‘Are you feeling irie?”
That’s a question that will be asked from stage several times this summer as the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission kicks off the Reggae Nights series at James Island County Park this Saturday.
Local musician Dave “Big Hair” Brisacher grew up attending the summertime shows.
“They are some of the first concerts I went to growing up,” said Brisacher, who will perform at the second show in the series on June 22 with his group The Dubplates. “As soon as I was able to drive, I don’t think I ever missed one.”
The event began in the early ’90s as a celebration of Caribbean culture, highlighted by a steel drum concert. It soon morphed into a reggae series, responding to strong public support for Jamaican-style music.
“People wanted reggae,” explains Matt Rosebrock, festival and events manager for the county parks, adding that the event has grown significantly in recent years. Where it once averaged 1,500 attendees for the outdoor concerts, last year’s shows drew as many as 2,500.
That’s necessitated a move from the traditional stage at the picnic pavilion to a bigger stage in the park’s “big meadow” to accommodate the shows’ growing popularity.
“We were a touch hesitant to move it because the old space was so intimate, but it was a challenge getting all those people in and still having it be comfortable,” explains Rosebrock. “I think it’ll be great in the meadow, as well.”
Attendees are encouraged to bring blankets and chairs to sit on.
The four-night series kicks off this Saturday with Wrightsville Beach, N.C.-based band Selah Dubb. Three weeks later, The Dubplates will perform at Reggae Nights, followed by Jacksonville, Fla.’s De Lions of Jah on July 13 and local favorites Mystic Vibrations on Aug. 3.
Once the steel-drum concerts gave way to live reggae, CCPRC brought in local booster Osei “Mr. Reggae” Chandler as an onstage ringleader at the shows.
Chandler is familiar to anyone who has attended the Reggae Nights series or Piccolo Spoleto’s block parties, where he’s a constant fixture welcoming bands to the stage. The longtime DJ still hosts his Roots Musik Karamu show on the local NPR affiliate every Saturday night.
During the ’90s, Chandler helped bring bands to the park, such as St. Croix’s Midnite, when they were still fledgling groups. Local bands like Mystic Vibrations used the stage to perform for a large crowd and build their audience and reputation around town. “We always made sure that the bands were family-friendly,” said Chandler. “... We made sure the bands were good and solid.”
Chandler oversaw a golden age in Charleston’s reggae scene, helping to bring Peter Tosh to the Gaillard Auditorium in the ’80s and acts like Lucky Dube, Steel Pulse and Culture to the King Street Palace. He laments that reggae shows today are often little more than a hip-hop artist singing the “dancehall reggae song of the day” over a backing track. Fortunately, he said, the park commission has continued to book live bands that emphasize the “roots” aspect of reggae music.
This weekend’s group, Selah Dubb, is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a band. The three-piece is led by singer-guitarist Mark Evangelist and backed by female keyboardist “Baby Beats” and drummer Reuban Rosado. The group’s 2012 release, “Radio Free Babylon,” mixes a surf reggae style into the steady-vibe, feel-good tracks, which follow a concept storyline of underground artists reclaiming music from corporate control.
Selah Dubb members are veterans of the Reggae Nights series, and Chandler said he’s been pleased to hear them improve and grow their sound over the years. For many bands, the CCPRC show may be one of the biggest crowds they perform in front of all year, adding to the energy and excitement coming from the stage.
It’s that “big show” element that makes the Reggae Nights concerts stand out from seeing the same band in a club or bar atmosphere, and that’s thanks, in part, to Chandler’s longtime role as emcee before and after the performance.
“They get juice from the crowd, and the crowd enjoys the band,” explains Chandler. “The emcee welcomes the bands to the park and introduces them to the audience, encouraging the crowd to give them a warm Charleston welcome. I think that’s an important element to keeping reggae hopping here in Charleston.”
At 66, however, Chandler has decided it’s time to pass the torch to his son, Azikiwe Chandler. A longtime Peace Corps volunteer and seasoned world traveler, the younger Chandler has traced reggae’s roots and offshoots from Africa to Korea, bringing home music to share for the elder Chandler’s radio show.
“He’s not just a junior Osei,” said his father, who still plans to support the festival and continue his radio show, which includes listings of all reggae-related events across the state.
This summer also marks a change in food vendors at Reggae Nights, with CCPRC welcoming caterer and food truck Little Star of the Caribbean. The Puerto Rican “San Juan-style cuisine” will include tostones, empanadas and authentic sandwiches. Typical festival food and pizza vendors also will be on-site, as well as local handmade crafts and artisans.
The move to the meadow field will be accompanied by new lighting. CCPRC’s Rosebrock said he looks at the Reggae Nights series like a “mini Cajun Festival,” where the beer vendors know to have plenty on hand because people come ready to party and enjoy themselves.
“It’s always been a ‘no-brainer’ event,” said Rosebrock. “The challenge is just to find bands that are a little bit different. You can’t always look right under your nose. You’ve got to do some research, and we make sure to include a local band or two each year.”
For Brisacher, that means he’ll enjoy a full-circle moment when his Dubplates take the stage June 22. Well-known for his impressive dreadlocks, attending Reggae Nights as a high school student in the ’90s likely contributed to Brisacher’s musical and lifestyle direction.
“It’s great that high school-age and younger kids can come out to this because it’s probably one of the only cultural concerts that they’ll get to see,” said Brisacher. “Hopefully, we’ll put something in their head that they’ll remember.”
Brisacher compares the reggae scene of his youth to the popularity of electronic music today with that age group and hopes that the Reggae Nights series can connect young people with live roots music.
“It’s one of those great concert experiences; you’re outside in the open air,” said Brisacher. “As a kid growing up here and watching artists perform on that stage, to be able to be a part of it is really exciting for those of us in the band that grew up here. It’ll be cool to go from being in the crowd watching to being up on stage and getting to rock it.”