It's 10:45 p.m. and the show is just getting started. Don Martin grabs the mic and shouts, “All right everybody, Brotherhood Soundsystem Reggae Dancehall 101 starts now!”
A few yelps fly stageward as Martin and crew throw their hands up to the first track's roots reggae beat. The music gets loud. Four or five Burt's Tiki Lounge patrons dance and wiggle their way through the maze of chairs, tables and bystanders to get closer to the floor, where some dedicated reggae fans are already busting loose.
Martin, patriarch of Brotherhood Sound and an encyclopedia of Jamaican musical history, is an immigrant to the United States originally from Germany. After spending his late teens in southern Colorado, he settled down in Santa Fe, where he's stayed on and off since then. He started Brotherhood Sound with Robbi Hanelt in 1992 as a sort of reggae school for both uninitiated music fans and emerging artists. The Brotherhood functions as a mobile dancehall that allows artists, selectors (DJs) and aspiring party-starters to get out-of-bedroom experience and blossom into club-commanding dancehall showmen. Basically, Martin throws parties for a living and teaches others how to do the same.
One of those artists, an El Paso native named Sergeant Remo, is standing at the edge of the stage singing along as the show starts, fully immersed. According to Remo, who sat down to chat about a half hour earlier, “Sergeant Remo” is a Brotherhood handle. At the first Reggae Dancehall 101 event in January, he was Remo. The first time he jumped on stage, Martin called him Sergeant Remo. The name stuck.
He didn't expect to find anything like Brotherhood in Albuquerque. Like a lot of serious reggae artists, Remo sees reggae as a life style, not a musical one. In order to keep up with what's happening in a genre whose spiritual home is a foreign country, it's a necessary step. Especially with reggae. Jamaica releases more singles per week than any country on Earth, and the heavy slang and island syntax is so pervasive that learning to rap over dancehall riddims is a bit like learning to rap in French.
”It's a whole different language, you know,” Remo said. “It probably took me six or seven years listening to this music before I understood everything.”
Remo travels to New York, the biggest dancehall market in the U.S., about twice a year to visit clubs and catch up with friends and fellow performers. Thanks to Brotherhood Sound, he now has an outlet at home.
”[Martin] is really the only one holding it down out here,” Remo said.
By 11:15 p.m., things are running smoothly. As Mikey Messenger, a University of South Florida music marketing major and 6-month disciple of Brotherhood, spins records and his roommate Rashid leads the slight but excitable start-of-show crowd, Martin pulls up to my booth with another artist named Mister Kali. Kali and Martin are both hugging Heineken bottles—there wasn't a moment when either could be seen without one—and the look on Martin's face is one of relief. The show is on and going well. The late start came from technical difficulties, he explained.
Straight away, I ask Martin about dub plates and his famed music collection. Dub plates, previously recorded songs that artists rework to include the name of a particular sound system, are an essential part of dancehall. Martin spends about $1,000 a year on them. The week before this show, they recorded one with Toots in a motel room after a Toots & the Maytals show at Santa Fe's Paramount Theater. The dubs are one part of sound system maintenance, but the monumental task is keeping up with dancehall trends.
“We probably spend between $2,000 to $4,000 a year on new music,” Martin says. This means 20 to 40 new singles for possible use in the mix at Brotherhood shows each week (since 1992—you do the math). “As far as dub plates go, they can get pretty expensive, but my cut off is usually at $250.”
Kali smiles—his most natural expression, I would find—and looks to Martin for cues, as an apprentice looks to a teacher. Later on, after Martin left the booth, I realized that this impression was correct. He is an apprentice, and a worthy talent to boot. Kali's gravel grinding flow catches the ear; his performance style grabs attention. Truth be told, the Berkeley-trained musician probably would have been good at anything.
“He's gone to a lot of music schools, you know,” Martin would say weeks later. “He's actually gone to school for this stuff. I've never done anything like that. My school has been the dancehall.”
Now he, along with Mikey, Rashid, Remo, Kali and a few others who couldn't make it to the show, school themselves and others.
“That's why we've got the name going on, Reggae Dancehall 101. We're not just schooling ourselves; we're kind of trying to school the people as to what it's all about. Basically, dancehall is about a lot of audience participation. A lot of the time, people aren't really used to that in New Mexico.” This is a fairly constant theme for Martin. Though fully immersed in reggae, he seems to carry the restless vibe of a media-shy indie popster in one hand and the mellow “whatever is clever” vibe of a reggae artist in the other. Several times during our conversation, Martin would scan the crowd and take visual note of those patrons dancing, doing the in-seat boogie or not moving at all. The last group is decidedly small.
Still, he looks a bit disturbed. A few days later, Martin pointed out that the May 6 show had the smallest turnout of any Albuquerque show. There were a few reasons for this: one, Widespread Panic collaborator Eric McFadden played the Launchpad that night and drew away some of the Burt's faithful. The other, according to the Tiki Lounge's Melissa Schultz, was a massive turnout for Cinco De Mayo the night before.
“Our Thursday nights have a pretty good crowd anyway,” Schultz says. “That and it being Cinco De Mayo might have had something to do with it.”
At Burt's, the music is generally a backdrop, not a focus. It just isn't a dance club. Martin says he's happy to have the venue, though, and the feeling is mutual.
“We already do a Brazil night and a few hip-hop nights, so I was kind of hesitant at first, but its worked out well,” Schultz says.
Around midnight, Martin takes over for Mister Kali, who took over selector duties from Mikey at 11:30 p.m. A familiar beat blares, and Martin declares, “This is an original Brotherhood remix! Nobody else can use dis one.”
It's the beat and hook from Usher's “Yeah” spliced with “Pull Up,” a current dancehall hit by Mr. Vegas. The dance floor lights up to the familiar beat. Hands fly up, shoulders bounce.
As remixed by the Brotherhood, “Yeah” is actually a great song. Mixing radio hip-hop with dancehall works well in New Mexico, but Martin insists he won't remix hip-hop just to win the crowd over.
“If I don't like the hip-hop beat I won't use it just so people will say it's cool. I've got to like it. I don't necessarily like that “Yeah” song, but the beat's pretty dope.”
And so it is. Hip-hop songs like this and “Lean Back” aren't even close to highlights, though. The dancehall vibe may be defined by crowd participation, but I can't help but notice the incredible DJ-work going on. This is a seamless mix with smooth, controlled beat-to-beat transitions, flowing from roots reggae to modern riddims and back again with no line to trace from the beginning and no end in sight. It appears these guys have full control over the mood they create, no matter the size of the crowd.
Around 12:15 p.m., the crowd is smaller still. The vibe is there for the lucky to hear, though. A new track starts up and Remo comes flying across the dance floor to my table. “This is me,” he shouts in my ear.
I'm taken aback. Remo is a skinny guy with a quiet, polite demeanor. His speaking voice is hushed. Had he not pointed it out, I'd never guess that the deep baritone voice coming from the speakers is his.
It isn't until 1:15 a.m. that the artists take the stage. Kali said they might not even perform, due to the lack of audience, but they did it anyway. Remo started, his rumbling voice echoing flows through the room and out the door. Kali stepped up next, grinding out a few songs from his promotional CD, Soundkilla, and throwing his hands up to entice the remaining few. I can't believe so few people are here to see this.
The artists are used to it, but they keep at it because they know from past experience with weekly shows in Santa Fe that the music is worth the work.
“I've seen it come in waves,” Kali says. “There's a strong base for it. People just need to come out of their shells and be open to new music.”
Brotherhood Sound System will present Reggae DanceHall 101 this Friday, 6/10, at Burt's Tiki Lounge. Doors open at 9 pm. Free.