“The scene here’s really healthy,” says Mike Benge. The Helix High School band director is talking about the popularity of reggae music in San Diego. “It’s one of the more healthy music scenes here, next to jazz. You’ve got O.B., PB, recent sell-out shows at House of Blues and the North Park Observatory.”
In the past, Benge has played his trombone with the B-Side Players. Now, he moonlights as a member of Roots Covenant, a reggae outfit that started in Bonita more than a dozen years ago. “Youth still relates to reggae,” he says before practice in the band room at Helix, “even if it’s that really poppy Sublime kind of reggae.”
Roots Covenant live...
...at the 2015 Baconfest
What makes San Diego key in the world of reggae, Benge points out, are hometown touring acts such as Slightly Stoopid, Tribal Seeds, and the Devastators. Roots Covenant has been to the dance numerous times over the years, but without the breakout success enjoyed by their contemporaries.
“Life happens,” explains keyboardist/vocalist Chris Morris, meaning the working of day-jobs and the growing of families. But Roots has not gone entirely unnoticed.
“I was on tour in Hawaii for two weeks with another band,” says founder Adrian Cisneros, “and I heard one of our records from 2007 playing on the radio. I asked the tour guide to turn it up. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘you like Roots Covenant?’ And I’m, like, ‘Roots Covenant is me!’ I wanted to cry.”
“A couple of years ago,” says Morris, “we got a chance to tour Taiwan. For two weeks, the smallest crowd we played to was 2000 people.” The largest? “10,000 people. And afterwards, fireworks were going off.”
Mike Benge puts a frame around it: “I don’t think San Diego reggae bands get a lot of love. You gotta leave San Diego for that to happen.” Even so, Cisneros says there is a high level of aptitude among the working reggae bands here.
“It’s really flattering when you back someone from Jamaica and they tell you you’re doing it right.”