Shortly before 10 p.m. on any Wednesday night, the upstairs bar at Bistro Europa is comfortably full. In the back room, darts thunk into their boards and pool balls click. Televisions by the ceiling silently broadcast soccer matches played between clubs in obscure South American leagues. Patrons are shouldered up to the bar, their backs to the room, a few with empty glasses try to meet the eyes of the bartenders who lean into a customer to take an order then turn to slosh liquor onto ice or draw a draft into a pint glass. A few pairs of men or women sit on the high stools at the bar, facing the room and flickering their eyes across it. The few tables are already full.
In the midst of this scene, passing through with the tools of their trade, the Tru Believers are setting up. Drum by drum, they carry in Barry Richards’ kit. After bringing up his electric bass, Richards’ brother Carl helps their father Priest with his bongos. Dinatra Lewis tests his keyboard while guitarist Kareem John, only 17, sets down the amp he was carrying with the help of the band’s lead singer, Yusuf The-Starlight-Rocker.
By 10:30, the pool balls are still clicking in the back and the dry patrons are still trying to catch the eye of the bartenders, but the front room is dark and alive with twisting limbs. How does a person dance to music predicated on the laziest of baselines? How should a body move to a pulse distilled from the purely mental distortions that ripple through a mind saturated with marijuana? A few minutes with the patrons of Bistro Europa’s Wednesday Reggae Nights reveal one clear answer: any way you want to. As the Tru Believers weave their stuttering notes around Carl Richards’ living bass-lines, men and women - middle-age and college-age, black and white - cavort in the sound. Barely separated by his mike stand from the crowd, Yusuf cavorts with them. “None of you’s a true believer until you want for your brother what you want for yourself,” he chants in a heavy Jamaican accent.
Bar manager Mark Semans has been at Bistro Europa five years. He said he’s seen obvious changes since Garry Tierney bought the restaurant and bar six months ago. “He’s made it happier,” Semans said, “better, very enthusiastic, very good crowd.” He said that since Garry started reggae night with the Tru Believers two months ago, it has begun to attract a crowd characterized by “a lot more movement” and “a lot more dancing.”
WHEN CARL and Barry Richards were growing up, their father tried to discourage their musical ambitions. “But they kept practicing and practicing,” Priest said, “until they became what they are now.” The Richards family moved to DC from the West Indies when Barry Richards was 10 (he’s now 29). In his youth, Priest had been a professional drummer for bands playing Latin and French music, but his musical career was long over by the time he came to the U.S. Still, he could not stop his sons from pursuing their impractical passion. “It’s in the blood,” he explained.
Blood drew the brothers into music, but it was roots that led them to switch from the jazz they’d studied all their lives to the reggae they’d been raised on. With their cousin Dinatra Lewis, they formed Millennium Shock in 1999. “The transition was actually pretty fun for us,” said Barry Richards. “[Reggae] is kind of in-the-pocket and has a simplistic, full sound to it.”
When they added Yusuf (also a cousin) a few years later, the band became the Tru Believers. Now with John on electric guitar, the Tru Believers drop roots music that transcends the simplistic bass-lines and accentuated down-beats that epitomize the roots-rock reggae sound. The bass rhythm “gives an opening for Carl to bring his jazz style into it,” said his brother, “a lot of riffs and a lot of runs.”
“Normally in reggae the bass is the most simple,” Barry Richards continued, “but his style kind of brings another face to it.” John said that he had to learn to adjust his guitar playing to the band’s bass rhythms when he joined a year ago. John’s background was rock guitar, so as a Tru Believer he had to learn to transform his “freeform, resonant” notes into a more “staccato” rhythm. He explained that the sound of a reggae band is driven by its rhythm section – drums and bass. “It musically takes shape based on that certain rhythm.” The jazz improvisations the brothers bring to that rhythm means the entire band is given the space to step beyond strict metrical bounds. “It’s always good when the other guys can tighten up when we’re really letting loose,” John explained.
“A lot of times classic roots reggae is on the beat,” Barry Richards said. “We’re on and in-between.”
THE ONLY THING more central to the identity of roots-rock than its primal low notes is its spiritual message, and for the Tru Believers, it is Yusuf The-Starlight-Rocker who brings this message most overtly. “We’re just making music that’s straight to the point,” Yusuf explained, “timeless and beneficial to all generations.”
The point is simple – “Good over Evil, more or less,” Yusuf said when asked. Belying his heavy accent, Yusuf was born in DC to a father from Jamaican and a mother who is half Sudanese and half American-Indian. Yusuf did not spend time in Jamaica until he was a teenager. The experience was transformative. “At 17 I really got heart,” he explained.
Yusuf said he had no problem bringing a musical style fertilized by third-world deprivations, injustice and slum violence to the suburbs of DC. “We’re really talking about the Milky Way Galaxy. We don’t want to be jus the DC area. We want to try to leave the stratosphere.”
And he rejected ideological as well as geographical limitations on the music. He said the Tru Believer’s do not proselytize for the Rastafarian religion – which is based on an interpretation of Christianity that deifies as “Jah” the deceased Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. “It’s got to be positive but not impulsive.”
“We figure if we can keep things clear – like the clouds are white and sky is blue – other people can deal with that. It’s not about Rastafari.” Yusuf paused for a moment, struggling to explain. “It’s about the freaking truth man,” he finally spat out, his tone raw.
“Fish float in the sea and flowers grow on trees. That gives [the youth] something else besides girls and guns man.”
“We want people to hear us and not just be entertained by it, but hear a message,” Barry Richards said. “The message is always, ‘First the Creator, the father, the mother. And also believing that you can make it once you have a faith, a faith in something, a faith in a higher power – and yourself.”