HIGH TIMES MAGAZINE
On a bright and scorching morning, I’m assembled with Rootz Underground at Port Royal in Kingston, Jamaica. Back in the late 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the epicenter of pirate life in the Caribbean, and the home base of the infamous Captain Morgan, a few hundred years before he posthumously endorsed a brand of spiced rum.
Not that Rootz Underground has a whole lot in common with the late captain. In fact, this congregation of reggae musicians is an interesting contrast to the stone bunkers and iron cannons of this once-great British garrison that was destroyed by an earthquake back in 1692. (Many will tell you it was God’s hand coming down upon the wicked.) Whereas most acts in Jamaica involve a singer and a support band (or tape), Rootz Underground is a group of six players, five of whom are present today: singer Stephen Newland (a.k.a. Stevie G), lead guitarist Charles Lazarus, second guitarist Jeffrey Moss-Solomon, keyboardist Paul Smith (a.k.a. SCUBI) and bassist Colin Young. (The drummer, Leon Campbell, had a rough night and slept in.)
As we all try to keep the smoke from our spliffs out of sight from the security guards at this heritage site, I ask them what the word “roots” means to them.
“To me, it is like a movement based on simpler things,” says Jeffrey. “Where it all began – Mother Nature, seeds, the elements. It has a very spiritual connotation: respecting the earth. Respecting each other. Everything come from the same one source. To know where that connection is, where that common factor is, I think we’ll run better.”
I ask them about marijuana’s role in this whole back-to-the-earth worldview, and they laugh and tell me that herb is what fuels the group.
“One time a relative of ours came to our show,” Stevie recalls, “and he’s not really a ganja man – he doesn’t know that much. After the first time he came to see the Rootz Underground, he was like; ‘I get it, man: Smoke goes in, tunes come out.’” Stevie laughs. “I mean, we all smoke ganja in a spiritual way. It is not really a party thing. It is a medicinal and spiritual way – that’s how we use ganja. So it’s helping us this time to maintain sanity in a crazy world.”
Though they’ve known each other since childhood, Rootz Underground formed as a group in Kingston back in 2000, and their most recent album, Gravity, had just hit the stores a few weeks prior to our meeting. I ask them about influences, and beyond the reggae and dancehall that permeates every facet of life in Kingston, Jeffrey also cites a roll call of performers as diverse as the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Cure, Guns ’n Roses, the Smiths and the Notorious BIG.
“And if you take it back to the ’80s,” Stevie adds, “I could recall some Purple Rain.”
Their latest video, “Power to the People,” is a call to arms for the little man that starts out with a great archival scene: Emperor Haile Selassie I filmed in his palace garden in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Staring directly into the camera, the emperor states: “Even in the 20th century, with faith, courage and just cause, David will still beat Goliath.”
The obvious question in the 21st century is: Can David still whip the giant today?
“He’s currently conquering Goliath,” Jeffrey says. “And that is exactly what we represent: how the smaller person, or smaller entity, overcome the bigger, more overwhelming entity. And it’s through our pure spiritual power and higher love.”
“They try to make you small,” Colin adds, “but it is all right to be small. You can be small and very powerful.”
p style=”text-align: left; “>“Out of nothing came everything,” Colin adds, “and will repeat itself. I mean civilizations. I mean, civilizations always repeat. Even the water we drink. Just like you dying, and breaking up, recycling. Nothing is new under the sun. The small always win.”
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