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Long-standing Pittsburgh reggae group The Freedom Band releases its first album

“We had so many ideas, we just never took them to the next level.”

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After more than a decade together, the Freedom Band is finally getting around to releasing a record.  It’s “sort of sad,” drummer “Chizzy” Chuck Kristan laughs. “Most bands have their first CD when they’re together for a year, and we’re the opposite. What does that say about us?”

Bassist/singer Donnie Cyrus, a.k.a. “Donnie Dread,” argues that it’s neither positive nor negative. They’ve simply taken a different route.

It’s not that the Freedom Band — which celebrates the release of Higher with a show Friday — hasn’t enjoyed success. The group, which includes keyboardist Leslie Bowe, has spent lots of time playing genre classics at public shows and private parties, and opening for touring acts like Third World, the Wailers, Ziggy Marley and others. But while the band has never lacked for gigs or support in Pittsburgh’s small reggae scene, working as a reggae cover band was limiting. As Cyrus puts it, “No one is going to play [us] playing Bob Marley on the radio.” 

Kristan adds, “We had to leave our mark somehow.”

For a band accustomed to playing other people’s songs, the songwriting process came easily, thanks in part to Bowe, who Kristan says has written over a hundred songs for other projects. Plus, he says, “We had so many ideas, we just never … [took] them to the next level.” 

The goal was to write music that could appeal to listeners who wouldn’t normally seek out reggae. All three members have played in other kinds of bands, and modern R&B and soul melodies add texture to Higher’s rocksteady frame. Lyrically, songs take a slightly unconventional approach to standard reggae themes like racial harmony (“No Confederate Nation”) and spirituality (“King of Kings”). And of course, there’s the title track — which is actually metaphorical: “Your love takes me higher / your smoke fills my soul.” 

The band prides itself on being professional and polished, and the benefit of its longevity comes through: “I do like to play in a groove, I like to lock in with a bassist,” Kristan says. “[We’ve] been playing together for a long time, and we work really well together.”


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