, which would eventually bring him to Dimona.
Prior to this interview you mentioned that you performed with a group while you were in the Army based in Germany. How did that come about?
It was around Christmas time when we were going to Germany on a boat. One day in the showers a group of guys started harmonizing and we ended up forming a group. The idea was to sing Christmas songs for the other soldiers. We were paratroopers so we named ourselves the Para-Tones. We rehearsed and rehearsed and as it ended up we could really sing any kind of style.
In Germany we entered our first singing contest for Army groups and we won. We entered into other Army contests and we kept on winning. Eventually we ended up taking second place in all of Europe. The song we sang was a spiritual entitled “Noah and the Ark”. I started off wearing glasses, holding a Bible and I said (in raspy preachers voice) ”Brothers and Sisters, it’s said in the book here that the children of this Israel was sinned. What did I say?” And then the choir responded, “They were sinned! That’s exactly what I said!” The crowd went wild and we started singing the song. It worked so great and we got a standing ovation! However, because we went two seconds overtime we lost to a white group, which also had a Captain as a member. The crowd wasn’t happy. We didn’t mind placing second because we performed all over Europe and even got a chance to go to Morocco.
Please tell me about going to Morocco.
What happened was the King of Morocco at the time invited us to come perform for his son’s 24th birthday. The whole show packed up and we went by airplane to Morocco to perform which was quite an experience. We actually cut a record in Morocco but they didn’t get a Pentagon clearance so it couldn’t be released. The two songs we recorded was called “Cha Cha Boom”and I think the other song was called “Stormy Weather” (starts singing the Billie Holiday song of the same name).
After we left Germany I never saw the guys in the Para-Tones again. We were supposed to get back together but that never happened.
Can you talk about your experience as a musician in the army?
It was a little bit difficult because I was in one of the elite combat units. I was in the 82nd Airborne Division based in Germany. They didn’t really like entertainers like me. Everything in my unit was macho and if you were a boxer, football player, karateman and all of that you might rank fast but they really disliked entertainers (Laughs). They kept me frozen as a private. (After I ended my deployment) I got back to Chicago and started a spiritual group called “The Saints of Glory” with my family and we went on from there.
How did you get into the Metrotones?
When I got out of the Army my family and I started this little singing group. I was playing the guitar and singing. Shortly after that, I met another young man and he was also a guitar player. His name was Yehuda. He was performing with a band and they needed a bass player. I decided to switch to bass. I got with this band and started to perform with them. They were called the Metrotones. I had a spiritual background in singing and now I’m in a group that’s playing Rock ‘n Roll, Jazz, Blues and what have you.
I was with the Metrotones from 1962 to 1965 and it was during the last part of the Metrotones, I was introduced to the Hebrew way of life. One thing that went to the top of Yehuda and my priority list in a major way was to recognize the Sabbath. It was hard to come to the realization that the biggest night you make money is the holiest night where you are supposed to be resting. I finally made the decision and made the transition to honor the Sabbath. It took a lot of wrestling and tussling back and forth.
You recorded some classic sides with the Metrotones and vocalist Alvin Cash. “Twine Time” is probably the best known one. Did the music you played with Alvin Cash seem to contradict with your belief in Hebrewism?
Yes, that’s why I had to break loose from that. “Twine Time”, “The Dog”, “Monkey Time” and all of that. It just faded… After I got deep into being a Hebrew and when (our spiritual leader) Ben Ammi had the vision in 1966 we began to play things that had positive connotations, positive reasoning and songs that made sense.
What can you tell me about Alvin Cash?
Alvin Cash was from St. Louis. He had three little brothers who called themselves The Crawlers. As a matter of fact they used to dance almost continuously with us. For a while every show we performed his brothers were performing. He had one brother who could run up the walls, flip back off the wall down into a split, spin around on his head and clap his hands (Laughs). It lasted until his brothers got to be teenagers and Cash made his “Twine Time” song. That was during the 60’s. When we left the US he was still performing actively.
Who was the bandleader of the Metrotones? Was that Willie Henderson?
He was one of the bandleaders and set up all the shows. Really, I was the oldest (in the group) so I was like in charge.
So Ben Ammi had the vision that you should go to Liberia. Tell me about that.
Myself and the guitar player Yehuda and Shavat the singer went to Liberia. We were a part of a larger group of a couple of hundred who went. When we got there we moved a 100 miles into the interior of the country. We were there for three weeks, close to a month, and then we ran out of money. Our funds went real fast. Now, we had to try to live communally where everybody takes care of everything.
The three of us are sitting there without money looking at each other and we couldn’t even buy a penny pack of peanuts. We had to do something. I don’t remember all of the details but somebody loaned Yehuda a guitar. The three of us who knew each other from the Metrotones began to practice because we had to make some money. I didn’t have a bass yet because he only found a guitar. We practiced for about two weeks and then we couldn’t practice anymore because we were so hungry.
