There's a tough balancing act that comes with being an active reggae band in South Florida. Groups that are serious about their craft typically promote spirituality and consciousness in their music — but the venues where they perform often do not. If a band wants steady gigs, it means it has to play in bars and nightclubs, where the real message behind the music gets lost in all the revelry.
Local reggae powerhouse Fourth Dimension, however, finds a way night after night to make sure its music is actually heard. The band plays up to four or five shows a week at smoky bars across Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but the soul-gripping lyrics attached to their original songs still seem to hit home with partying audiences. Since the multicultural band got its start in 2000, it has developed a hardcore following among reggae lovers all across South Florida, and it's not uncommon to see the same faces at its shows — folks of all ethnicities week after week soaking up the positive vibrations the band gives off when it performs.
That type of loyalty isn't easy to achieve, no matter what type of music market you're in. But Fourth Dimension supporters are a faithful bunch.
"We know there are a lot of people who believe in us and the music that we're making," says the group's keyboardist, Pierre "Reggae Maestro" Arnau. "It's a really cool feeling that our music touches people like that."
"But we don't get egotistical or boastful about it," chimes in Jah Steve, the band's lead singer and bassist. "We just stay motivated no matter what to keep creating conscious music for the people."
The racial makeup of the band is unusual. Arnau is of Argentinean descent, yet was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico. The group's guitarist, Carlos "Strings" Calderon, is a native of Puerto Rico who didn't move to the U.S. mainland until after high school, while Steve and drummer Joe "Grind" Fagan were both born in South Florida to white and Jamaican parents, respectively. That's a strange brew, with each bringing distinct, well-trained musical elements to the band.
Although there's a definite Latin influence there, with some songs delivered in Spanish, they focus more on sounding like the foundation reggae groups of old with contemporary lyrics.
"We're not trying to take what the pioneers set out with and change it for our convenience," Steve says. "We maintain within the principles reggae started out with. Our music has fusion in it, but at the same time, we try to keep it within the authenticity of how Jamaican reggae was originally played."
While gathered inside the group's tiny rehearsal/storage space in North Miami, everyone's personality is on full display. Steve's rolling up the holy weed, Arnau is fiddling with a lighting rig, and Calderon is videotaping parts of the interview for possible use on the band's website, www.4thdimension.org.
There's a synergy with those three members, a brotherhood of sorts, that's held strong for the past eight years. As founding members, they built Fourth Dimension's well-earned reputation as "the hardest-working reggae band in South Florida" through sweat and perseverance. The group plays a whopping 250 shows a year.
The band's drummer and newest member, Fagan, is running late. He's clocked only two years in Fourth Dimension, but he's a godsend, fellow band members say.
"We've gone through a lot of drummers over the years," Steve says as Calderon and Arnau nod in agreement. "At one point, we had like seven or eight drummers in rotation that we were using at our gigs."
Arnau interjects: "Sometimes we'd do six nights with six different drummers," adding that he thinks the number of drummers the band had in rotation was closer to 15.
Fagan admits he was a little wary of joining a band with so much history but says it's been one of the greatest rides of his life.
"The way people come out and appreciate this band is just a great feeling all around," he says.
Now that they've got a full-time drummer, there's a palpable cohesion to the band's sound. Nowhere else is that more apparent than on their latest release, Invazion, a 15-track rocker that's one of the best reggae albums produced locally in years. Songs like "Showdown" and "What a Situation" could easily have been crafted by an all-star reggae band in Kingston, and audiences are taking to the group's new material well. They spent five months in the studio working on that disc with acclaimed producer Karl Pitterson, who helped craft the sounds of Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Bunny Wailer, and other reggae giants. Now that Pitterson has settled in South Miami, he has taken Fourth Dimension under his wing and helped create a disc that's drastically different from the band's first album, Around the World, which they put together in six weeks back in 2002. Band members seem almost ashamed of the haphazard approach they took back then. They've set the price online for Around the World at $200, hoping that no one ever buys it again.
"For our first album, we went in with half the material and built the rest of it on the spot," Calderon says. "It definitely was not our best work at all."
Steve agrees: "We only created that CD so we could stop telling people we didn't have one. Up until then, we were playing 'Hot Hot Hot' and all the bubble-gum Bob Marley tunes, and that's what that disc sort of reflected musically."
In recent years, they've undergone tremendous changes as musicians and as individuals. Most important, they take their work more seriously. "The first five years of Fourth Dimension were based on us being South Florida's top party band," Steve says. "That's what we started off as. 'Cause we didn't know this was going to be our future. We saw original bands not getting no gigs 'cause nobody wanted to hire original bands, especially not nothing that promotes consciousness."
He's speaking of the difficulty spiritual reggae bands have getting gigs at local bars.
"The owners of bars, sometimes they just want that whole kinky reggae," he continues. "They want the whole provocative, forbidden dance part of it. They want to see girls dancing, drinking, the guys drunk, and when that happens, the bar is making its numbers. That's why they don't hire real dreadlock Rastas to go out there and perform. So we've had to come in like guerrillas almost, playing an original here and there."
That tactic has helped the band survive. They're able and willing to play their own music with hard-hitting reggae covers mixed in.
It's a part of what makes their shows so much fun. Like a reggae jam band, the set list on any given night can vary tremendously.
"We're still working on our sound and growing," Arnau adds. "It's a process that never stops."