Whatcha Gonna Do?

Houston's Neutral Sisters look white, sing black and move to a reggae rhythm

For Houston reggae act the Neutral Sisters, this gig in Jamaica promised a tough crowd. This was not your typical Jamaican reggae festival slot their manager Pele Lanier had gotten them, not a hedonistic spring break shindig for North American college kids. This was Tony Rebel's Rebel Salute -- a true red, black and green Rastafarian gathering. In keeping with the dictates of the religion, alcohol was forbidden on the grounds, and food vendors offered no meat -- only fruit, fish and vegetables. Festgoers slept in hammocks. Dreadlocks were de rigueur.

And on the night the Neutral Sisters performed, great clouds of high-grade ganja vapors hung over the 12,000 fans who had already arrived, who were eager to get past this unknown act and on to the next, who happened to be Bob Marley's son Damian, a.k.a. the Grammy-winning Junior Gong.

This was the sight that greeted sisters Bianca and Kyra Noons -- two white-skinned young ladies -- when they took the stage. Imagine the butterflies in their stomachs. And imagine what the thousands of Rastas thought when they saw the Neutral Sisters.

Kyra and Bianca
George Hixson
Kyra and Bianca
Bianca and friend Angela share a laugh backstage at a Houston Caribfest.
Daniel Kramer
Bianca and friend Angela share a laugh backstage at a Houston Caribfest.

"That's the response we get from nearly everybody when we walk out," says Bianca in a faint Jamaican accent. "They're like, 'What are they coming with?' "

"You could have heard a pin drop," says their ebullient father/manager, Tony Noons, who speaks like Sir David Frost and looks something like an older Bob Marley minus the dreads. "It was unbelievable silence. They didn't know what those white girls were doing on the stage."

Until they opened their mouths, and a perfect Jamaican patois two-part harmony came flying forth over a haunting, hypnotic dub backing.

All in de image of a gangsta / whatcha gonna do?

"The whole place roared, man," says Tony. "Incredible! Absolutely phenomenal!"

Kyra's Jamaican accent becomes much more pronounced when she remembers the event. "Even if summa dem want to not like us, all dey could do was smile."

That's why they're called the Neutral Sisters. They don't identify with any country or any race. They were born in Kenya, to a white Jamaican mother and a black English father. (Who both live in Houston now, though they are divorced.) They spent their childhoods in Kenya, London and Jamaica, and went to high school in Houston and the Hill Country. And though they look white, could easily, as the term goes, "pass," they don't consider themselves white.

"One of the funniest things in America was going to school," says Kyra, an extroverted 27-year-old brunette and the elder sister by 18 months. We're sitting in the family's unofficial headquarters, a huge Museum District loft in an ornate low-rise, the home of Tony Noons and his brother Philip. For the time being, it's also the home of Kyra, her fiancé and their two children while Kyra's house is being renovated. Bianca lives with her mother. Tony Noons serves Kenyan and Russian tea in china cups. Incongruously, there is a tattered relic of the Texas Revolution on the wall, a framed "Come and Take It" flag that Philip says was lent to him as security on a debt.

"The first ting you got here was 'What are you?' When you are coming from England and Jamaica," and here Kyra's fairly faint Jamaican accent again becomes very pronounced, "ya are what ya are. If ya brown, ya brown, if ya yella, ya yella, if ya red, ya red. So I come over here and they ask me what I am, I say, 'My father's black and my mother's white.' So they say, 'Oh, you're black.' "

"But we have all different cultures -- Irish, Scottish, African, Jamaican, English, whatever," says Bianca, a lithe 25-year-old blond who works as an accountant by day. Bianca is more introverted than her sister, and her Caribbean lilt is less pronounced than her sister's, though she can also turn it up about ten notches whenever she wants.

"I had a problem with my geography teacher at Bellaire," she remembers. "We had to choose a race on this sheet. I filled out white and I filled out black. She said I had to choose one. I was like, 'You cannot tell me to choose one.' And there was no 'other,' so I wrote 'other.' She said that wasn't going to work -- the rules say you have to choose one, but I said, 'This is what I am.' "

"Everything that we had to go through helps explain the name of our group," says Kyra. "We've had instances where we go places where we're not accepted because we are not this color fully or that color fully -- we're in the middle. Or there are places where you can just go everywhere -- once people know you, once I tell people that I'm Jamaican, they're like, 'Oh, okay.' "

From Africa to England, England to Jamdung / Next ting you know we inna Houston -- "Live & Direct," the Neutral Sisters

"Rebel Salute was a Rastafari-type show," says Kyra (pronounced "KEE-ra"). "There was only one white American Rasta guy on the bill, and he was comin' with his own vibe. Everybody could see that he was American. But us? No, we don't fit that bill, because we are genuine with what we come with. Everything that comes out of our mout's -- you know that we are not fakes, that we are not trying to put on, that we are not wannabes. No! It's just that you can't put us in a box -- you can't look at us and say, 'Well, they belong here.' "

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