THE STAGE IS SET
It is Thursday night in downtown Plattsburgh. The local pub, Monopole, will be hosting a reggae band for the first time. The band is known is Izland Tonic, and they have a reputation for bringing the spirit of the Antigua to the North Country. Drummer Jakeel Benjamin, arrives at the venue roughly three hours prior to showtime.
Benjamin, a stocky man with a boyish face, sits down and begins to set up his kit. Dressed in all black he is almost a shadow behind all of his bandmates: a quiet statue looming in the background. Similar to a scientist in a lab, Benjamin starts to twist and turn knobs to precise positions on different parts of his drum set.
His hands work rapidly, but as he gets closer to the desired position, they move ever so slowly, as if tightening the snare drum too far will detonate a massive explosion.
The stage is set. Before the band starts playing, Benjamin tucks his gold chain into his shirt. Then, with the clapping of his drum sticks, the party begins. On the downbeat of the first song, the first words that can be heard from the drummer since he arrived at Monopole boom throughout the crowd, “Come on, yeah yeah. Is everyone ready for a good time?”
Keeping a steady beat on the high-hat, the cymbal to the left side of a drum set, Benjamin shouts to his bandmates, as well as the crowd, “Okay everyone, let’s pick pick it up now.”
Sweat weaves down his face, eventually getting caught in the cotton of his black shirt. The pulse of the music starts to pick up. Almost every member of the listeners can’t help but swing their hips to the beat. The upstairs of this North Country pub has been turned into the coast of the Caribbean.
At the age of 4 years old, Benjamin was introduced to the music of the island, reggae. Although reggae holds its origins in Jamaica, this musical genre is extremely popular in many of the Caribbean islands. At the mere age of 14, he had started playing in a band with his older brother, Jameel, for the local hotels.
“We were just having fun. We didn’t think of it as work.” Benjamin said. “There is no better feeling than getting a group of adults to dance because of the music you are creating.”
Jameel is now a well recognized audio engineer, working out of Brooklyn, New York, and he continues to pursue his passion for music. Despite this family trend, his baby brother had different aspirations.
Although Benjamin’s passion for music is still as lively as the Caribbean banter that he shouts throughout the sets of his shows, he has come to Plattsburgh to pursue a career in accounting. For the past two summers he has worked an internship for the Ernst and Young accounting firm, where they have offered him a full-time job for this upcoming summer. Benjamin has traded in the sheet music for spreadsheets.
“It’s honestly so weird to see him in the library. He’s so quiet and keeps to himself,” said Henry Steng, the guitarist of Izland Tonic. “I’m so used to him hyping up the crowd and getting people to dance. And now he’s making sure they’re financially stable?”
Even though Steng is perplexed by Benjamin’s to work in the accounting field, there is an explanation. He comes from a middle-class family of Antigua. Both his father and mother were accountants. Although he was always surrounded by this occupation, Benjamin’s reasoning to take on an accounting major is not related to his family’s history.
“It’s more about security for me,” Benjamin said. “Music is fun, but it is a big risk to take. You have to take a risk on yourself and hope that people will like the music you create. In accounting, there is a exact way to do things and as long as you do it right, you will always have a job.”
Benjamin has learned from his father’s experiences that it can be hard to hold a job. His father had been laid off a couple of times and Benjamin remembers how much this had affected his family.
“I saw a man work hard to provide for his family.” Benjamin said. “But someone else thought that this wasn’t enough. I never wanted to have this feeling again.”
When it came time for Benjamin to make a decision of what college to attend, his family had urged him to attend a university in the Caribbean. They wanted him to be close to home. However, Benjamin knew that he would find himself in the same setting as his father if he were to attend a college in Antigua. He wanted to provide himself with more opportunities than his father had.
Benjamin had considered making a compromise with his family, where he would go to the University of Tampa. This would allow him to stay close to home, but still pursue his dream, which had been to study in the United States. However, there was something that Benjamin had always wanted to experience, something that was not available in Florida.
“I wanted to see snow,” Benjamin said.
Now, Benjamin finds himself roughly 1,500 miles from the beaches of Tampa, where palm trees are replaced by evergreens. When he first arrived in SUNY Plattsburgh, Benjamin was a bit overwhelmed. He had not felt in his element. He was doing well in school, but there was something missing.
Then, one day Benjamin was approached by a friend that he had met in gospel choir, John Ferguson. Ferguson asked Benjamin if he wanted to play in a reggae band that would later be known as Izland Tonic.
TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE
Thomas described Benjamin as a timid person when he had first met him, saying he was excited at all to be a part of this band. Nonetheless, Ferguson still urged Benjamin to come to one of the practices to feel it out.
“I’ll never forget the first time he played a song with us.” Ferguson said. “We were just OK until Jakeel came in. The shy kid that I had known, turned into this crazed man. It’s almost like the music took over him.”
This is the energy that Benjamin brings to the band every day. The spirit of the island still lives in him, despite being so far from home. It will still live in him when he is working as an accountant for Ernst and Young this summer. Although he has strayed from the dream of being a professional musician, he knows that music will always be a big part of his life.
“I will do what I need to do to make a living,” Benjamin said. “But music will always make me feel alive.”