A testatment to unity, SC Public Radio is expanding long-running ‘Roots Musik Karamu’ | Columnists

Melissa M. Munoz

In this so-deemed dark winter, finding a patch of positivity may at best feel daunting and other at times seem like an exercise in futility.

That’s where Osei Chandler comes in. Since 1979, the host of South Carolina Public Radio’s “Roots Musik Karamu” has been taking to the airwaves to remind us not to worry about a thing.

Osei Chandler in the radio studio. Provided

On Saturday evenings from 10 p.m. to midnight, Chandler infuses the state’s airwaves with rhythmic uplift, from the chilled-out bliss of reggae legend Bob Marley and the Wailers, to the heartwarming harmonies of the Zulu choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to the soothing syntho-pop of French artist Wally Badarou.

Last month, the network announced that the program will now be aired in all eight of its markets, an expansion from its previous three of Charleston, Greenville and Columbia, thus reaching an average of 300,000 listeners each week (available via southcarolinapublicradio.org).

What’s in a name

The clue to Chandler’s far-ranging programmatic ethos is in its name. Karamu is the Kiswahili word for feast. Chandler indeed heaps on a sonic smorgasbord, peppering it with interviews and a community bulletin board.

The one unifying component to his offerings is the drum.

“Drumming sets the pace,” he explained in his deep, rich radio voice, a resonant aural pacifier in its own right.

That percussive panoply does far more than keep the beat. It helps Chandler in his mission to spread the positive vibrations emblematic of reggae. Clearly it’s a strategy with abiding appeal. “Roots Musik Karamu” is one of the longest running shows in the country.

“We promote love between brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and wives and husbands and other significant others,” he said. “Yeah, that’s always a theme, love.”

It all started in 1974 when Chandler, a Brooklyn native with Barbados origins, went along with a friend to see the Mighty Diamonds, a Jamaican harmony trio, at a Sheepshead Bay club called Your Father’s Mustache. A couple of weeks later, he saw Burning Spear at Madison Square Garden’s smaller theater.

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He then chanced upon a record store that was going out of business, scooping up a dozen Caribbean-centric LPs and a slew of 45s. A collection began, one that has yet to stop growing.

When Chandler moved to Charleston in 1977, following his future wife Sadeeka, a Ridgeville, S.C., native, he brought his prized collection with him. Soon he was putting on shows that celebrated his Caribbean roots while also folding in African music and traditions.

“I was trying to make it relevant to the African American community in Charleston,” said Chandler, who initially struggled to get Black audiences. “It took a while because I recognized that the native African Americans in Charleston had not had the same opportunities to travel or be around other cultural music.”

On “Roots Musik Karamu,” reggae reigns, though it is layered with most anything powered by drums, including calypso, soca, blues, jazz, gospel, Juju and more. The program showcases old-school original tracks a la mainstays Marley and Tosh. 

“I will not play a show if I don’t have a Bob Marley song in … each hour,” he said.

It also shares fresh renditions by contemporary musical artists. Among them are the Dubplates, whose member Robert “Papa Robbie” Ellington was first turned onto reggae by Chandler himself. A friend of the host’s son, he used to tease him about his father’s musical taste.

“You know, coconut music kind of thing,” Chandler said. “Now he’s in a band. He became friends with King Yellowman.”

Saturday lineup

It was all happening last Saturday night during Chandler’s Dec. 19 Kwanzaa Christmas Celebration, which started off with a incantatory Latin guitar rendition of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman.” Tone set and zone created, the host glided on over to Africa, by way of Africa-connected songs by Tosh, Nigerian juju singer King Sunny Ade, hip hop-inflected reggae artist Stephen Marley and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

Deftly hopscotching between Kwanzaa and Christmas, he veered from the album “Kwanzaa for Young People (And Everyone Else!)” to Nossa Bossa Nova’s silky, serene “Joy to the World” to Alton Ellis’s “Praise Jah It’s Christmas,” culminating with Youssou N’Dour’s transfixing, percussive take on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

Chandler made a gently compelling, sonic case for peaceful co-existence, the kind that seamlessly hops countries, spans continents, bridges belief systems and travels time.

