Carlos Jones reflects on 45 years of performing reggae in Cleveland
Cleveland artist Carlos Jones has seen the local reggae scene grow and evolve over the decades.
“It was very vibrant, very thriving because it was right on the edge of that wave where reggae was really becoming internationally known and popular. It was like the glory days,” Jones said.
Cleveland’s largest reggae music festival returns to Downtown Memorial Day weekend.
Formerly known as Reggae Fest Cleveland, Rock n Reggae Fest has evolved into a two-day celebration of Jamaican music and culture.
Jones said clubs like Splash in the Flats and Dailey’s on Lorain Avenue were one-time hubs for the Jamaican community and reggae performers, like his bands I-Tal and First Light.
The scene started to change after reggae’s heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Through the ‘90s, things started to kind of drop off because the way music was consumed was going through an evolution,” he said. “Everything was becoming more digital, and DJs were really becoming the thing.”
It was around this time that the first reggae festival in Cleveland was held on the North Coast Harbor, Jones said.
“That was before the Rock Hall was even built. They had a barge floated up to the harbor... that was the stage. And then people were camped out on the hillside,” he said.
Packy Malley, co-owner of Malley’s Chocolates, was a fan of reggae and started promoting reggae concerts in Cleveland at a time when the style of music started to wane in mainstream popularity but still maintained a tight-knit, devoted fanbase.
Malley started a reggae festival in Huntsburg, Ohio, and moved its location to various farms and parks over the years.
Jones said the festival grew bigger over time, and now Taste CLE Owner Adam Bossin has taken over the large-scale event, bringing it back to Cleveland where it all began.
“He's had it out at Twinsburg Amphitheater for a few years, and then last year moved it to Voinovich Park behind the Rock Hall. And that's where it's going to be this year,” Jones said. “It is truly a family reunion.”
‘Too stubborn to quit’
Jones has been a staple not only of the reggae community but also of the local music scene for nearly five decades.
Most summer weekends, you can catch Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band, which stands for Peace, Love and Unity Syndicate, performing in Cleveland.
Jones, a self-proclaimed “drummer at heart,” first heard reggae music in the mid-1970s and fell in love with the rhythm and beat.
“I would just play my records in my mom's basement and play along with the music,” Jones said. “And in ‘78, I actually got to see Bob Marley play live. That was a religious experience.”
He said watching Marley perform at Cleveland Auditorium was a pivotal moment in his life. He began letting his locks grow long and immersing himself in the region’s reggae scene.
He joined the group I-Tal as a percussionist and toured the Midwest and East Coast for six years.
In 1984, Jones formed an offshoot band, First Light; which fused reggae with rock, funk, soul, blues and jazz; and started to draw in a larger, diverse fanbase to shows.
He formed the P.L.U.S. Band in the ‘90s even as the local music scene began to change.
Three decades later, Jones still performs with his band to send a positive message with his music.
“I was just one of the lucky ones. Or maybe I was just too stubborn to quit,” he said. “I'd play in small rooms to 10, 20 people. I just kept at it, kept at it, kept at it.”
Making it through the pandemic
Jones and the P.L.U.S. Band have put out a handful of live and studio albums, and last year released the 10-track LP “A New Day.”
The album was three years in the making, stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jones said he had a moment when he questioned whether he would keep going.
“We had a couple of band members who decided to go off on other projects, and so the band is a little smaller than it used to be,” he said. “And we're trying to figure out, okay, so who are we now in this configuration, and how do we move forward and do we want to?”
After launching a Kickstarter campaign for the album in 2019, Jones and his bandmates had to pivot in 2020 and work on recording and mixing the music from their homes over the next year.
“I feel like I'm a throwback to the olden times, and that's what I stick with. That's what feeds my soul."Carlos Jones
Jones said he was grateful to have that project to work on during that time because it was therapeutic.
“It gave us time to really, you know, listen to everything in depth and tweak it in, tailor it and make it sound the absolute best it could be,” he said. “And I think that delay gave the music a chance to mature in a way. I kind of feel like in a weird way, that was the way it was supposed to happen in order for it to be the best it could be.”
Jones, now 67 years old and working as a full-time musician, said the pandemic made him feel like a “fish out of water” because he was so used to performing nonstop before the lockdown.
“When the band started playing again, we did a few of the livestream things and then eased back into some shows and started doing some of our perennial outdoor shows during the summertime. And people came,” he said.
Jones said a track from the 2022 record, “Reggae Family Party,” captures the feeling people have when they attend his live performances.
He said it’s the feeling audiences get when they experience the music among other listeners that keeps his band thriving.
“It's like a family reunion,” he said “There’s a line and that goes, ‘People that you meet for the very first time feel like you've known them your whole life.’ And so that's what I witness happening when we play.”
A reggae resurgence
Jones said he doesn’t keep up much with modern music industry trends, but reggae is more about the culture than trying to make music that’s relevant to all audiences.
“I feel like I'm a throwback to the olden times, and that's what I stick with. That's what feeds my soul,” he said.
He said only a handful of Cleveland’s original reggae artists have managed to hang on over the years, but there is a new generation of local performers that Jones hopes will lead a resurgence of the genre.
“You have bands in Akron like Umojah Nation and Human Nature, and then you have some Cleveland bands like Ras Matunji, who's a veteran on the scene, Ras Khalifa, J.R. Blessington, Sun Shade, Milton Blake. I mean, some very, very talented artists and a lot of who are Jamaican,” he said.
The Cleveland Rock n Reggae Fest turns the spotlight on 10 reggae artists still performing in 2023.
Audiences will hear all subgenres of the music style, from traditional roots to modern rock fusion, from artists such as Roots of Creation, Cloud9 Vibes, the Flex Crew and more at Voinovich Park at East 9th Street on May 27 and 28.
Jones said reggae creates a joyful, positive feeling that inspires people from all walks of life.
“I'm addicted to that feeling that it produces,” he said. “When I watch it from the stage and see how people - from all walks of life, all colors, creeds, religious beliefs, political beliefs, it doesn't matter, you know, ages - everybody just gets swept up in that one vibration.”