Illuminating the Darkness
Carrying Cleveland’s Reggae Torch for More Than Two Decades
CLEVELAND — All music can be liberating. But of all musical genres, it is perhaps the raw, organic pulsating beat of a reggae riff that adds a spiritual dimension, a redemptive quality to that emancipation that soothes and satisfies the soul as it feeds and invigorates the brain. And, at the same time, involuntarily keeps your feet moving, your hips swaying, and lips smiling.
Think reggae and you envision the sounds of Jamaica and the Caribbean, those uplifting styles of riddims that are as often associated with a West Indian Island cruise as they are with the oppressive living conditions in the shantytowns of Kingston. Thanks to the legendary work of Jamaica’s reggae prophet Bob Marley and others who followed, the style is now international, feeling comfortably at home as much in Soweto or Accra as it in Tokyo or London. Yes, even Cleveland (www.dubaidesignweek.ae).
And for nearly two-and-a-half decades, first with I-Tal, then First Light, and now with the PLUS Band, vocalist and percussionist Carlos Jones has been at the forefront of the local reggae scene. In many ways, Jones’ name is synonymous with Cleveland reggae, as much for his musical contributions as for his efforts to keep the reggae beat alive and well on the north coast.
The Bob Marley Connection – “A natural mystic blowing through the air.”
His musical evolution began far from the Island beat. As a youth in the mid-sixties, Jones lived as an “army brat” in Frankfurt, Germany, where he was first exposed to the Beatles. “That music blew me away, just like it did many others,” he said. When relocating to the Cleveland area in his early teens, interest in Motown, R&B and the rock sounds of the late sixties sparked enough interest to begin playing the drums, and much later, the guitar. But there was still no real connection with the art of music for Jones until he stumbled upon Jamaica’s finest export.
“Reggae hit me in the mid-seventies,” he recalls, after his older brother turned him on to one of Marley’s early albums. “It was one of the most amazing things I ever heard.” As a percussionist, Jones was exploring a variety of international sounds and styles, from Latin America to Africa. “And when I heard reggae, it was totally captivating, unlike anything I’d ever heard.”
But there was more to the attraction than just the hypnotic drum and bass line. “Getting past the music and into the message, that was something else again. There was a political message, but something very spiritual as well. And that sucked me in deeper and deeper.”
Jones was 21 in 1978, and had no real musical ambitions at the time. He was working as a mechanic with Firestone, harboring dreams of becoming a racecar driver. “But certain things came about,” he remembers vividly, to change his life’s direction. “The music, and different things associated with the music, like the herb, gave me a heightened vision. And reggae really clicked into that.” That direction changed for good on May 19th of that year, when Marley’s Kaya tour came to the Music Hall, his second and last Cleveland appearance, a performance that Jones describes as “totally life-changing.”
The atmosphere at the Music Hall, Jones recounts, was nearly indescribable. “There was such a feeling there. Wall-to-wall, corner-to-corner, everybody was just plugged into that same vibe, that electricity, that spirituality. Smoke in the air… everybody’s moving… the music is hypnotic. And there’s just this little guy on the stage just totally in control of it all. Simply awesome.”
Jones has been growing his dreadlocks ever since.
During his relatively short career and particularly since his death in 1981, Bob Marley has achieved an international stature nearly unparalleled by any contemporary historical figure. Whether in a small, isolated village in El Salvador or Cote D’Ivoire, or in a major metropolis like Paris or New York, Bob Marley as icon can be found virtually everywhere.
“It’s just a testament to his magnetism and mission,” says Jones, “because I really feel like he was put here on a mission. It’s amazing to me how much he did, and the legacy he left. The music that this guy recorded, 99 per cent of it is just amazing, awesome music and messages. And it’s still very fresh today. As cruel as it may sound, his passing boosted that even more.”
Putting it Into Practice – “I Want to Tell You Where Reggae Comes From.”
After the Marley concert, Jones immediately went in search of a musical outlet, and found it on a WMMS Coffee Break Concert performance by a relatively new local reggae act called I-Tal. “When I found out that there was an actual reggae band in Cleveland, I was just tripped out.” He tracked the band down, and didn’t relent until they took him on as a percussionist.
From a small handful of Cleveland-based reggae bands in the late seventies, I-Tal, with its true roots-reggae approach and philosophy, was clearly the most successful. The band toured extensively throughout the Midwest until creative differences and ego clashes forced a split by the end of 1983. But the experience is one that Jones will forever cherish.
“There was the free-flowing joy of the spontaneous groove. That never-ending hypnotic thing that just took people… I’ve never felt that before,” Jones recalls. It was the type of reaction and acceptance that all bands strive for. That universal vibe. “It was that musical vibe that was so strong, so intense, that you could just feel the whole room take off. And everybody was there with you. That’s what I’ve always lived for. You don’t get that in everyday life.”
