Roots Rhythm with The Dons Cartel

Reggae has been something I’ve enjoyed innocently: Bob Marley weaves himself in and out of my playlists from time to time, like he does with so many others. Recently, though, I was riding in a car with Bob’s greatest hits on the tape deck, and I was struck goosebumpingly dumb while singing along to his music; it moved me in a whole new way. This new reaction to reggae is hardly a mystery, though. I had gained a whole new appreciation for reggae simply because I was now a reggae musician.

New Roots

Not long ago, ‘the Rastas’, as we call the inseparable pair of dreaded barmen who I work with at Tilapia, and I joined forces to forge anew the Tilapia house band. With free rehearsal space, adequate musical equipment at our disposal, and otherwise uneventful afternoons, the potential for reggae-band-generation was staggering. Jalobo began to open up his song book and tune his guitar, Yorkman started to dust off his vocal cords, and I was instructed in the ways of reggae rhythm lore. Poof! a band was formed, and our first performance was booked for one week after our first practice.

Our practice sessions were spontaneous. The bassist, hailing from another corner of Kampala, only made it when he could. All-day power outages from load shedding ruined scheduled practices. A musical hanger-on (perhaps the definition of a ya-hoo), though a talented guitarist, spoiled one sessions with over-the-top guitar leads which tested both our equipment and our patience. In spite of all this, we managed a short handful of sessions productive sessions together, and on our final run-through on the day of our first performance, we impressed ourselves with each song.

The Dons Cartel

Jalobo, the author, and Yorkman

The bar had been quiet all weekend. A band had failed to publicize their Friday gig, and Saturday’s Elektro Disko Tek, where a DJ friend of ours punishes patrons with euro-trash techno, frankly, does not appeal to Kampala’s nocturnal crowd.¬† Thus the audience which gathered for the Dons Cartel on Sunday night seemed¬† large, even if it was typical for a Sunday.

The terrace was set up and sound checked, and the members staggered around the place, taking drinks, posing for photos, and gauging the environment: testing the air to see whether the crowd was ready to listen. I blinked, and suddenly found myself behind the drums, grooving through the first song called “Step it Up, Dready.” The cymbals crashed as Jalobo’s guitar rapped out one final, staccato chord. Amak, the bassist, turned to me smiling and said “slaughtered.” The crowd agreed. The mood of that night’s reggae show was cast.

We were lauded later for our performance. Tight was one adjective used, as was well-rehearsed, which made us snigger. Jalobo commented that my reggae style on the drums was unique and ‘unschooled’ which I accepted with relish. We were happy with the outcome that night, particularly with what came out of the speaker stack. We’ve planned another performance for next month, and thought about doing live weekly jam sessions for public enjoyment, and just to cut down on our own lackadaise on quiet weekday afternoons at the bar.

Reggae is everywhere, though I never was quite so moved by natty tunes as I am now that I’ve gotten my hands dirty digging for reggae roots. To listen to albums like Bob’s and identify, from my own experience, progressions and rhythms as one-drop or steppers gives the music whole new meaning. Still, I often have to ask my Rasta friends to repeat or interpret their reggae lyrics, but I’m getting the hang of it.

One response to “Roots Rhythm with The Dons Cartel

  1. Great post Pete! Thanks for your honest, if sackable, review of my amazing DJ sets. You are much missed man and we continue to glorify your name. Last year would not have been the same without you. The Dons, happily, have somehow survived on to this day and we’re all heading to Lake Naivasha (Kenya) for at the end of August. Peace, D

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