Backstage: A Don Carlos Story

Backstage: A Don Carlos Story

Can you imagine the world through the eyes of a reggae legend? Can you imagine fans walking for two weeks to hear you play? Can you imagine looking out on a crowd of 150,000 fans? Can you imagine being a living witness to the many transitions in what we now call the “Reggae” genre? Everything from Ska and Rocksteady in the 1950’s, to reggae in the 1960’s, to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s roots reggae in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sublime’s rock-punk-reggae of the 1990’s, to Slightly Stoopid, Rebelution and SOJA of today, and everything in between?

Well, maybe you and I are unable to image these milestones in music history, but there is at least one man who can. His name is Don Carlos.

On Friday, March 9th 2012, The Pier would receive exclusive access to the reggae legend with a glimpse into the man that helped light the reggae torch. Access to Carlos is typically not easy, especially prior to shows while the reggae veteran is resting his voice. It seemed like the music gods were on my side when I learned that The Pier was granted an interview with Carlos, especially when I was told later that he denied at least four other interviews earlier in the day. At 8:30 p.m. I received a text from The Pier editor Mike Patti that provided the name and number of Don Carlos’ manager, long time friend and collaborator Jafada.

What started as a “touching base” phone-call, turned into a 30-minute conversation, filled with inspiring insights and details into reggae music and Don Carlos. However, I know I missed some of the best parts, as I struggled to distinguish all that he was telling me through his thick Jamaican accent. As he told stories, Jafada kept asking me, “Are you following me?” I could only respond with “uh-huh,” as I pieced together the gist.

A reggae legend in his own right, Jafada gave me a 20-minute history lesson in everything reggae from Bob Marley’s messaging, to the evolution of the music. He shared with me an amazing example of the dedication of Carlos’ African fans, “…they travel for two weeks to see his show, and wait for a week at the venue,” says Jafada. Carlos’ music transcends generations, races and continents because “his message is about positivity, peace, love and harmony…things we all need in our lives,” explains Jafada.

Like everything in our world, music changes—it evolves, it grows, and it expands and contracts. The blues, country, jazz and gospel combined, make rock-and-roll. The work songs, spirituals, chants and narrative ballads of the Deep South evolved to create the blues. And funk, dub, rhythm and blues, spoken word, DJ/scratching and other elements, came together to give us hip-hop. Reggae and reggae subgenres are no exception.

“Reggae music comes around and goes around, and then comes around and goes around again…it is always changing and evolving, but it will never go away,” says Jafada. Because music is always evolving, it only makes sense that musicians must adapt with the times as well. “We have to keep up with the times and go to where the music is changing.” This includes the genre-bending sounds of contemporaries like Slightly Stoopid, Rebelution and SOJA. “Just like Don, they are making sounds that will last 150 years. They are students of reggae music, which will never die,” Jafada says.

Originally known as one of the founding members of legendary band “Black Uhuru” formed in the early 1970’s, Carlos has gone onto have a successful solo career over the past four decades. He has released or collaborated on the release of nearly 40 albums and toured the world. Carlos’ individual success peaked in the 1980’s with the dance hall mania, when he had five top-ten hits between years 1982-1985. He continues to tour extensively, has garnered a worldwide fan base and has drawn increasingly more attention from reggae-rock fans—especially with the help of Slightly Stoopid.

No stranger to these changing times, Carlos has found ways to adapt. In early-2012 Carlos digitally re-released for the first time the 1983 record “Raving Tonight” and the 1987 record “Deeply Concerned”. Carlos has collaborated and toured with rock-reggae kings Slightly Stoopid and Rebelution. I met up with Don Carlos himself after the show at Cervantes in Denver, Colorado and talked about his experience collaborating and touring with Stoopid. A gracious and soft-spoken man, Carlos welcomed me into the green room and sat down for a couple of minutes—after all, it was 2:30a.m. and he had traveled twelve hours to get to Denver.

“Slightly Stoopid first contacted me in 2006 for a tour, but I was busy in Europe. In 2011 they called me and it worked out,” Carlos explained. For those who missed it, during the summer of the 2011 Slightly Stoopid and Rebelution invited Carlos along as a special guest on The Seedless Summer Tour, which included stops at legendary Red Rocks Ampitheatre and an extensive run from coast-to-coast. “They (Slightly Stoopid) are great guys, full of love and made me feel welcome.” “I have a lot of respect for those guys. They have good hearts. They call me Uncle Don!” he said with a smile.

The evolution of reggae music seems to sit very well with Carlos. Carlos explained that he is very proud and joyful of the current state of reggae music, “Slightly Stoopid, Rebelution and SOJA keep up the (roots reggae) message. They keep it alive. I am proud that they have joined (me) to make it bigger.” Carlos continued, “…they are doing it with pride and dignity. They told me that they started their music from listening to me, so that gives me jai (pride or happiness).”

There is no doubt that Carlos loves his fans. He is dedicated to delivering the best live show possible—even declining to take a hit from a joint offered from the front row in order to preserve his voice. Carlos also engages his fans to fill out the set list by taking requests for audience. “They (fans) gives me energy…I play them what they want to hear. They are reason I’m here and I want to please them,” Carlos says. After talking with Carlos, I watched as he stood for a moment in contemplative silence, waiting to meet with a group of fans who had gathered outside the green room. I wondered to myself, what was he thinking? Of course, I will never know—but, after talking with Carlos I suspect it included messages of positivity and love. Carlos’ welcoming style and infectious smile greeted each fan with genuine warmth.

He stood there posing for pictures, chatting with fans—thanking each of them for coming to the show. For me, this was an amazing scene; given Carlos’ 40-year career and thousands of fan interactions he was stilling willing to take the time to meet each one. At no point, did I feel as though he was going through the all too familiar motions of posing for pictures and engaging in shallow chit-chat. This was refreshing, as I have witnessed this disappointing scene way too many times. Then again, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the exchanges—after all, Carlos is a man that lives by, and delivers, the message of respect.

So, what’s next for Don Carlos—a man that has seen it all, toured the world, played to crowds big and small? Carlos is teaming up with Jafada to play the Hard Rock Hotel on May 19, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Billed as the “Don Carlos Cabereggae Summer Splash,” produced by Jamaica Mon Productions, the show is sure to attract old, and new, reggae fans, as Carlos continues to spread the message of positivity, peace, love and harmony. After all, there is no doubt that most of us can use all we can get.

Article & Photos By: Kit Chalberg

[Editors Note: Special thanks goes out to the whole Cervantes staff in Denver, CO for helping provide access to the event. Continued thanks goes to Jafada for making everything happen as well as the Legend himself, Don Carlos.]