“And the winner of best male Reggae artist goes to… Omari Banks!”
As the crowd cheered, the tall, lanky figure of the former Windies all-rounder stepped up to receive his award at the first annual Anguilla Music Awards show. It wasn’t surprising: he was the favourite to win. The real surprise was a nomination for Gershwin Lake. His band, Gershwin Lake and Parables, were earlier nominated for best Reggae band as well. Wasn’t Gershwin Lake gospel? His “Best Male Gospel Artist” win suggested this was at least part true.
To clear things up, I met with Gershwin and three of his band members: Ivan Connor, Elson Richardson and Tony Fleming and asked, “So, are you gospel or reggae?”
The dreadlocked lead vocalist pauses a moment.
“Reggae, in its truest form, is gospel music,” he finally responds, voice hoarse from last night’s performance. “Ask a spiritual Rastafarian what Reggae is. He’d say ‘Music for the King’, and that’s the same definition someone might give for gospel.”
He continues, “I don’t like ‘gospel-reggae’. We’ve coined the term ‘Message Music’ to describe our sound. We hope it catches on.”
Gershwin’s life in music was preordained. Named after the American composer George Gershwin, he started singing in church in his teens. To form his first band, Unique Touch, the then clean-cut Gershwin joined forces with long-time singing partner Ruel Connor after some prompting by Curtis Richardson, whose wife, Susan Best, was already an established gospel act. With the three of them as vocalists, the band completed two albums and enjoyed a measure of success, including a nomination for best gospel group at the Caribbean Music Awards.
“We won for ‘best composition’, competing against established artistes such as Grace Thrillers from Jamaica,” Gershwin recalls. “Knowing that we had just started, it was an honour and a privilege.”
The band split, and Gershwin travelled to the US to study. On his return to Anguilla, he met Desi Jones, a prolific Jamaican jazz drummer who had been playing in Anguilla with legendary reggae singer Marcia Griffiths. After hearing Unique Touch’s album, Jones invited Gershwin to come to Jamaica and work with him in studio.
Gershwin laughs, puts on his best Jamaican accent, and recalls, “They said, ‘Just bring him dung a yard, man. We’ll work wid the youth.’”
He obliged, producing his first solo album, Midnight Worship.
“We recorded at Tessanne Chin’s studio. At the time, I guess ‘The Voice’ was never even a thought,” he says. “We worked with Desi, Dean Fraser, Carlene Davis, just some great musicians. We had fun.”
“Carlene Davis wasn’t even booked to be on the album,” he continues, “but she came by the studio and told Desi she’d love to get involved. I broke down crying in the studio, thinking about how I had these legends working with me.”
With a freshly produced album, he returned from Jamaica and booked Moonsplash in 2011. When it proved too costly to get the Jamaican band to travel, Gershwin was determined. He charged his old friend Tony Fleming with putting together a band.
“They played the album so well that people thought we were a Jamaican band!” Gershwin remembers.
As the present-day Parables band began to form, music became an extended family business: Gershwin Lake joined Tony Fleming, Ivan Connor, Janelle Lake-Connor (Ivan’s wife and Gershwin’s sister), Darnelle Lake (another of Gershwin’s sisters), Ivan’s cousin Ruel, Elson Richardson, Joshua Gumbs, Jaiden Fleming (Tony’s son, and drummer for British Dependency), and Perry Hughes.
As Moonsplash approached, the excitement was tempered by criticism: some felt that a gospel band had no business playing at such a venue. For the band, no place could be better.
“I don’t believe in preaching to the choir. I want to bring in the lost,” Gershwin explains.
Tony chimes in, “God didn’t bring us into the world to speak to those who are well. We have to go to the highways and byways to touch those who don’t know the message.”
A second album, Nic of Time followed in 2013 and included even more established acts, such as the Jamaican reggae-gospel artiste Prodigal Son. It was then that the group chose their new name.
“We used to go by ‘Shiloh’,” Ivan explains. “We were talking about the lyrics in the music. Tony mentioned that Gershwin’s music was like parables, so we just went with that.”
If the band’s sound raises eyebrows, their look causes even more consternation. Gershwin and Ivan both sport dreadlocks, while musical director and keyboardist Elson Richardson has a mohawk – styles not exactly associated with the church. Rebels with a purpose, they accept that they might be misunderstood. Ivan says that they aim to bridge what they see as a gap between the modern church and the young people it is trying to reach.
“The Bible says, ‘You must become all things to all men, so that you might save them,’” he explains. “It’s not to condone the ills of society, but just as we’ve found repentance, others are entitled to that.”
In that spirit, the Parables staged a concert at the local prison late last year.
“I felt like every word I sang was falling on these people, who needed it,” Gershwin says. “They were in bondage, but the music can set their spirits free.”
Throughout our conversation, Ivan jumps in with fitting biblical references, underscoring what comes across as an unwavering grounding in the group’s faith. The criticism of their music clearly struck a nerve – Ivan brings it up again, this time in a more serious tone.
“God didn’t call music to repentance,” he says. “He called sinners.”
Relaxing a bit, he smiles. “When David played to ease Saul’s spirit, he danced before God until his clothes fell off. I don’t think he was dancing to the kind of stuff you hear in some churches. It had to have been something with rhythm. Maybe a reggae beat, or calypso.” We all had a laugh.
Gershwin adds, “Make no mistake: what we do is worship music. I don’t care what beat it has. I’m worshipping God.”
Despite the criticism, the Parables have been praised for “presenting God at secular concerts.” They’ve started to win fans, including quite a few local Rastafarians.
“At first, it was a culture shock, but the more we present it, the more they warm to it,” Gershwin points out.
Up next will be a new album, the first under the band’s current name. Recognizing the need to pay their own way, the band recently booked a regular Saturday night gig at Cap Juluca Hotel. Though it’s a controversial decision, the group members think they ought to have done this years earlier.
“It takes cash to cure,” is Ivan’s refrain. “An album costs a lot of money to produce.”
For this gig, they’ve broadened their range, performing covers of acts such as Bob Marley, Third World and Morgan Heritage. Ivan is quick to point out that they play music only if it fits their ethos.
“We mix our original songs with some soft reggae, music with a message, because that’s what we do – message music, and people gravitate to that,” he explains.
Ultimately, they plan to take their music beyond Anguilla. As Gershwin explains, “We’re not satisfied with being a local act. We believe we have a message that has to be heard.” He continues, “It’s not our message. It’s God’s message, and it’s our responsibility to take it to the ends of the earth.”