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MUSIC / BIG MOUNTAIN : Crossover, Mon : This bilingual reggae band with a message is climbing charts on a wide spectrum of radio formats.

March 18, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In music, dead guys have the staying power if not the moves they had when they were living taxpayers. Elvis may be dead but he's keeping his record company alive, as he (or they) just released a five-CD box set. Bob Marley's four-CD box set topped the reggae charts for months.

Big Mountain, a San Diego-based reggae band, recently pulled a musical coup of Everest proportions when their debut disc, "Wake Up," replaced Marley's "Sounds of Freedom" as the No. 1 reggae album.

Big Mountain seems to be getting as much airplay as the 8 million auto insurance companies who seem to fill every interminable moment between infrequent musical interludes. Their bio weighs more than those of 71% of all other reggae bands. Big Mountain isn't just on reggae radio, either. The band is charting among the following formats: Adult Alternative, College Radio, World Beat, Spanish Radio, Bands Named After Large Inanimate Objects and Bands With Singers With One Name.

The guy with one name is Quino, the smooth bilingual singer who started the band five years ago with guitarist Jerome Cruz. Quino, of Scotch-Irish and Latin descent, has been in reggae bands for 13 years or half his life. The band was originally known as Shiloh, but Quino changed the name to Big Mountain last September when he found out that Don Henley owned the original name.

If reggae is the music of liberation, then Quino's personal cause is the plight of the American Indian. He wants to take Andy Jackson off the $20 bill, and he's probably not a big Father Serra fan, either.

During a recent phoner, Quino discussed the life and times of his favorite band.

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So "Wake Up" has become quite the hit and even knocked Bob off the top spot on the charts. How did that happen?

Well, you know, it took a lot of years putting the music together, a lot of research and hooking up with the right guy. (Producer) Bruce Caplan is a master of getting stuff on the radio. It's a combination of a strong album and somebody knowing what to do with it.

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So how does a reggae band get signed?

In a sense, I know they're looking at me as a reggae sex symbol. There hasn't been a reggae sex symbol since Bob Marley. And since I'm bilingual, they're also looking at a new market, the Hispanics. We don't fall into any single format, so we're getting airplay on a lot of different stations. Jah has been good to us.

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What's the San Diego scene like?

The reggae scene in San Diego is strong and there is a lot of work for bands that's centered around the tourist industry. They use reggae bands at a lot of the resorts--playing around the pool, stuff like that.

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Is there such a thing as California reggae?

Well, yeah, there is in sense. There's a lot of good reggae bands in California. We've had to alter our music to make it acceptable to American ears, who lose patience quickly. We couldn't play the straight Jamaican style, so we've added some English reggae to make it more exciting. Our music is really a mixture of everything. We've played in clubs a lot, so a good portion of our stuff has to be upbeat. Our specialty is roots music, but also Bob Marley style, some Steel Pulse type stuff and some steady Jamaican styles.

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Is reggae getting bigger, smaller or what?

It's getting bigger, man--only getting stronger in the United States. The home-grown reggae acts are getting bigger. Americans want something strictly born and raised here. With our success, we'll be able to open doors for other bands. Everywhere, Americans love reggae. Reggae will play a big part in this new progressive age that is opening up to us. Reggae is something with a strong foundation where the message is important.

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Where did the name Big Mountain come from?

It's the name of an Indian mountain on the Hopi and Navajo reservation. They're having trouble with the government; the Bureau of Indian Affairs wants to mine uranium there. Actually, the mining has already begun. It's a very frustrating situation. To the Indians, it's a very sacred mountain which has the power to destroy the whole world. And you know what uranium is used for.

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Who should be on the $20 bill?

If he's got to be white, John Brown. Or maybe Red Cloud or Elijah Mohammed or Marcus Garvey.

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Not Steve Garvey?

No, not Steve Garvey.

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How 'bout those Padres?

I dunno, man. They just can't seem to keep their players.

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Besides the Padres, you seem concerned about another downtrodden group, the Native Americans.

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