MUSIC WITH A MESSAGE
THURSDAY JUNE 9th, 2011
Someone lit a torch in Isaac Kalambu, or King Isaac as he is known on stage, when he was a young boy in Zimbabwe. That someone was reggae legend Bob Marley, who Kalambu credits with sowing the seed that would eventually blossom into a lifelong passion for reggae music and spreading messages of healing and hope.
“The music that I write is concerned with the well-being of people,” said Kalambu, who began writing poetry at 14 and turned to writing lyrics after being inspired by reggae stars like Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Gregory Isaacs. Kalambu’s most recent work, a collaboration with Gregory Issacs entitled “Isaacs Meets Isaac,” earned the MSU professor a Grammy nomination earlier this year.
“It was unreal,” Kalambu said. “If you would have told me that I would work with this artist and the album would be nominated, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.” Working with the reggae legend was magical for Kalambu, “this was an artist I grew up idolizing,” he said of the late Issacs, who passed away just two months before the Grammy nomination was announced.
Kalambu said he believed Isaacs’s presence on the album contributed to the recognition it received, but that the album’s overall quality made it stand out as well. “The songwriting was very solid, our vocal qualities worked well together, and the production was of a high standard. That all made for an attractive package.”
While the album was recorded in Jamaica between 2004 and 2009, Kalambu used a local sound engineer Joseph McSweeney, photographer David Koppen, and graphic designer James Carter, all based in the Lansing area. “These are people that I know and trust and it’s good of course to keep the business [in Michigan] when you can,” he explained.
Kalambu said he applies what he has learned as a musician to his work in the classroom at Michigan State University. “Those experiences are invaluable, they are applicable to anything and everything I do,” he explained. Kalambu, a professor of ethnomusicology, the study of folk and primitive music and their relationship to the people and cultures they belong to, said, “Students are always eager to know how the writing process goes and the personalities that have impacted the lyrics.”
Currently, he teaches during summers, and splits the rest of his time between his duties as Assistant to the Director of African Studies, recording music, and being a single father. He is in charge of undergraduate engagement with the African Studies Center, helping students learn and do more work in Africa, encouraging them to use the center for their education and social activism.
Kalambu, the single parent of a twelve year old boy, admitted splitting his time between teaching, recording music, and being a father can be difficult. “You have to know when to switch roles,” he said, “but music is always with me.”
For the past nine years, he led Study Abroad trips to the University of the West Indies, located in Jamaica, and said the trips help create an appreciation of reggae music’s history and culture. Kalambu explained that reggae music can be a powerful tool for promoting social change. “It has a melody, a rhythm, it can catch your attention before you know what the song is about,” he said. “They’re songs that speak directly to community issues and seek to address major community problems. They’re songs that speak of the importance of well-living. That is the nature of reggae music, since its inception it’s been music about a message.”
The Grammy-nominee said he is thankful for the exposure the award has granted him, but that he aims to continue to use music to bring light to tough issues, and not to himself. “The glory isn’t my goal, my goal is to lift people up.”