After I-Tal’s demise, Jones wasted no time in moving on. On Marley’s birthday (Feb. 6) the following year, Jones wrote the anthemic Musical Uprising, officially giving birth to First Light, and launching a 13-year run for what was to become one of the most successful reggae bands in the Midwest.
Initially very roots style-oriented, First Light later evolved to incorporate rock, jazz and R&B influences to their sound, while still remaining true to the reggae spirit. “We were all American-born,” says Jones, “we all had our own musical influences. Even though we loved reggae, we weren’t Jamaicans playing reggae.” First Light toured regularly throughout the Midwest, New England, the Atlantic Coast, and all points south, becoming a regular fixture on college campuses, mid-size concert venues, and outdoor festivals. Musical Uprising and I Want to Tell You Where Reggae Comes From became popular sing-along hymns. And the band’s hard work paid off financially as well. “We were doing great,” Jones remembers, with a captivating smile. “And we were having a great time. I just wish I could have saved some of that money.”
While he insists that that “universal vibe” was just as strong an element for First Light, Jones says that the camaraderie established by the members of the band will be to him, its greatest legacy. “It was a family that was created. There was no deeper love -and no more bitter rival at the same time. We had some nasty fights, but at the same time it heightened our awareness of our feelings for each other.” The end of the road finally came in June of 1997, when the band called it quits.
In an effort to return to his preferred roots-style approach, Jones began working more closely with the Peace, Love & Unity Syndicate (PLUS), formed in 1993 as a Bob Marley tribute band. “We went full circle –forward around to the roots again. That’s what I’ve wanted to recapture –that pure, raw joy, that feeling I felt right from the beginning. I wanted to take the business out of it, and focus on the music.”
With PLUS, Jones returned to the drum as the foundation for the group. The focus, says Jones, is on Nayabinghi, an often neglected aspect of Jamaican music that is the percussive framework and the ritualistic ceremonial drumming behind Jamaica’s Rastafarian philosophy.
“We went back to songs that convey spirituality,” says Jones. “I wouldn’t say that we’re so much political, but, in the songs that we do, we try to perpetuate truth. So, if that’s in conflict with political beliefs or standards, then so be it. We try to promote people seeing things for what they are. I think that’s what Marley did. He illuminated a lot of those dark corners. Or a lot of those misconceptions that people were led to adhere to.”
PLUS is heading to the studio for its first recording session December 1st. “It’s going to go a long way to define our sound and sharpen us a working unit. And I’m really looking forward to that, because everything up until now has been very spontaneous, very freeform.”
The Philosophy – “Everyone’s got to search and find their own path to the truth.”
“Technically, I can’t really say I’m a Rastafarian,” Jones explains, referring to the oftentimes misunderstood Jamaican religious group that is as synonymous with reggae as ganja and dreadlocks. “Because to say that means you really have to adhere to a really strict set of rules in daily life. It’s a cultural thing. I’d have to say that I align myself with a lot of Rastafarian beliefs. But true Rastas, who live it, breathe it, that’s something that comes from Jamaican life and culture. All you can really do is try to investigate and find your own truth and reality inside of it. And you can’t be closed minded. Everyone’s got to search and find their own path to the truth.”
While Jones can’t entirely relate to that cultural connection, the spiritual link is there. “Where I come from, in myself, it’s more of an organic nature, which is why I get into the more rootsy kind of feel of reggae music. A lot of the songs that I write may not even be reggae. They may be coming from a more American folk or gospel or r&b kind of place. That’s my background. I just try to be as honest as I can about what I’m feeling inside and how I express myself.”
“I have a passion for music,” he continues. “Music in general, but for some reason, reggae really resonated with me. And I see a lot of ties between it and the music I grew up hearing, especially in the church, that very raw Baptist revival gospel music that we hear down south. It had that same kind of resonance. Even some of the rhythms are a lot a like. It’s definitely a universal vibe.”
A month after the break up of First Light, Jones entered another union. He and his wife Dori were married in July of 1997, and fittingly, decided to tie the knot on their first trip to Jamaica.
“It was a mind-expanding pilgrimage, to kind of touch base, to touch the heart of that place I’ve been feeling for so long, and to get a first hand look at where it comes from and what it’s about.”
On their wedding day, they drove to Nine Mile, Marley’s birthplace. “I sat in the yard where he would sit with Bunny (Wailer) and Peter (Tosh) and compose songs. I took my one little drum up there and played a little bit. Some of the local guys came and sang with me. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘How much closer can I get?’ The sound of my drum was echoing across the same hills as the music did back then.”
All artists have a gospel to preach, and Jones’ is perhaps best conveyed through his recent song, Torchbearer, a homage to Marley.
“Each of us, that were touched by (Marley) in our lifetimes, we carry a part of that too. Each of us in our own way —whether we’re musicians or not— we can carry that little bit of light, or truth, forward. Whatever it was that it made us feel, and try to pass it on. Marley was a torchbearer. When he passed on, he passed the torch. But not just to one person –to everyone within earshot. To carry a little candle flame and help illuminate the darkness.”