Tribute and benefit planned to remember the life of Joseph Israel

Courtesy photo

There aren’t many professional reggae musicians who were raised in Fayetteville, Arkansas. There aren’t many reggae artists who sport bright-orange dreadlocks. There simply aren’t many made like Joseph Israel, who attracted national attention and signed a major label recording deal in the mid-2000s. His appearance generated curiosity, and his longtime friend Hari Newmark said Israel always welcomed it with open arms and made friends with everyone.

“Joseph was a kind person. He was very inclusive. He was such a generous person, with such a clean heart,” Newmark said.

A group of his Israel’s friends and bandmates will honor the musician and peace advocate, who died in March. The longtime Fayetteville resident, who was born as Joseph Fennel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, passed away near his farm in California after a short battle with cancer. He was 40.

What: Benefit for the family of Joseph Israel featuring The Jerusalem Band, Irie Lions and more
When: 6-10 p.m. Sunday (April 15)
Where: George’s Majestic Lounge, Fayetteville
Cost: A suggested minimum donation of $10

Fennel grew up listening to a diverse roster of musicians thanks in part to Jose’s Streetside, the restaurant his father, Joe Fennel, founded in 1980. Joseph Israel took to reggae and made it a career, eventually connecting with Jamaican musicians such as Damian Marley and Earl “Chinna” Smith, who helped him record the album “Gone are the Days.” The album was released by Universal Music in 2007. He continued writing and recording, and his last release was the 2016 album “Paradise.”

Israel performed with Jamaican cohorts but also formed a band relying on Arkansas talent. The Jerusalem Band toured widely in support of his albums and routinely came back for hometown shows, often at George’s Majestic Lounge. It’s there that many of his friends and family will gather on Sunday (April 15) to honor the late musician and raise money to offset medical bills. Scheduled to perform are members of his first reggae band, Kepha; Butterfly and Irie Soul, from Little Rock; the Fayetteville reggae band Irie Lions; and an expanded roster of Israel’s group, the Jerusalem Band. Admission is open to the public, with donations going to Israel’s wife and their three teenaged children.

Matt Smith joined the Jerusalem Band for many of the band’s tours. He and another local reggae artist, the vocalist and songwriter Rochelle Bradshaw, teamed together to organize the local benefit. Smith recalls his friend as a kind soul who allowed for his bandmates to grow and learn inside the band. He realized, Smith said, that the individual flourishes of his bandmates gave them a unique sound.

“He was of the mindset that you should let them be creative. It made him a really good band leader. He would do anything for any of us,” Smith said.

Among the many things he did for Bradshaw was introduce her to his best friend from middle school, Newmark, who was opening for Israel’s band at the time. They met in 2003, and eventually moved to Fayetteville as a result. Israel figured they were a good fit for each other. He was right.

Israel’s nature of giving and helping is part of the inspiration for having the tribute show and fundraiser. Smith said he feels there’s a need to give back to the musician who helped so many. Israel, like many musicians, was not insured. Smith and Bradshaw started work on a benefit concert almost as soon as they heard of their friend’s condition. It turned into a tribute concert as well when Israel succumbed to his illness before the date they had booked for the show.

“We felt compelled to continue,” Bradshaw said. “This is our way of giving back. I attribute it all to him.”

Smith remembers someone with an intense focus on his spirituality. That led Israel to reggae music, and Smith believes the music they made resonated with fans because of Israel’s conviction.

“He was following his path, this spiritual path, and using the music as a message,” he said.

Smith said the tribute show will feature many of the bands revisiting songs that Israel wrote during his career. As a testament to Israel’s contributions in the Jerusalem Band, they had to bring in several musicians to replace him, including someone to play rhythm guitar and others to help with vocal duties. Those vocalists have spent time digging through Israel’s lyrics to try and find and interpret the biblical messages embedded there, which were numerous. Bradshaw and Michael Walker, who both supplied backing vocals while the band was on tour, will take the bulk of the vocal leads. Others will take a song or two as they are able. Bradshaw said the show will draw from all phases of his career, and they planned it to be the kind of concert Israel might have planned himself, one that featured his bandmates sharing his message through song.

Smith said those unable to make the performance can donate through the George’s Majestic Lounge ticketing page at Just as the musicians who are donating their time on Sunday, George’s has donated their space so that donations go directly to the family.