Mel Cooke, Freelance Writer
WHEN JAVIER Foncesca and Alex Bonilla left Jamaica on Friday afternoon, they took a route very familiar to the famed Jamaica ICIs.
They went to Panama.
It was not their final destination, as they were not in search of certain foundation garments at a low price. Javier and Alex were headed for home in Colombia, where they will continue building on the reggae foundation they have been laying since 1997.
They are the lead singer and manager, respectively, of pioneering Colombian reggae band Alerta and they did not go home empty-handed. They carried along their second album, Somos Uno (which means 'We Are One'), recorded in Colombia, but which they carried to Jamaica to mix in the middle of last year.
In this case, mixing meant more than getting the sound levels and balance correct. It meant that Foncesca's Spanish vocals were paired with those of some Jamaican performers.
Legal, a signature song of sorts for which an accompanying video is packaged with the album, was done with producer Chris Meredith, featuring Big Youth, while More Love features Sugar Minott. The six-man band has also got into the rhythm culture of the reggae homeland, doing Princesa on the 'He Speaks' rhythm from Free Willy Productions.
And El Amor De Jah has been done with Royalty from Bobo Hill in east St. Andrew, a place that Foncesa now has much more than a passing knowledge of.
"I was in Bobo Hill for two months last year, learning the one two order, learning, learning, learning," Foncesa said.
Other songs on Somos Uno include the title track, Sueno Real, Let Your Soul, Tiempo, Quiero Que Tangas, Libera Tu Alma and Sonido Prendido. Among the other Jamaicans to work on the album are Sly Dunbar, Steely and Clevie, Leroy 'Fatman' Thompson, Nambo Robinson and Dean Fraser.
Learning Jamaican culture seems to be very big on the band's agenda, so much so that their next album will not only be done in Jamaica, but in Jamaican language as well.
"The next album will be made only in Jamaica. The idea is for me to sing in patois, a little," Foncesa said. "If I want to express myself to the people of Jamaica, I have to express it in the righteous English that the people speak in the streets," he said.
WORK ON BOB MARLEY CELEBRATIONS
He had a chance to do some of that expression at the recent Bob Marley celebrations in Trench Town, and says that it went very well.
It did not always go very well for the band which had their first self-titled, full-length release in February of 2004. Their reggae rockers were not always accepted in Colombia, but they have stuck to their drum and bass. Manager Alex points out that the bond among the band members is strong. "The drummer and the bassie have been friends since they were 14," he said.
With the influence of reggae performers Big Youth, the Congos, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear and The Wailers (in the post-Marley years) coming live and direct to Colombia, the reggae and Rastafarian influence began to seep in. For Foncesa personally, the strongest recorded influences were "Bob Marley and a whole heap of artiste; Black Uhuru, Lee Perry, Peter Tosh.
"The drummer begin to get interested in reggae, Rasta. In Colombia I an I feel that."
FORMED IN 1997
The band was formed in 1997 and began performing wherever they could in Colombia, and it was not long before they were headed to the United Sates on promotional gigs, playing in Chicago, New York and Miami. Then they started recording singles, the first released in Havana, Cuba, and going further afield, getting to the Rottodom Sunsplash in Italy in 2004, as well as playing several other dates in that country. Also in 2004, they postponed a trip to the Sola Reggae Festival in Sweden, in favour of a trip to Mexico to perform as reggae picked up in the land of "los Zapatos".
Of course, Jamaica could not be left out of their travels, which so far have not included performances by the full band.
"It is important to Alerta to be here and learn about the people who originally made reggae," Alex said.
Transplanting the music has not been an easy task. "People love the reggae, but it is not frequently played on radio," Alex said, naming Sean Paul, Shaggy and Damian Marley as among the few who get played on radio. "But Junior Reid, Sugar Minott they do not know," he said.
To familiarise people with these per formers and more, Alerta has venturedinto show promotion, their Reggae Colombia show now in its third year. This year's edition is slated for May 26 and will hopefully feature Junior Kelly, Sugar Minott and Warrior King. The first year featured I-Jah Bones, a Jamaican living in New York, and Fidel from Argentina, for both of whom Alerta did backing band duties. Last year's staging featured Junior P, again with Alerta playing the music.
And they provide more supporting roles than playing the music. "It is done out of our money, no support," Foncesa said. "It is done out of respect for reggae and the culture."
He said the concert, held in a huge club, attracts about 2,000 people and "the people who come are Alerta fans. Alerta is a pioneer in reggae." Alex extends their pioneering role to Somos Uno, saying that it is probably the first time a Latin American reggae band has remixed its music in Jamaica with Jamaican performers.
They wish to keep Reggae Colombia as independent as possible. As Alex puts it, "It depends on the kind of support we get. Some of the promoters are not interested in reggae. It is better that a Jamaican promoter do something in Colombia."
Added to the concert is the fact that Foncesa plays music on the 'I an I' sound system, "trying to expose the culture". And he explains that in terms of sales "people in Colombia do not use 45s (vinyl records). They do not buy singles, only albums."
Still, "Colombia and South America can be a huge potential market for the Jamaican artistes."
Then there is the website, www.reggaecolombia.com, which the band operates, they try to push reggae and Jamaican
culture even further.
"It is our passion," Foncesa said.