There are some things that are somewhat mysterious about the man who calls himself Patrick Mystery. Ask him where he’s from, and he’ll tell you, “Everywhere.”
However, there is no mystery about one thing — he is passionate about everything he does, especially his sometime vocation: reggae singer. He is especially passionate about the music’s original role in the hands and voices of his heroes, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, who combined a cool Caribbean vibe with fiery social commentary.
Patrick Mystery’s eponymous band will perform the last show, Thursday, August 31, in a series of world music-related concerts at the Princeton Shopping Center this summer. The shows are sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton. Among the performances, which will be held on successive Thursday nights between 6 and 8 p.m., are groups playing music from Greece, Latin America, Ireland, England, Germany, and Spain.
The son of a general contractor and a homemaker, Patrick Mystery (whose real name is Patrick Phillips) was born in Barbados. His first musical influence was the music of the Anglican church. “I sang soprano in the church choir. I was a pretty decent soprano,” he says. “My father was sort of religious. He thought the church was a good place for us (three boys, three girls) to be.” His first instrument was the harmonica. “My mom purchased it for me when I was a kid, and I blew that thing whenever I had the chance.”
So Mystery spent his formative years playing and singing in the church — and listening to reggae. It was the release of the Jamaican film, “The Harder They Come,” as well as the emergence of Marley outside of his native Jamaica that inspired young Patrick to truly absorb the messages of reggae. “It was really an awakening for me,” he says. “It was Marley’s ‘Natural Mystic’ that really stuck in my blood, as well as Jimmy Cliff’s music, which was very much inspirational to me.”
After moving to Brooklyn in 1978, Mystery picked up acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. The group, Patrick Mystery, which has been performing since 1995, now has Andrea G on lead guitar (“you’re not going to find many female lead guitarists in reggae” says Mystery), Prince Hallam on rhythm guitar, Sherwin Henperry on keyboards, Ras Jude on bass, and Gary Steele on drums. The group’s namesake serves as lead vocalist.
“I try to keep an authentic feel in my music,” Mystery says. “But it is merely a feel for me. I do not try to copy anything — I feel the music. Music is vibration. It is not what is written down on a piece of paper. It is what you hear and what you feel.”
Several of his tunes, most notably “Innocent Blood,” bear the imprint of Marley but Mystery’s style of writing comes more from his experiences. “I am not a prolific writer but the songs I get come from somewhere. The ideas flow, I try to put down a framework for them, and pretty soon I have a song. I try to explain this to my musicians; I try to put down what I feel and get them to listen to the songs.”
Although he is Caribbean-born Mystery considers himself a citizen of the world — hence his first response when asked about his origins. “People tend to pigeonhole you when you come from a particular place,” he says. “But I belong everywhere. There are no borders for me. I am a person who fits in anywhere in the world.”
The name “Mystery” fits the singer, he admits, but it didn’t originally come as a result of any desire on his part to be obfuscatory or vague about his life. Rather, it came because he was and is a student of the ancient Egyptian Mystery System.
The Mystery System, he explains, was a system of education and socialization taught in ancient Egyptian universities, which adherents believe gave rise to Greek and Roman religion and cosmology and, eventually, the basis of what became Western mathematics and science. “My brother and I had studied the Mystery System, and we were sitting around one day talking about how that would be a good name for a band,” he says. “The Mystery System is all about the cultivation of knowledge and wisdom, and we thought we could bring some knowledge of it to the members of the band. They started calling me Mr. Mystery, and that evolved into Patrick Mystery.”
Reggae music specifically and Caribbean music in general has been modernized, lamentably, some believe, into a highly electronicized, hip-hop and funk-inflected genre, characterized by shouted, rather than sung, lyrics and a pervasive “bling-bling” ethos.
But the music played by this group always strives to show the same social consciousness that Patrick Mystery’s heroes demonstrated. “My music tends to be sociopolitical, to deal with world issues,” he says. “I am against the destruction of cultures and habitats by big corporations and governments. There are many innocent people dying who are not involved in the political or economic elites or do not have any control over the global economy.”
In his other life, Mystery works as a computer network administrator for CBIZ Healthcare Solutions, a health care business service firm in East Windsor, where he lives. He has long, cascading dreadlocks and a full beard and acknowledges that his appearance isn’t that typical for computer geeks in corporate America. For that matter, he says, his appearance isn’t that typical for anyone in corporate America. “I feel I belong everywhere. I do not box myself in. I fit in every situation, and am comfortable with everyone. I believe we are all brothers, and that belief comes out in my dealings with everyone.”
He knows that in other corporate settings, people who wish to wear locks or braids have sued — sometimes unsuccessfully — to have the right to don hairstyles and clothing that fits their heritage. But Mystery says he has never had problems getting along with anyone on the job, even though, such as on a recent corporate trip to Cleveland, he noticed that he was the only person there with dreads and a beard.
But his supervisors and coworkers are very much aware of his life as a reggae singer — as well as his sometimes scathing critiques of the status quo. His bosses, company president Sam Donio and his direct supervisor, George Kelley, “support me steadfastly,” says Mystery. While Mystery’s songs sometimes attack the status quo, they are always underpinned with a message of love and understanding. “I do not believe anyone is alienated by me. If we can find common ground we can find solutions to world issues.”
Concert Series, Thursdays, June 15 to August 31, 6 to 8 p.m., Princeton Shopping Center, North Harrison Street. Free. 609-921-6234.
June 15, Animus.
June 22, Philadelphia German Brass Band.
June 29, The Blawenburg Band.
July 5, The Voo Dudes.
July 13, Eco Del Sur.
July 20, Alborada Spanish Dance Theater.
July 27, Virago.
August 3, Klez Dispensers.
August 10, Trenton Brass Quintent Plus One.
August 17, Celtic Crossroads and the Trenton AOH Division 1 Pipe Band.
August 24, Italian Festival features music by Jay Posipanko and Michael Lemma.
August 31, Patrick Mystery.