Roots, Rock, Reggae

It was the perfect night for reggae at the Village Café in uptown Kingston. The island -- still reeling from the March 2006 election of Portia Simpson, the country's first female prime minister -- was in the throws of a near political deadlock.

Weeks earlier, the brutal slaying of ambassador Peter King amidst rumors of homosexual misconduct had rocked the country into a virtual witch hunt, provoking members of Parliament to hastily back bills criminalizing homosexuality. About half an hour away from the Café's parking lot, the country's former capitol, Spanish Town, was ablaze in gunfire and smoke as people rioted against corrupt police officials. Miles down Kingston's legendary Hope Road, sounds of Bob Marley's voice over timeless Dub soundtracks had been replaced by the rattle of machine guns as warring neighborhoods danced in the decades-old government-sponsored gang warfare.

Jamaica was where it's always been, in many ways. Filled with political contradictions and social tensions, it's a country teetering on the edge of a proverbial cliff, held afloat by its pride, a brief glimmer of its history and a faint wish of a return to the familiar.

So as the Rootz Underground took to the stage and the familiar voice of a dreadlocked front man with a raspy, pleading voice filled the outdoor café, the crowd clamored for a better view. Dubtronic riddims pierced by electric guitar surged through the crowd like palm trees swaying in the winds off the Caribbean Sea. Soon, everyone including the nattiest of dreds, uptown Kingston's chic, displaced country folk, and awkward American college students, were gathered to the stage as close as they could get to hear the singer swoon, "I no fi waste' mi talent because dem intent, I know we keep on, becomin' so strong, di enemies of di Babylon gwan … "

Though their sound may be faintly familiar to Reggae legend Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Rootz Underground hold their own against Jamaica's historic Reggae path breakers. The group's members, including Stephen Newland as lead vocalist, Jeffrey Moss-Solomon (vocals, rhythm guitar), Andrew "Pregs" Thompson (drums, vibes), Paul "Scoobie" Smith (keyboard), Charles Lazarus (lead guitar), John Campbell (percussion), and Colin "Babylon Headache" Young (bass) have known each other since childhood, bringing together their musical talents in 2000.

Far more than a band, the Rootz Underground plays to inspire those who hear its music to fight against the injustice that so often blemishes Jamaica's picturesque landscape. Songs like "Victims of the System" offer vicious indictments of those whose privilege is earned off the backs of the hard working. In an era when most reggae and dub tend to lend themselves more to the upbeat pounding of hip hop, the Rootz Underground infuses the perfect blend of rock, reggae and jazz to maintain a steady flow of thought-provoking rhythms.

Midway through its set, Newland stops the music, insisting on the slow patter of drums and the occasional well-timed guitar rip from Lazarus to highlight an important milestone for the band. Vocalist and guitarist Jeff Solomon had quit his job as a "pawn fi Babylon" -- working in financial consulting in Kingston's business district -- marking the beginning of his full-time commitment to "revolutionary reggae music." The crowd roars, Solomon smiles, and sonic pleasure ensues.

To date, the band has performed at the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, Re Unplugged Bob Marley Tribute Festival and numerous venues throughout the island. This summer also marked the group's first overseas tour to Europe. An album, tentatively titled "Revolutionary Sound" is set to be released later this year, while a six-track self-titled sampler has been teasing fans since early 2006.

But on that night at the Village Café, thoughts weren't focused on the band's future -- the turmoil hovering miles away wouldn't allow. Instead, the crowd swayed, danced and chanted. Fashionable Uptown forgot to pretend not to know the native language Patwa, and outsiders forgot that they weren't from Kingston -- all uniformly opposed to the fear nestled somewhere deep within themselves. It was an uncanny show of solidarity, proving that the Rootz Underground had the power to create change, even for a night.

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