He spent decades turning global audiences on to the magic of Third World’s reggae rhythms. These days his focus is decidedly more grassroots. But his passion is as infectious as ever.
Willie “Roots” Stewart is a man who loves, with equal intensity, life, music, drums, and sharing his gifts. For more than twenty years, prior to focusing on his current pursuits in music education, facilitation, and community building, Stewart toured and recorded with Third World, one of the most successful Jamaican acts of the ’70s and ’80s.
Stewart was born in England and discovered his fascination with music as a small child. Mesmerized by the sounds he was exposed to at home, Willie was most strongly influenced by his oldest brother, Byron Lee, who would play a major role in the drummer’s success on the Kingston reggae scene. After moving to Jamaica in 1964 at the age of eleven, Willie was able to see his brother’s band, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, perform at dance halls and festivals all over the island. Hypnotized by the Dragonaires’ drummer and his drumset, which was a rare sight in Jamaica at the time, Stewart decided that playing drums in a band was his calling. “People said, ‘Why did you choose drums?’” Willie writes on his own website. “I never chose drums, it chose me.”
After tenaciously pursuing any music education he could get, Stewart, along with some friends, formed a band called Dynamic Visions while still in high school. The group performed at school events and in the community, ultimately earning quite a bit of notoriety and forming connections on the Kingston music scene that would introduce the budding drummer to his future Third World bandmates.
For the next several years, Stewart was a member of Inner Circle, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and Happiness Unlimited. During this time he toured the U.S. and the Caribbean and performed at many of Jamaica’s most prestigious hotels and nightclubs. He also began to book and manage his own band and other acts.
After a short stint in sales, during which Stewart got married and started a family, his obsession with music drew him back to performing, and he joined Third World prior to the recording of its second album, 96° in the Shade, in 1975. The band would become one of the most successful in reggae history, earning ten Grammy nominations for international hits, including a 1978 cover of the O’Jays’ “Now That We Found Love” and a 1982 collaboration with Stevie Wonder and Melody A. McCully, “Try Jah Love.” Third World was particularly successful in Britain and the Caribbean, with hits like “Dancing on the Floor,” “Cool Meditation,” and “Talk to Me.” Stewart toured the globe and played on thirteen albums with the band prior to his departure in 1997.
After exiting Third World, Stewart moved to England and began studying at the Access to Music school. “I decided I wanted to share music,” Willie told interviewer Toni May on the TV news show South Florida Today. “I do stress-relief percussion workshops with companies and all different groups. I believe everyone has a natural rhythm in them, and I think I can facilitate that.”
After becoming a licensed music educator and facilitator, Stewart developed his own unique methods of sharing his innate love of music and drumming. Relocating to the U.S. in 2000, he began working with schools, libraries, and cultural arts organizations in South Florida, ultimately founding Solutions in Music in 2003.
Today Stewart continues to work with students of all ages and with corporate groups. Solutions in Music offers workshops on the history of reggae and on African rhythms, as well as programs designed to introduce children to the joys of music. Stewart also teaches more than forty private students a week at his On the Beat Drum School in Miramar, Florida.
Transcribed by Eric Novod
Third World, “Talk to Me,” Reggae Greats
This fast, creatively developed pattern features a rimclick on the “a” of beat 1 and two cowbell hits at the end of the measure. (0:30)
Third World, “Cool Meditation,” Reggae Greats
This busier 16th-note groove features multiple improvised rimclicks followed by an ingenious two-measure fill that pushes and pulls the beat with a jarring shift from triplets to 16ths to 32nd notes. (2:14)