The Washington Times

A deep message with a heavy beat

November 12, 1998
Section: C
Denise Barnes - The Washington Times

In the split second between what was and what will be lies Midnite, a five-member roots-reggae band stirring the local underground music scene. Focusing on reggae as it was played at its birth in Jamaica more than 30 years ago, Midnite aims to build on the considerable legacy of such reggae greats as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh while addressing current issues. Its music speaks of social injustice, political consciousness and natural living, with an infusion of spirituality. That seems to satisfy the lovers of underground music. That scene - small clubs featuring bands that play original songs - offers a potpourri of genres, many of which have taken on spiritual undertones as the new millennium approaches. That seems to satisfy the members of Midnite. "We play our music to stimulate, to get people to start to think. We basically deal with historical things - where we come from, the way the world was in the past," says Midnite co-founder Ron Benjamin, a Rastafarian. "Western society is getting further and further away from natural living. Everything is technology. Personally, I take technology as one of the greatest sins of the century," he says. Midnite uses electronics sparingly. Mr. Benjamin, 30, plays keyboards; his 29-year-old brother, Vaughn, is the group's lead vocalist and principal lyricist. Drummer Dion Hopkins, bassist Joe Straws and guitarist Trippa complete the quintet. The Benjamin brothers founded Midnite in 1989 on their native island of Antigua. They relocated to the United States in 1994 and were intent on making a musical contribution and communicating through their songs with people from New York to Atlanta. They recently returned from Namibia, where they headlined with local musicians.

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On a blustery Thursday night, bodies are packed into Bukom Cafe's narrow space. Some wear T-shirts, jeans and brightly colored woven Rasta belts; others wear suits and leather jackets. But inside the Adams Morgan restaurant, all sway in unison to Midnite's "one-drop" beat, the music's driving bass line seemingly carrying listeners to an almost hypnotic state. With each successive song, the band's message becomes more intense, reaching its apex around midnight. "We are about unobstructed speech," says Ron Benjamin, speaking for his band members. "We don't come in a rush. If you can't understand what I'm saying, what am I singing for?" The group's mission, Mr. Benjamin explains, is to be accountable. Midnite's members take their talents seriously; each is a self-trained musician. They all feel a responsibility "to the community, our brother man , to our fellow man . . . to all the oppressed people around the world," Mr. Benjamin says. The music's spiritual subtext is not lost on Inez Pulliam, 30. A loyal follower of Midnite, this Arlington resident frequents Bukom Cafe twice a week to open herself to the group's message. "It's like coming to church for me. Whenever I'm feeling low, the music brings me up. It's more cultural and spiritual. The music makes you move but gives you something for the heart," Ms. Pulliam says. "When you leave here, you carry a part of them with you." Though Bukom Cafe has no cover charge, Latief Coghill, 43, chooses to enjoy Midnite's music from outside the restaurant, where he can enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. "They've got a spiritual vibe," Mr. Coghill says. "They've got a sound that nobody else has. Their music is important to the story of black people's lives in America." Midnite seeks neither fame nor fortune, Mr. Benjamin says. The band is only following its destiny. "We're doing the work, and it's extremely fulfilling," Mr. Benjamin says. "We get people who either love us or hate us. But we're getting a reaction, and that's what we want."