Whatcha Gonna Do?

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

Kyra says that what she learned in English choirs is a key component in the Neutral Sisters' intricate harmonies. "That's why when we build our harmonies you get all kinds of things."

"Wherever we were, music was always a strong theme in our house," Tony remembers. "A broad section of good music. And they were obviously taking all that in, plus their own likes and dislikes."

Still, they had shown no signs of developing careers in music, until one night when Tony was unwinding on their veranda with a drink. "Bianca walked out and said, 'Dad, listen to this,' and started to sing. I knew they were doing choir and stuff like that, but I was very impressed. I said, 'Wow! That's really good.' And she asked if I wanted to hear another one and sang that, too. I told her I hadn't heard any of them, and then she pulled out a notebook of lyrics of all the songs she had written. And I read through them and I thought, 'Wow, that's fantastic -- besides having great voices, the girls are writing their own music,' and the melodies were fantastic."

Tony apprehensively watches his progeny at 
Daniel Kramer
Tony apprehensively watches his progeny at Caribfest.
Tony and son Luke (right) argue their family's case at Caribfest.
Tony and son Luke (right) argue their family's case at Caribfest.

Shortly after discovering their talents, the girls left Jamaica one after the other. Tony says that there is a huge decline in the quality of Jamaican education between junior and senior high school, so the girls were packed off to live with Valerie's relatives, who had moved to Texas.

"My relatives were in a transitional time when I came over here, so I got to experience several different high schools," says Kyra. "I was at Clear Lake, New Braunfels, Canyon Lake, and I came back and graduated from Bellaire. That was the year Bianca came to America."

"Being Jamaican in America was a huge culture clash," says Bianca, who attended Westbury. "My aunt just kind of dropped me off -- it was a huge school."

It's somewhat surprising, but Bianca says that New Braunfels, her first port of call, was an easier place to overcome culture shock than cosmopolitan Houston. "It was mountainous and outdoors," she says. "I was able to go outside and hike with my uncle."

Bianca got into hip-hop in Houston and learned deejaying. She was still filling notebooks with songs. Kyra was still singing, too.

Six years ago, the ladies found a little Jamaican oasis in Houston called Yard Sound Studios, a reggae recording studio run by Orville Adams. Adams is the nephew of Jamaican piano legend Aubrey Adams and a veteran of Houston reggae 1980s mainstays the Yard Band. He's also the bass player in the Neutral Sisters, Kyra's fiancé and the father of their daughters, Sadé and Jade.

Sitting behind the control board at Yard Sound, the cheerful, soft-spoken Adams remembers the first time he saw one of the Noons girls in his studio. "One day Bianca came in with this rap group she was with called Waspsnest," he says in an accent redolent of Kingston. "We had a pool table in the back, and she was shooting pool. I turned to a friend of mine and said, 'Who is dat white girl over there?' She must have heard me because when I walked by, she say, 'Wha' ya say, star?'(How you doin', man?) in Jamaican, you know! She said, 'I'm a DJ.' And I said, 'A white DJ? A girl? A white DJ Jamaican girl?' "

Adams was eager to work with Bianca, but their wires got crossed in a mix-up over her work phone number. Months later, the two crossed paths again, whereupon Bianca greeted him with the same patois howdy. "I told her to come back and start working in the studio, and she looked at me and said, 'I've a sister. She sings.' And I said, 'What? Two white girls? Dis a gold mine, man!' So she brought Kyra in. I was thinking, 'Two sisters, Jamaican vibe, everything right.' I didn't even know dey were from Africa, because they were talking Jamaican just raaawww! So they come and they did a song, 'Live & Direct.' "

The demo wasn't the only product to come from this session. Two daughters and an impending marriage also came about. "Me and Kyra really clicked togedda really close, ya know?" Adams says, smiling shyly. "When I saw Kyra and we started to vibe in the studio, we just come togedda like one."

It's a hard, hard world / trouble and strife / hold your head high / Jah-Jah will provide. -- "Be Strong," the Neutral Sisters

When the family's old friend Pele Lanier, the veteran reggae manager and force of nature, heard the demo, she knew she had a new client on her hands. Lanier was a legendary behind-the-scenes figure in reggae circles, an African-American Rastafarian woman who wore magnificent African gowns and hair wraps. Female managers are somewhat rare in all genres of music, and the exceptions to the macho rule usually have to overcompensate à la the rough-and-tumble, foulmouthed Sharon Osbourne. Lanier -- who managed the dub poet Mutabaruka, among others -- took instead a regal, magisterial approach, and was instrumental in raising the status of women in reggae and the international status of reggae in general. Every year she would attend the MIDEM conference in Cannes, the world's largest independent music convention, and preach the gospel of reggae.

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