Just for Openers

It's a weekend night at Fitzgerald's, but the upstairs stage at this Heights institution doesn't sound like its usual raucous, juvenile self. A languorous bass line and a shuffling rhythm are combining to create a trancelike heartbeat. You sense the people here are attuned to its pulsations, as if every blood-pumping muscle in the place were thumping in time to Cosmic Force's message of one love.

A song ends, and vocalist King Cobra poses the standard concert question: "How you feelin'?"

The responses, though, are not the usual shouts and whistles and belches. Someone in the back yells, "Feelin' irie." Which, of course, is the only appropriate answer when such a question is posed at a reggae show. Irie, after all, is Jamaican slang for "doing fine." It's also Rasta slang for "good herb."

It would seem Cosmic Force is doing just fine itself, with or without good herb. In just a matter of months, the group has emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become Houston's leading roots reggae band. But when you look harder at these "upstarts," you see that Cosmic Force's experience runs deeper than its short history would suggest. The group's backbone is brothers Jah Son I on drums and Mystic Mike Gorczyca on lead guitar; they are joined by Brian Tucker on percussion, bassist Dizzy Simmons and a trio of vocalists, Romeo Poet, King David and King Cobra (who doubles on keys). Cobra's name may strike a chord with longtime Houston reggae fans; he has performed with some of the city's most prominent riddim outfits.

By its very makeup, Cosmic Force is an unusual ensemble, one that reconfigures itself depending on who's leading the gig. Sometimes the group merely serves as a backing band to Cobra or David & Poet, since both have solo careers. Sometimes it performs collectively as Cosmic Force, with all three vocalists working together. But no matter who's on the mike, Cosmic Force is all wrapped up in reggae.

The band has quickly caught the attention of one of the major reggae bookers in town, Mark Marker at Fitzgerald's, who came to Houston after eight years in Seattle, where he developed a strong riddim community. Marker regularly books Cosmic Force as the opening act when he brings in a Jamaican band. He recently has begun to book the group on rock shows, too.

"There are other local reggae bands, but they haven't shown the energy that Cosmic Force has," says Marker. "Their singers are really good. They help bring the band authenticity. They add an ethnic flair that a lot of American reggae bands are missing….If the audience is small, they get people dancing. If the audience is big, they really get people jumping. I don't have enough kind words for them."

Jah Son and Gorczyca met Simmons ten years ago as teenagers in church. The trio hung around and played together, then moved away from Houston. They reunited two years ago when the brothers moved back to Houston from Austin. Jah Son then met Tucker and Cobra through a Houston Community College recording technology program.

Cobra, whose father is African and mother is Jamaican, grew up in Houston. He started playing funk in a band called Traffic Jam while a senior at Yates High School. After a stint in the rock band Atomic Warhead, Cobra shifted to reggae in 1981 with Umoja Rhythms, one of the first reggae bands in Houston. He later played with Shashamane and then did a ten-year stint with Wazobia, long considered the leading riddim group in town.

Looking to produce a recording for an HCC class project, Cobra needed a backing band and turned to his classmate Jah Son for assistance. "Why don't we play some reggae music," the drummer said.

"I was really surprised because he was always quiet in class until that day," says Cobra.

Class project aside, Cobra had an even bigger assignment to complete. He had played the local Bob Marley Festival in 1999 and, on the strength of that performance, was picked up last year for part of the festival's national tour. The problem: Cobra had only a week to recruit and rehearse a band for the Birmingham, Alabama, date. Enter Jah Son and company.

Not only did the hastily rehearsed ensemble score well with audiences in Alabama, but it also earned a huge response in Arizona. "It was the seriousness of the work the band put in that made it possible," says Cobra. "Everybody was ready to play and deliver."

Marley festival organizers were obviously impressed. This year Cobra and Cosmic Force will be one of the headliners of the 20-city tour. (The Houston dates are March 10 and 11, when artists like Buju Banton and Bunny Wailer perform in Buffalo Bayou Art Park.) The band is currently mixing tracks for its debut CD, Feeling Irie, due to be released before the tour starts.

The first thing festivalgoers are bound to notice is how King David and Romeo Poet add a whole new dimension to Cosmic Force. The pair work in a more digital-style reggae, but the duo's lyrics are thick with a prophetic message, which one finds often in roots reggae. It's not hard to recognize influences such as Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear in David & Poet's music. Less obvious are the influences of Parliament and Funkadelic.

"Romeo and I grew up when hip-hop was starting out," says David. "Romeo brings more of a hip-hop sound to our music, but we're definitely reggae musicians."

King David studied classical and jazz piano as a child. He played reggae for the first time when he joined the band Tex-African in 1995. By the time he left that group in 1997, he was working with Romeo Poet. "We understood where each other was coming from," says David.

King David and Romeo Poet intended to put their own band together but altered that plan when the pair played a gig with Cosmic Force at Mr. A's on Cavalcade. From that point on, David & Poet and Cosmic Force both got what they wanted: The former got a band, the latter a keyboard player.

"Cosmic Force has a star quality," says David. "It's more than simply a skill in playing, so it's not like a backup band….I don't know what the future will hold. The duration of our employment together is based on the common goals that we have which make it easy for us to work together."

Then he adds: "That's how the Father works. He sees the pathway when we don't."

The members of Cosmic Force obviously see their music as part of the inity (unity) designed to promote a spiritual awakening. Whether fans understand this is almost beside the point; they can at least tune in to the spirit of the band's rootsy riddims, much like they did at Fitzgerald's.