“We used to be called Ites, Gold & Green,” says Jamaican vocalist Ruth Brooks. But in honor of its stereotype-busting punctuality, the band was rechristened: “We were always a little bit earlier than the other bands,” Brooks notes. “If the show started at seven, we’d come at six, so we’d overtake them.”
Thanks to a group of Canadians, the band Brooks shares with her husband, Ruben, and their longtime friend Leroy Williams was dubbed the Overtakers.
The trio is distinctly Jamaican in every way but its attitude toward clocks: Their sound is rooted in the pre-reggae rhythms of rock-inspired mento and they eke out a living by playing in the tourist area of Negril. But it’s the group’s Western North Carolina connections that are influencing their current musical direction.
Which just happens to be down the very un-Jamaican road of bluegrass.
When they said “Bluegrastafari,” they meant it
“After meeting the Overtakers and becoming friends immediately, we’ve gotten together as often as possible,” reveals George Pond of CX-1.
For the local musician, fusing styles is nothing new. His previous band — Snake Oil Medicine Show, known for blending various musical styles with onstage visual art — recorded Bluegrasstafari while in the Caribbean.
Pond’s current band shares more than a fondness for reggae with the Overtakers: Both groups involve family. The Brooks share their talent not just with each other but with their grown children (including daughters Tia and club-hit singer Crystal Axe, who will join them on the upcoming tour). In the case of CX-1, it’s a brother act: George and Andy Pond share the stage with Jay Sanders and Billy Seawell. Appropriately enough, it was another pair of brothers who indirectly facilitated the first meeting of the groups, which will tour together this fall.
“I had some friends I met here: Jed Greenberg and his brother Ben,” Brooks recalls during a phone conversation from her home in Jamaica. “We were walking down the road one day and these guys came up and [said] ‘Do you play banjo?’ and we [said] ‘Yes!’ So, we were introduced to each other and we played music together for about two weeks.”
Though it may seem curious that the Brooks knew what to do with a banjo, it’s actually key to why the Jamaican musicians hit it off so well with Greenburg, a former bassist for New York-based Donna the Buffalo.
“The frequent use of banjo in mento may come as a surprise, since this did not carry over into later Jamaican music,” explains mentomusic.com. “This is strange, considering how great this instrument sounds in mento, and how many different ways it was played. It strummed the rhythm similarly to the role of guitar in reggae. It was a lead instrument, sometimes played very precisely and sometimes very loosely. It could riff wildly, or be played as orderly and pointillisticly as a music box. Sometimes it chimed like a steel drum, other times it sounded like a mandolin. But banjo always brightened up the song.”
And then the Web site goes on to point out, “One thing mento banjo doesn’t sound like is the banjo playing heard in bluegrass or other American musical traditions.”
For Ruth Brooks, that distinction is pointless. When Greenberg left Jamaica, he told his bandmates about the Brooks family, and the Overtakers were invited to the Grassroots Festival in Ithaca, N.Y.
“The first time I heard real bluegrass, I was crazy about it,” the mento singer enthuses. “It’s a sweet music. If you’re sick and this music is playing, you’ll be raised.”
In the family way
At the Grassroots fest, the Overtakers were introduced to Pond’s Snake Oil Medicine Show and a bond quickly formed. This led to trips between Jamaica and North Carolina and a collaborative effort to record the Overtakers’ Jamaican Roots Music CD, released on the eco-minded Tree Leaf label.
“Snake Oil Medicine Show began performing with the Overtakers six years ago in Jamaica,” recalls CX-1 promoter Maisy Cooper. “Soon a real family vibe overtook all of us.”
Family is a theme of sorts between the two groups, but as far as Brooks is concerned, their ties are thicker than blood. “We have a lot of family bands [in Jamaica],” she notes, “It’s normal here. I think all musicians, whether they are from Jamaica or not, are heart brothers.”
The singer similarly embraces the melding of CX-1’s eclectic mix with the Overtakers’ simple, melodic island tunes (they call it mento-reggae in honor of their type of fusion). “You know what,” she muses, “It’s wonderful. Reggae is a heartbeat along with the bluegrass. With George singing and Ruben doing the reggae — it’s fantastic.”
She continues, “They’re completely natural to be played together. We put reggae and bluegrass together and it sounds like something completely different. I know other people get it, because there’s always a crowd. Even in Jamaica.”
“Whatever music we play now is a mix,” Pond affirms. “As reggae as I get, I’m still not totally reggae. And Ruben, from getting to know us, he plays with hillbilly rhythms.”
While the blending of these two styles has created a unique form of music, Cooper and Pond hope this particular combo brings about more than just a string of concerts.
“When we heard the Overtakers’ music, we knew that it was music the world was waiting to hear,” Cooper stresses. “This idea we have to bring the Overtakers’ music to the people of the world developed through the music we created over the course of our friendship.”
As for Brooks, her focus is on sharing with an ever-broadening audience. “We’d like to go into schools — we love to do that,” she relates. “You need the younger generation to learn to play and make [their own] songs up, too.”
The Overtakers and CX-1 play the Emerald Lounge on Saturday, Oct. 14. 10 p.m. $10. 232-4372.