Homegrown reggae act Roots Covenant at Belly Up

“Reggae had started to get big in San Diego and Tijuana in the 1970s and 1980s.” Adrian Cisneros, known as AK, grew up in Chula Vista listening to his mother and his uncle play reggae tapes. “Mainly Steel Pulse,” he says, “and a little bit of Bob Marley.” Local Mexican-American and Latino cultures embraced reggae, due in part to Makeda Dread’s Reggae Makossa radio broadcasts on 91X FM. By the time he was in the seventh grade, Cisneros was hooked.

He says middle-school buddies Tim Little and Daniel Tornero started a reggae cover group that would one day become Roots Covenant, which eventually became a big band with a horn section. “We all loved reggae. I was hanging out with them, and they said, ‘Why don’t you play keyboards?’” In time, Cisneros, 25, would switch to drums and begin growing out his now-waist-length dreads. “My dad was, like, what the fk?”

Eric Clapton’s 1974 reggae-lite cover of a Wailers’ classic called “I Shot the Sheriff” was the first significant exposure of reggae music to much of American pop culture. It introduced Rastafarianism and Bob Marley to rock audiences. Decades later, by the time Cisneros and his bandmates penned their first original, both reggae and its precursor ska had become mainstream.

The Roots Covenant sound has a rocksteady bottom end that kicks you in the chest. Cisneros is a tight and driving percussionist informed by Brit reggae’s four-on-the-floor approach to kick drum. He and bassist Tornero are the band’s foundation. “The bass is falling down, but the drums are climbing up,” says Tornero. “The opposite of mainstream rock.” The Roots Covenant name, they explain, is their commitment to keep to the genre’s cultural and religious roots. It is a message they wouldn’t mind taking global. “Right now, France is huge into reggae,” says Cisneros. “Spain is, too. Europe is big into reggae.”

Richie Spice headlines.

ROOTS COVENANT: Belly Up Tavern, Thursday, September 2, 8 p.m. 858-481-8140. $22 advance; $24 day of show.

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