All are welcome at Umojah Nation’s reggae shows

Late on a Wednesday night in November, the Mustard Seed Cafe in Highland Square is filled with attendees for an Umojah Nation show. Every seat is occupied. The dance floor is just as packed as the bar.

Tracey Aquart-Nguma gives shoutouts to the fans who come to support them. As the band takes breaks in between sets, with DJs filling in, Tracey and her bandmates filter out into the crowd to greet and hug attendees. True to its name — “Umojah” means “unity” in Swahili — Umojah Nation brings together hundreds of fans for a boisterous evening.

The welcoming spirit extends to the band’s fans. Some attendees barely leave the dance floor, except to rest briefly or get a drink. They mill about and greet one another cheerfully, checking to make sure others are having a good time and welcoming newcomers.

Then Umojah Nation retakes the stage, all seven members in light-up sunglasses, with multicolored lights shining as smoke machines pump clouds out from the platform. The crowd returns to the front of the stage to dance along again.

“Umojah Nation has been a band for 16 years, but we’ve been playing out consistently for the last 13 years,” says Tracey, lead singer and one of the founders of the band. In the band’s early days, she would practice on her husband Stefano Nguma’s bass, and then began writing music for the band.

Tracey was raised in Akron. She started Umojah Nation as a “girls band” with some friends before it evolved to its current form.

“I had never heard much [reggae], but I liked Third World,” says Tracey. The Jamaican band sparked her first real interest in the genre. “It wasn’t until I moved to Cincinnati, where they had a whole culture and community of reggae bands. I got sucked in by the heartbeat of the music.”

Umojah Nation played one of its first shows in a monastery in Erie, Pa. Tracey brought Stefano and several others along for the show so she would feel more comfortable.

Photo by Erik Svensson

Umojah Nation played many early shows in Cleveland at venues like the Beachland Tavern. In Akron, they performed at Northside (now Jilly’s Music Room), Tangier and Musica.

“There was really no reggae in Akron at the time,” says Tracey. “We might’ve been the first.”

Tracey and Stefano are in a Facebook group called the “Cleveland Reggae Family” and some of their band members were from Cleveland, making it easy for them to play many shows there.

“I was probably about 8 years old when I first heard reggae,” says Stefano. “Bob Marley was getting big in like ‘77 and I had an uncle that had all his albums.”

“It wasn’t until ‘85 that I really started listening to the lyrics for bands like Steel Pulse, when I was in Ethiopia.”

Stefano never had the opportunity to see live music while in Ethiopia; it was not encouraged at the time. Ethiopia was under the rule of a communist government supported by the Soviet Union, Stefano says.

“Coming here, just having a thirst for live music, I started going to see as many bands as I could,” says Stefano.

The band primarily plays original songs, mixing in a few covers depending on the length of a show.

“Reggae is known for spiritual lyrics,” says Tracey of her inspiration when writing.

“It’s about what can we share with people,” adds Stefano. “What can we share that’s touched us that we can share with the community.”

For example, they explain that the song “Smokescreen” is about the ways in which colonizers subjugate people. “I grew up in a post-colonial society, and I’ve seen the ways in which religion can be used to oppress people,” Stefano says. Music helps him share those experiences in a cathartic way.

In their day-to-day lives, Tracey works as a yoga teacher and sometimes bartends at Uncorked Wine Bar in Akron. Stefano works in IT at OEConnection. Tracey also performs in a separate project, “Four Women: Interpretations of Nina Simone.”

For Tracey and Stefano, there is meaning not just behind the songs Umojah Nation plays, but the band itself.

“If you come see us play, you can see the real united nations,” jokes Stefano.

Photo by Erik Svensson

At the Mustard Seed on the night before Thanksgiving, some songs are clear favorites, drawing a visible rise in excitement from the crowd. Fans flood the dance floor and sing along to “Smokescreen,” a song from the album of the same name.

“There is no place in the world like Akron,” says Tracey to the cheering crowd. “There is so much love, so much community here.”

Fans and friends of the band share that same sense of community.

Drummer Ali Boyd, originally from Tennessee, has been with the band for 9 years, and he expresses joy at seeing the band’s support grow over the years.

“We played gigs in the middle of nowhere to like, two people, and now all these people come out to see us,” says Ali.

One fan explains that she has been coming to Umojah Nation shows since she was a toddler.

“I’ve been seeing their shows since I was one,” says MJ Ross. “Dancing in the crowd, I can always look to someone and know they have my back.”

Another fan, Shireen Dorsey, drove down to Akron from Cleveland to watch the show. She says that she’s been a fan of the band for three or four years and makes the drive when she can to see them play.

“I like that they play original songs,” says Dorsey. “I love how Tracey sounds; I love how Stefano sounds. I can put on a CD and I know every line of every song.”

The dancing continues, even as the clock passes midnight.

Erik Svensson is a senior at Kent State University, where he studies journalism.