Whatcha Gonna Do?

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

No boxes, no preaching, no genres, not to mention no race and no country. Again, it's not for nothing that they are called the Neutral Sisters.

During the Great Depression, Tony Noons's father immigrated from Jamaica to England, where he settled in Birmingham, a sprawling red-brick metropolis in the West Midlands, and married a local woman. Birmingham was long the most diverse city in England outside of London, a teeming melting pot of Afro-Caribbeans, West Indians, Irish and working-class English. From the late 1960s onward, Birmingham and its outlying towns have periodically contended with more famous rivals such as London and Manchester as the hottest musical city in the UK. It was the hotbed of the English ska and reggae scenes, and classic rock staples Traffic and ELO are from the area, as were the primary architects of heavy metal: Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

A Masai woman spoon-feeds Bianca a taste of Africa while Kyra looks on.
Courtesy of Tony Noons
A Masai woman spoon-feeds Bianca a taste of Africa while Kyra looks on.
Hair today, gone tomorrow: Tony, Valerie and Kyra Noons after his days on stage in England.
Courtesy of Tony Noons
Hair today, gone tomorrow: Tony, Valerie and Kyra Noons after his days on stage in England.

As a young man, Noons was on the fringes of this ferment. "We all knew each other on the scene," he remembers. "Steve Winwood, Ozzy Osbourne, Jimmy Capaldi..."

Noons was working as a booking agent for a few of the bands, and one such was a group called Listen, which featured a shaggy, blond-haired singer named Robert Plant.

"One day we were trying to figure out how to get him some publicity," Noons remembers. His accent is cultured and betrays none of the braying vowels of the Ozzy-style "Brummie" dialect. "And I had just bought a bunch of velvet material for curtains. He had a court date coming up in a couple of days' time, and I thought, 'Why don't we just dress him up in an outrageous costume, and we'll get all his friends to hold banners and circle the court on the day?' So we made this velvet King John outfit, and the magistrate refused to hear the case, and it made the national news. "

"We helped get him his first publicity," Noons says. "And the rest is history."

Soon enough, Noons was history on that scene as well. A girlfriend tipped him off about an upcoming local audition for the national traveling company of Hair, and Noons -- whose only training came in school plays and church choir performances -- and another local by the name of Joan Armatrading beat out hundreds of other competitors to get parts.

"I was a natural, a flamboyant character," Noons remembers. "They liked my look at the time; I was what they were looking for, and I could sing." Along with Armatrading, Noons toured with another cast member who went on to further success, a young actor/stuntman named Richard O'Brien. Noons remembers that O'Brien was working on a bunch of songs that he would illustrate cartoon-style. A few years later those sketches and ditties would become The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

After Hair, Noons moved to Paris, where he performed in cabarets. In his off-hours one night, Noons was relaxing in Place Clichy, where he met Valerie, who became the mother of their four children. After a stint back in London, the newlyweds planned to move somewhere more exotic. Some Brazilian friends were urging them to move to Rio, but other pals had an even better offer.

"Being of mixed race, I knew that at some point I would have to go to Africa," Noons says. Tony and Valerie moved to Kenya, where they first owned a boutique, and later got into the safari business. Noons worked as a tour manager, picking up American and European tourists at the Nairobi Airport, dropping them off at their hotels, and then picking them up and driving them out to places like the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara. Tony and Valerie stayed for five years, and it was there that Kyra and Bianca were born.

The Noons girls hardly remember Kenya. "I'll see pictures and I'll have a certain feeling," says Kyra. "It's more like knowing, and only remembering to an extent."

"The Masai just loved Kyra with her [then] golden locks," remembers Tony. "They would sit her on their knee -- there was that contact. We had a breakdown outside of Amboseli Game Reserve. It was getting late. A Masai taxi driver pulled up in his Peugeot car packed with lots of passengers. It was about 7:30 at night, and we were stranded, literally. And this guy hooked up our Volkswagen combi and towed us 150 miles into Nairobi. And I asked why he would stop for us when nobody else would. And he said, 'Because of your daughter.' She certainly saved our bacon that day."

When the girls approached school age, the Noons family moved back to London, where they welcomed two new additions: sons Daniel and Luke. Tony also got back into the music scene, managing a hard rock band called Money. When that fizzled, Noons had a new idea. Why not open a safari company in Jamaica? "I had the experience," he explains, "and that was Valerie's home."

Until they moved to Jamaica, Kyra and Bianca had shown only a slightly above average interest in music, and no special talent. Kyra says that she did learn two entirely different approaches to singing in England and Jamaica. "Most of our singing started in school," she says. "In England, choir was part of the curriculum. Jamaica, too, but there it was no big deal. Nobody ever concentrated on if you were any good -- it was just 40 of us in our school uniforms. The teacher would be like" -- here she adopts a matronly voice -- "'Sing, girls!' But in England at Christmastime you would get in these big churches and it was just amazing how it sounded. All the different parts coming together."

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