Soundtracking Emily Raboteau’s “Searching for Zion”

Earlier this week, I finished reading Emily Raboteau’s terrific book Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora. The book follows trips made by Raboteau to Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the American South; as the title suggests, her goal is to gain an understanding of the concept of Zion. Raboteau’s narrative includes meetings with different factions of Rastafarians, an examination of the organization of Rev. Creflo Dollar, and a visit to Ghana shortly after Barack Obama’s electoral victory in 2008. Early in the book, Raboteau describes spending time with the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, a group led by a man named Ben Ammi Ben-Israel. It’s a brief encounter in the overall context of Searching for Zion, but it did bring back memories of an album I’d spent more than a little time obsessing over a few years ago.

In 2008, the excellent Chicago label Numero Group released the compilation Soul Messages from Dimona, which looked at the musical side of the same movement that Raboteau explored in her book. In short: after founding the movement in Chicago, Ben-Israel led a movement across the Atlantic, eventually settling in Israel. There were more than a few musicians within the group, and the compilation documents several: Soul Messengers, Sons of the Kingdom, and The Spirit of Israel among them.

Like many a Numero Group compilation, Soul Messages from Dimona abounds with memorable, how-did-I-never-hear-this-before songs — though the blend of driving soul and fervently esoteric religious devotion makes this one stand out. Revisiting it after reading Raboteau’s narrative provided an expansive context for the music I heard — a more complex examination of Dimona’s residents than one might get from the compilation’s liner notes.

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