His Jamaican accent is thick and takes some getting used to. His speech is sprinkled with “I and I’s” and “yah, yah’s,” the distinct linguistic markings of a Caribbean native. There are no “yah, mon” moments, but you can almost smell ganja coming through the phone line.
Speaking with legendary reggae artist Don Carlos is like having a conversation with his land, people and music at the same time, and it is clear his primary inspiration is never far from his mind.
“Jah is my greatest influence in my life,” Carlos says. “I work for no one but Jah.”
He cut his teeth in one of the most depraved neighborhoods of Kingston, Jamaica. To keep out of trouble, he quickly learned the power of positive thinking, a theme that runs throughout his 36 albums.
“Growing up in Jamaica, I learned goodness,” he says. “I learned positive decision making.”
Making the right choices led him from his first performance at a school concert – in 1965 – to duets with Slightly Stoopid and Rebelution to headliner concerts in Africa and Europe. Next Saturday, he’ll take the stage at Planet Gemini for the Don Carlos Reggae Concert, the winter run up to July’s Monterey Bay Reggae Fest.
The promoter of both events and personal friend Andre Smith has been Carlos’ fan for a long time.
“My favorite song is ‘Just a Passing Glance,’” Smith says of a hit from the 1972 album of the same name. “That’s a tough choice, because he’s got so many albums and so many songs.”
Like many, Smith says he’s drawn to Carlos’ uplifting messages.
“In his lyrics, he talks about positive things like love, family, strength and his love for Jah,” he says.
But Smith’s got more personal reasons to be a fan.
“Despite the status he has achieved, [Don Carlos] is a humble person and a joy to be around,” he says. “His schedule is very busy, he performs all over the world, but you’d never know it. He still comes in and puts on a solid two-hour performance.”
Carlos started his professional career as one of the founding members of the seminal reggae group Black Uhuru. He split with them in 1978 to launch his own career and hasn’t stopped since.
“I think of myself not really as just a singer. I’m a messenger,” Carlos says. “Spreading righteousness, consciousness and love. Things that is good. Unity. I want to tell people to live together in unity. Spread truth and rights to the people.”
Though his tangled beard turned white long ago, Don Carlos hasn’t slowed down his music-making production. He released a new album, Changes, earlier this year and continues to gather new supporters at every stop.
“For a first timer or those who have seen him before,” Smith says, “you will see his spirituality, his realness, his personality come through in his singing, and you will leave a fan.”
Carlos believes that happens because he keeps it simple, writing songs about what is true in his heart. The audience, he says, can sense that.
“My soul,” he says, “is in my songs.”