At a time when most Americans have been exposed to a more pop-influenced style of reggae music, it’s important to remind newer reggae fans about the genre’s roots. Imagine an underground movement whose leaders and followers have been dedicated to the preservation of Jamaican reggae and its message for decades, only to be overshadowed by a society that embraces a more marketable sound with less meaning. A genre built on overcoming struggle and moving forward with positive intentions — that is roots-reggae.
These days, roots-reggae is becoming more accepted into the mainstream, as bands playing the music are being paired up with major touring reggae-fusion acts to help spread their positive influence. Although the origin of roots music is in Jamaica, in the last few years there has been a resurgence of newer U.S.-based artists inspired by the music and message, especially in Southern California.
Recently, three L.A.-based bands of different backgrounds have come together with the intention of helping roots-reggae rise up from the underground. The Expanders, Arise Roots and Ital Vibes represent three unique styles of roots music with many common interests.
All three bands have performed at and attended events at the legendary Dub Club, held every Wednesday at The Echoplex. They also all share fond memories of Reggae Pops (Nemencio Jose Andujar), a local legend on the dance floor of the L.A. music scene who passed away last year. In addition, each band is coming off a breakout year in 2014 and has already been featured as part of the Support Local Reggae store’s weekly in-store acoustic performances.
The Expanders, known for their classic 1970s Jamaican-influenced sound, actually started as more of a dub/jam act while founders, Devin Morrison and John Butcher, were still attending high school in the San Fernando Valley. After a few changes within the band, including a punk-rock phase, the second incarnation of The Expanders focused on doing acoustic reggae and learning to sing harmonies.
“You know, we would listen to The Ethiopians and Bob Marley and they had harmonies,” recalls Morrison, “but we also listened to Bad Religion and NOFX and they have a lot of harmonies as well. So when the punk band ended, we figured we didn’t need a drummer.”
In their early years, the band frequently visited the then-famous Blue Beat Lounge every Tuesday. Founded by Chris Murray in the early 2000s, the venue was home to L.A.’s budding ska scene, and its residency at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood became renowned for its weekly traditional old-school ska gigs. The band’s current bassist, Chiquis Lozoya, performed regularly at the Blue Beat Lounge with the Chris Murray Combo and Irie Beats, among other local bands, before joining The Expanders to complete their signature three-part harmonies.
The Expanders soon became the top-choice backing band for various legendary Jamaican artists. Following their appearance with John Asher on drums at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in 2008, The Expanders’ core four members have remained the same: Devin Morrison (lead vocals/rhythm guitar), John Butcher (lead guitar/vocals), Chiquis Lozoya (bass/vocals) and John Asher (drums/percussion).
In 2015, Arise Roots will be celebrating five years of creating music. However, the band’s roots run much deeper than 2010. Lead guitarist, Robert Sotelo, has a vast background in the L.A. ska/rocksteady/reggae scene of the early ‘90s. He began playing music with The Allentons of Steady Beat Records and Irie Beats, both of which would eventually include Chiquis Lozoya of The Expanders. The two were childhood friends, and Lozoya can occasionally be seen on stage with Arise Roots playing rhythm guitar and adding harmonies.
Hailing from East L.A., Arise Roots bring a more modern, energized take on roots-reggae. Lead vocalist Karim Israel explains that since there is a history of socioeconomic struggle within the culture of Los Angeles, the city is the perfect setting for the resurrection of roots music.
“Roots music is a mirror image to the Hollywood lifestyle,” Israel explains. “We represent the struggle found in the streets, as opposed to the glam and bright lights most people associate with L.A.”
Arise Roots' current lineup consists of Karim Israel (lead vocals), Ron Montoya (drums), Robert Sotelo (lead guitar), Todd Johnson (keys/harmonies), Rodolfo Covarrubias (bass) and Chris Brennan (rhythm guitar).
Ital Vibes’ founding members formed their first band, High Tides, while attending Carson High School, then set out to form Ital Vibes after deciding they wanted to represent roots-reggae instead of conforming to the ska style of High Tides.
“I used to play punk too,” lead vocalist Kennedy P. explains, “but Ooklah the Moc’s ‘Hell Fire’ brought me back to roots. It’s message music.” Jeremy “Levi Dozier” Kary, who also adds vocals, brings an unexplored angle to the genre with his hip-hop-influenced, conscious-minded freestyles.
Although the eight-piece band is the youngest of the three, Ital Vibes have performed alongside many of their biggest influences in the short time they have been together. The band’s original bassist, Steffano Lasso, also played keys in The Expanders for a short time. Their current lineup includes Kennedy P. (lead vocals), Jeremy “Levi Dozier” Kary (backing vocals/freestyle), Aaron Valdez (drums), Jacob Sanchez (percussion), Juston Sanchez (keys), Marc Donini (keys), Andy Deemer (guitar) and Evan Hein (bass).
“None of these bands are going into it thinking this is their ticket to making a lot of money,” says Devin Morrison of the current state of roots-reggae. “It’s more like, this is what we listened to growing up and this is the music we want to play. The fact that people seem to like it and there’s a scene for it, that’s an amazing bonus.”
The Expanders have recently signed with Easy Star Records and plan to release their new album, Hustling Culture, in the near future. Since acquiring new management under Rude Entertainment Productions in 2014, Arise Roots and Ital Vibes have both remained extremely active and show no signs of slowing down in 2015.
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The Expanders, Arise Roots and Ital Vibes will all be performing at a "Roots of L.A." showcase at Sage Restaurant & Lounge in Whittier on Friday, Jan. 23. Pre-sale tickets are available at the venue, as well as at Support Local Reggae at the Puente Hills Mall and I&I Brewing in Chino Hills. More info available here.