San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Singer Johnny Dread Tours C.R.

At first glance, the K-9 municipal police circling through the young Tico crowd at Bar Roots in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro seemed like an inevitable profiling prelude to the Johnny Dread concert scheduled that night. But soon after, the packed house began filing slowly out of the bar as a resigned-looking doorman peeled refunds off a thick stack of colones.

Big police raids may be great for TV, but reggae concerts? Not so much.

“I think it’s the music – they don’t understand what it is,” said the Miami-based singer in a telephone interview a few days after the cancelled show. “Sure, there might be a little marijuana, but it’s clean … It didn’t have to be an underage drinker – five (police) cars with dogs showed up – something was going to happen.”

Yet, true to his laid-back Rasta roots, Dread is taking this inauspicious kickoff to his Costa Rica tour in stride.

“We’re now starting Round 2 – Revenge of the Dread,” he said with a laugh, referring to the remaining dates on the tour, but quickly added, “No, there must have been a reason we weren’t supposed to play.”

Dread is no stranger to Costa Rica and the stumbling blocks it poses for touring musicians.

But since 2001, when he first performed at a major concert as part of the oil-drilling protests in the southern Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo, he has pulled together a grassroots system that – for the most part – works. A local band, built up from previous visits to the country and featuring talent from groups such as Mekatelyu and Bamaselo Reggae, backs up his Caribbean, Afro-Cuban and rock-influenced sounds.

“If you’re here to score big, this (reggae music) is not it,” he said. “It’s more about bringing the vibe.”

The former college basketball star and hotel management student’s musical career includes a stint with Anthony Booker (Bob Marley’s stepbrother), Ras Bagga and other well-known reggae musicians. As Copacetic, the group recorded “Ghetto Rock,” which reached number seven on the Billboard Reggae Charts in 1990. The following year, Dread struck out solo.

With nods to The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Police and Bob Marley, Dread is largely about consciousness-raising lyrics. But he says playing in non-English-speaking countries is never a problem – the message truly becomes the medium.

“We connect with the heart,” he said. “(Costa Rica) is a humble land, with no real strife … it’s a cool little place I like to come to.” Born Juan Carlos Guardiola to Cuban parents in the United States, the singer’s confident Spanish doubtlessly also goes a long way toward keeping up the onstage banter in Latino countries – and he has a lot to say.

Dread does not expect any more show stopping glitches, and will be performing at several venues around the country this month (see box). For information about his music, go to For concert info, call 863-0395.


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