That is, after all, the host’s mission: To demonstrate how we can all hang together and thereby uplift community. The longevity of the program is a testament to the abiding power of such positive vibrations, particularly in these precarious times.

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When Chandler got an email from Sean Birch, the director of programming and operations, stating that they needed to talk about the show, it gave him pause. A retired widower, he braced himself for the cancellation of what had become the primary focus of his days.

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“They said, no, we don’t want to fire you. We want to expand.”

After the pandemic hit, popular syndicated shows like “Live from Here with Chris Thile” were canceled by the national producer and distributor. According to Birch, it presented an opportunity at South Carolina Public Radio to push local programming forward, something he has been intent on doing since joining three years ago.

Birch sees the entertainment programs as a reprieve from the network’s information-rich news shows. Music programming also includes shows like David Kiser’s “On the Keys” and Bradley Fuller’s “Sonatas and Soundscapes.”

“It’s just a chance to relax and sit back and not have to think about the economy or not being able to see your loved ones for the holidays. It’s just having fun, feeling like the old days a year ago,” Birch said.

Chandler’s program is irrefutably upbeat.

“The show has always been one that has stood out to me,” said Birch, who had always had it in the back of his mind to get “Roots Musik Karamu” out to a larger audience.

“It’s peace and love and goodwill to everyone,” he said. “He just takes all those worries away, for two hours every single Saturday night.”

Those positive vibrations are the root of the show, too, with reggae typically accounting for anywhere from 85 to 95 percent of the program.

Past playlists are replete with the reggae legends of my own formative years: Bob Marley, Yellowman, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh. In high school, I proudly displayed a dread-spectacular poster of Tosh on my bedroom wall, procured by a friend from his Gaillard Municipal Auditorium concert there that I couldn’t attend.

As a high school junior, I took in my first live reggae band at a Piccolo Spoleto concert series in the Gourmetisserie food court then on Market Street, next morning’s biology final be damned. In college, I made for Myskyns anytime the group I-tal was in town.

Peter Tosh at Gaillard

Peter Tosh at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. Photo by Wendell Johnson/Provided

Diving into Chandler’s background, it soon dawned on me that he had been the principle architect of my own reggae education. He was part of the team that brought Tosh to the Gaillard. He was behind those Myskyns and Piccolo Spoleto concerts (along with scads of shows for MOJA and at places like the Palace Theatre and the Music Farm).

Since his last show in 2000, he gave up commercial live events for other pursuits, all motivated by the drive to elevate his community. For years he oversaw Trident Technical College’s Educational Opportunity Center to help adults enhance their career opportunities. While raising his family, he helped establish the Ebony City Soccer Club, and Lil’ Peles team, as a means to engage local youth and track them to college.

And, while his show is plenty positive, it by no means eludes the issues of the day. Reggae, after all, has long embraced the fight for social justice.

Chandler recalls that in the 1980s, when the show was broadcast from the USS Yorktown, he was contacted by sailors and Air Force on ships heading for South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement. They requested music by Marley and Tosh that was banned there.

“(For) 20 minutes each show, they were dedicated to get up, stand up,” Chandler said. “I like to think we contributed to ‘Free Nelson Mandela.’”

Forbidden from editorializing, he let the music speak for itself, something readily achievable as calls for social justice are a reggae hallmark. It is one that continues to resonate with the current Black Lives Matter movement, and Chandler regularly programs around Black History Month.

“If there’s a preponderance of Black killing… I can do a ‘stop the violence’ show,” he said. ”Let’s get together in unity in the community.”

The pandemic gets play, too, with the host explaining that many songs about disease came out during the AIDS crisis, which he shares in a measured fashion.

Osei Chandler

Osei Chandler, host of “Roots Musik Karamu,” at Allen Park. Provided

“I don’t want to come up with a depressing show, you know? So I’ve got to be kind of careful.”

So is that the special sauce?

“Sometimes people just capture lightning in a bottle, and it can be hard to kind of break down,” Birch said. “All the components that came together that just made this special thing.”

“It’s about unity,” Chandler said.

He recounted his live show days in clubs and at festivals. Then, he would start by telling people that music is about peace, love and respect — in short, unity. After saying his piece, the crowds would enthusiastically repeat his words.

“Then I would let the show begin.”

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