We got a ride on the back of a truck to Monrovia. This was during the rainy season in Liberia. We got soaking wet within the first half hour. When it rains it doesn’t just rain, it pours. Then the sun comes out and you dry and then you get dusty.
We made it to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. We jumped off that the back of the truck and asked young man where we could find the city’s musicians. It just so happened that they were having the Presidential Inaugural Ball on the main street that day. He told us about the music tent. Sure enough, there was a band in the tent playing. There were 10 of them performing on stage. During a break, I asked one of the guys if we could play a song. He looked at us and we were wrinkled, dusty and dirty from the trip coming into the city. He smirked but gave us permission. I will never forget the first song we performed which was (Sam & Dave’s) “Soul Man”. The people went wild because I think “Soul Man” was at the top of charts in Liberia during that time. The audience wanted another song. We played another song. They kept on applauding. Then we hit a James Brown song and the place went berserk! When we finished after playing 4 or 5 songs the other band hired us on the spot… with pay (Laughs). They couldn’t let us get out of there and start our own band. They were 10 (in their band) and we were 3. That’s 13 (in total) and that’s just too many to comfortably live from playing music. The name of the band was The Shades.
When did you move on and formed the Soul Messengers?
Eventually, after we had played with them for a month we had to break it up. We got ourselves a local drummer named Tut-Tut and a saxophone player named Chris Dozen. We needed a name for our new band and one of the Liberians said that since we were all soul brothers why shouldn’t we call ourselves the Soul Messengers. That’s when we really started taking off. The Soul Messengers became so popular that we played all over Monrovia and the rest of the country. We even played for the Liberian president and for the vice-president of the US at the time, Hubert Humphrey.
We opened up a nightclub (in Monrovia). It was called Soul Spot. We sort of had to stay in the soul vein. At this time we were living as Hebrews and now we have a Hebrew band. We were just playing all positive songs that had a message. This is 1967 and in the month of April, 1968, Ben Ammi, came to Monrovia, and told me that the saints in the camp had had a meeting and that I had been elected to go to Israel. I wanted to go but when I told the rest of the band (about the travel plans) we wrestled with it. I convinced them that I would go to Israel for two weeks. Our intent was never to stay in Liberia but we were playing every night in our own club.
The Soul Spot was located off of Broad Street in the city. It had a bar and seated approxiamately 70 persons. The place stayed packed. In fact we had to perform in shifts.
How did you experience the link between African and African-American music?
We began to learn that music wasn’t just music. Rhythm ‘n Blues and Gospel were just names that were given to our music. We found out it was all the same music.
When we sang the songs it was meant to give praise to the Creator. What we had to do (with some of the songs we wanted to perform) was to put them back into the context of praising the Creator. Some we had to change the words and some the title so it would fit with what we were trying to do to get back in harmony with the Creator. It worked like that.
Can you give me an example?
When I was a kid in the South we used to sing a song named “Lady in Years, Come By Here”. In the South it wasn’t sung like that. The ones that came from North Carolina they used to sing “Cuma Ya”. We thought it was because they came from the Caribbean and it was the broken English they were using. They were really singing the left over of the Hebrew. (Starts singing) “Cuma Ya, Cuma Ya.” Cuma Ya means to rise Yah. That was one of the first phrases they would use when they needed the Creator to help them. You understand, when the slave masters began to teach (our forefathers religious songs) it became, not Cuma Ya but “Come By Here”.
How do you prepare yourself to go to a place like Liberia, both spiritually and practically?
We studied that you had to go back across the path, which you came. To get rid of all the stigmas and all the negri-tudes we had to go back the way we came as slaves. It was something I really wanted to do. We were on our way to the Holy Land. This was a little easier than when our foreparents came on a 2 feet high section of a slave ship.
We had prepared ourselves to live as Africans. It’s a spiritual transition to go from American Negro to African. When you really get on the ground you begin to live what you say. It’s a little bit of a different picture.
It has to be something that’s in your heart to make a 7,000 miles move and to go into the jungles of Africa. Having spent three years in the military, I was really prepared psychically (for the move to Liberia). When I was in Germany in an elite unit most of our time was in tents and in foxholes. It was no big transition for me.
So you came to kibbutz Maabarote in 1967?
Yes, I did. It was not a religious kibbutz. All of the other kibbutz’s had already started their language courses months earlier where as Maabarote’ was only 3 weeks into their program. Shavat and Yahuda came from Liberia to join me in Israel in 1969. I had been performing with an Israeli band where I had learned all the songs for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, parties and so on. We started playing again as the Soul Messengers. Our intent now was to magnify the spirit that we had really started in Liberia and we did just that.
We as the Soul Messengers began to practice those songs and incorporate them into our repertoire. When we began to perform it was a real shock to the Israelis to see this black band playing and singing Hebrew songs. It became like a wildfire. It just spread and spread. From that point on the Soul Messengers went from a band to a production. Everybody that could sing, dance or whatever (in the community) was incorporated into this institution. It just kept growing.