You can hear it from Henderson’s sleepy Water Street, the up-stroke of a wah-pedaled electric guitar, the off-beat skank of a keyboard, the rah-dah-dah-dat slaps of the congas, the calls of “Jah!” and “Brrrrrah!” rising into the night from the Henderson Events Plaza.
Walking along the convention center’s brick walls, the white noise hanging stagnant above the rhythm section comes into focus: It’s the cheering voices of children, their parents and what you might call the reggae heads of the valley. By the end of the night, there were 500 of them. A number that, as Roots Reggae Uprising’s promoter Brian Saliba would say later, was actually much smaller than he expected.
He knows he’s spoiled, that 500 heads at $20 a pop is a damn good premiere performance. The concert landscape this year isn’t what it was five years ago. But based on what he knows about the reggae movement in town, specifically the Hawaiian/Polynesian-descended island reggae movement, spearheaded locally by bands including Haleamano and Fortwentydaze, it should have been more. “Tribal Seeds never does under 400-500 paid tickets by themselves,” he says of the evening’s California-based, roots reggae-leaning headliner. “But it’s the first event, it’s in Henderson, and it’s hard to get people out.”
It’s hard to imagine many off-Strip music scenarios in which 500 attendees requires caveats. Neon Reverb, Hip-Hop Roots, Doom in June — all would wet themselves for the numbers and the support that reggae pulls.
“I think people are surprised that we have such a tight-knit reggae community,” says Frederic Apcar, producer of the 11-years-running Reggae in the Desert. Epcar’s responsible for bringing the big-name acts — Toots & the Maytals, The Wailers, Eek-A-Mouse — to Vegas. But with the cost of bringing Jamaican bands to the states, bands that often won’t even tour because of high-cost — or denied — visas, he’s had to vary up the performers to stay relevant and financially stable.
Enter island reggae. “Reggae in the Desert morphed from a roots event to more Polynesian-style reggae,” Saliba says. “The types [of reggae] that thrive cater to the island crowd or the Polynesian crowd because you have such a big influx in the market locally.”
To get an idea of island reggae, and without going into the comprehensive history, think of roots reggae — Yellow Man, Sizzla Kalonji and almost any Marley — and add ukulele to it. Maybe steel drum. And all the love lyrics you can stand. It’s a universally soothing sound, a love child of two of the easiest-going genres in music history.
Greg Mayeda, singer for local island reggae act Fortwentydaze, says the genre’s received differently in Las Vegas versus the Big Island. “Vegas is more attached to the beat or the sound of the music,” he says, “as opposed to Hawaii, where they look more closely at what you are saying and where you are coming from.”
But the strong local demand — it’s not, like other cities east of California, based heavily on college culture — is a different story, though one easier to identify than why indie music is the identifiable downtown genre. “I‘m not saying that the Polynesian people of Nevada isn’t a big part; because of the islands, reggae has flourished,” says Haleamano ukulele player and singer Israel Waahila. “[But] reggae works because of the recession and the hardships of daily life for people. Nevada has a huge hole in the unemployment area, and sometimes hearing some music about change and unity comes to soothe those types of people.”
Being here, among the 500, there’s something deeper than just the need to escape money problems. There’s something communal. You want to know these people, skanking and singing along. Maybe it’s because reggae music’s building blocks are so specific that liking one song means you’ll like another. It’s formulaic, the way the off-beat is accented with a combination of organ and guitar. The bridges resolve into the chorus in the same place. And it’s in that one-drop simplicity that they’re perfect.
But if tonight is any example, the success comes from listeners only distinguishing two kinds of music good reggae and bad reggae. The guy who danced to One Pin Short danced just as hard to Tribal Seeds. If the band is good, regardless of his familiarity, he sticks around and watches. And with a venue full of people in that state of mind, the local reggae scene will continue to grow. “Reggae’s universal,” Saliba says, finishing up the final paperwork for Uprising a couple nights before. “I don’t think it offends or turns people off. It’s a happy medium, good-feel vibe, and [here] it has a contingent that supports that niche.”