When a major band comes to Charlottesville, it doesn’t necessarily take the stage at the John Paul Jones arena or the Jefferson Theater. Culture, one of the most influential reggae bands of all time, returns to play The Ante Room on April 21. And while the band hails from Jamaica, its current keyboard player is a Virginia native.
Chris “Peanut” Whitley grew up in Harrisonburg and discovered Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Culture in high school. After graduating from Shenandoah University in Winchester, he joined a local reggae band that was opening for Culture at Trax, a now-closed nightclub that was the center of the local music scene throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
Friday, April 21
The Ante Room
“The music director at that time said ‘Would you be interested in coming on tour?’ I didn’t really understand what I was signing up for,” Whitley recalled. “I knew I could play but I was nervous. It’s Culture man, my favorite act! I had to learn about 100 songs. Right away my first tour was for six months. Can you imagine? All over the world. I was in my early 20s. I was like a kid in a candy store…It was a dream come true.”
Culture was formed in 1976 by Albert “Ralph” Walker, Joseph Hill and Roy “Kenneth” Dayes. Hill died in 2006 after collapsing during a show and his son, Kenyatta, now fronts the band. Culture rose to international acclaim with its debut single “Two Sevens Clash,” and the album of the same name. Reggae had not previously been popular outside of Jamaica, but Two Sevens Clash became widely appreciated within the early U.K. punk scene by bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
After being adopted by the British punk scene, Culture and other big reggae acts found a different niche in the U.S. as they were accepted by American hippies. Dreadlocks increasingly began to appear at Grateful Dead concerts.
Starting in the 1980s, American reggae promoters began “really tapping into the Dead Head scene and the hippie thing,” says Whitley. “That’s how Culture became a mainstay in the States. Culture, Spear, Eek-a-Mouse and Yellowman became bigger than the rest of them because they got picked up by the hippie thing.”
Whitley believes that Culture is probably the biggest reggae act on the African continent.
“Huge crowds of 100,000-plus,” Whitley says. “They took Joseph Hill’s music and lyrics for their own. He spoke for the oppressed. They felt like Joseph was a rallying cry to the world. About African liberation. Really giving dignity and pride to being African…he was bigger than Bob Marley there.”
In 2002, Two Sevens Clash was named “one of the 50 coolest albums of all time” by Rolling Stone.
With Kenyatta Hill still fronting the band and original member Walker performing with them, Culture brings a unique opportunity to Charlottesville. The band that inspired millions can be seen in The Ante Room’s intimate setting, in a space no larger than the Jamaican clubs they started out in 40 years ago.
Culture’s 1977 release of Two Sevens Clash was so influential it caused the city of Kingston, Jamaica, to shut down as described in the liner notes of the reissue: “…on July 7, 1977—the day when sevens fully clashed (seventh day, seventh month, 77th year) a hush descended on Kingston.”