Facing The Pain

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Even if you can’t count on Monterey’s weather, positive vibrations and a laid-back atmosphere are guaranteed at Monterey Fairgrounds this weekend for the 10th annual Monterey Bay ReggaeFest.  Over 20 acts will play on two stages throughout Saturday and Sunday, plus there will be reggae DJs in the Turf Club Lounge, a children’s playground area, and a Rastafarian Culture museum.  And if all that entertainment makes you hungry, food and drinks will be available from a variety of vendors.

One of the highlights of Saturday’s schedule is a performance by Alpha Blondy, a Grammy-nominated artist who has been described as “perhaps the true heir to Bob Marley’s throne.”  With his 12-piece band Solar System, Blondy plays reggae music with an African slant, reflecting the heritage of his homeland, the Ivory Coast.

Alpha Blondy was born Sedu Kone in Dimbokoro, Cote d’Ivoire.  He was named after his grandfather and raised by his grandmother, who exposed him to Dioula culture and traditional African folkloric music.  He also listened to the Western bands of the time, including Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles.  As a teenager he discovered Bob Marley, and loved the music so much that he formed his first band at school.  The school administrators were not impressed with this, and suspended him from school.  This led to his grandmother giving him the nickname “Blondy,” meaning “Bandit” in Dioula. He would later add the word “Alpha,” meaning “first,” giving him the name “First Bandit.”

Although Blondy harbored ambitions to be a musician, his family had their sights on him becoming an English teacher, so he came to the United States and attended Hunter College in New York.  When he was not attending class, Blondy would play music in Central Park and visit clubs in Harlem.  At some of the clubs, the house band would let him sit in and sing Bob Marley covers in French.  Jamaican record producer Clive Hunt heard Blondy singing, and offered him a recording contract.  Six tracks were recorded but were never released due to problems with the contract.  The project fell through, and Blondy returned to his homeland in a depression so deep that he spent the next two years recovering in hospital.

Blondy resumed his career in the early 80s, appearing on a TV talent contest called “Premiere Chance.”  He was a clear favorite with the audience and this time was offered a recording contract that came through.  The result was his 1983 debut album “Jah Glory.”  Blondy toured all over Africa before going to Jamaica to record the follow-up album with The Wailers.  “Cocody Rock,” released in 1984, was a huge hit and exposed Blondy to an international audience. 

The next decade saw a grueling schedule of non-stop touring and recording for Blondy, culminating in another nervous collapse in 1993.  However, once again he was able to get back on his feet and in 1996 resumed his career as a recording and touring artist.  Always re-inventing himself and his music, Blondy has never shied away from tough or controversial subjects for his songs.  From documenting his own personal struggles to commenting on the volatile politics of Africa, the music of Alpha Blondy combines lyrical depth with enough soulful groove to delight even the most jaded reggae fan.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, September 1, 2005

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