Thursday, May 23, 2024
Emily Perkins, curatorial cataloger

In the age before mp3s, a person’s physical tape collection told a lot about them. You could discern a person’s musical tastes as well as what events they thought important enough to record for posterity. Home recording tapes with scant labels may contain a personal life moment, a previously undocumented cultural event, or a humble mix tape—all a mystery until played back on technology rapidly becoming obsolete as the brittle magnetic tape itself degrades over time. In the case of legendary New Orleans percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts Jr. (1943–2020), his audio and video tape collection, acquired by HNOC in 2022, documents his decades-long career, his musical influences, landmark events in the city, and his family and daily life in New Orleans between 1985 and 2010.

Uganda in Audobon Park in 1978 (HNOC, 2022.0161.2.30)

Roberts was born in 1943 and raised by his grandparents in the Treme neighborhood. From an early age, he was inspired by the Caribbean rhythms he heard from sailors and seamen stopping off in the port of New Orleans. He began playing the bongos as a teenager in the late 1950s with the legendary dancer Chris Owens under the name “Jamaica Joe” before switching to the conga drums in his early 20s at the suggestion of New Orleans drummer Smokey Johnson. Roberts taught himself to play the congas by listening to Afro-Cuban congueros like Mongo Santamaria and Armando Peraza. His polyrhythmic hand drumming harkened back to 19th-century Congo Square drum circles, earning him a new stage name, “Uganda,” and adding a distinctive New Orleans flair to many R&B and Funk records of the day.

A 1974 paystub for Roberts from Sansu Enterprises, later Sea-Saint studios, Allen Toussaint’s recording studio (HNOC, 2022.0161.4.8)

In the early 1970s, Roberts became a member of Allen Toussaint’s house band, where he added his conga sound to many important records including Rock ’n’ Roll Gumbo (1974), Southern Nights (1975), and Crawfish Fiesta (1980). During his prolific career, he played and toured with the Meters, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, and Professor Longhair, with whom he developed an extremely close personal friendship and played professionally for eight years. When Fess’s house burned down in 1974, he moved in with Roberts in Treme. They continued to record and tour internationally together until Longhair’s untimely death in 1980.

Roberts’s tape collection at HNOC includes a rare 1982 documentary called Piano Players Rarely Play Together, originally aired on WLAE-TV in New Orleans. In it, Professor Longhair plays alongside his mentor, Isidore “Tuts” Washington, and his protégé, Allen Toussaint, while they discuss their own unique contributions to the New Orleans sound. Though the documentary focuses on the pianists, Roberts can be seen several times in the recording playing the congas alongside his friend Fess.

Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and Professor Longhair at “Dr. John’s New Orleans Swamp” 1974 Soundstage performance in Chicago. (HNOC, 2022.0161.1.2)

Roberts met college student Linda Richardson, a fellow Treme native, in 1970, while Linda was teaching African dance classes at NORD. After graduation, Linda pursued the arts, becoming one of the original cast members of the Free Southern Theater. She went on to have a thirty-year-long career as a mathematics and physical education high school teacher, and later as a school counselor, for New Orleans Public Schools. Roberts continued his music career and, at his wife’s urging, worked several day jobs. He was one of the first Black bus drivers hired by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in the mid ‘60s. He went on to drive a cab for Coleman Cabs, and in 1986 he and Linda opened their own company that leased a fleet of cabs from the Louis Armstrong International Airport. They moved to Gentilly that same year, and their home became a meeting place for New Orleans musicians of all ages to congregate and create.

Roberts with his girlfriend Linda Richardson circa 1975 (HNOC, 2022.0161.2.1)

Roberts carried a video camera with him everywhere he went and recorded many of his own performances. The tapes archived at the Williams Research Center document his Afro-Calypso band from the mid-1980s, touring performances with blues recording artist John Mooney in the 1990s, Winter Solstice celebrations with an experimental jazz fusion group called Dreamland, the File Gumbo band he formed in Houston after Hurricane Katrina, and countless rehearsals and performances with ensembles playing a wide variety of styles of music including jazz, funk, blues, Latin jazz, R&B, soul, gospel, and traditional African drumming. Roberts recorded his performances at local venues such as Tipitina’s, Snug Harbor, and the Maple Leaf, as well as venues in New York City, Tokyo, and San Francisco. His audiocassette mix tape collection shows he drew inspiration from performers like Nina Simone, the Afro Cuban All Stars, Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, Sam Cooke, Toots and the Maytals, Rare Earth, the Isley Brothers, and even stand-up comedian Redd Foxx.

Ernie K-Doe performing his 1961 song “I Cried My Last Tear” at Voodoo Fest 1999 (HNOC, 2022.0161.1.100)

Notable performers Roberts documented include American jazz trumpeter Hannibal Lokumbe, Clarinetist Fred Ormond, drummer and founder of the Congo Square Preservation Society “Baba” Luther Gray, and, at the first annual Voodoo Fest in 1999, the incomparable Ernie K-Doe. Roberts recorded many events related to Black culture in New Orleans. Allison “Tootie” Montana, the iconic Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas who came to be known as the Chief of Chiefs, talks about Mardi Gras Indians in multiple lectures filmed by Roberts. One recording captures the second line held for Ernie K-Doe after his death in 2001; another preserves a presentation celebrating connections between Haiti and New Orleans as part of the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase in 2003; and one documents a 2005 Martin Luther King Day celebration where Mayor Ray C. Nagin proclaimed special days of honor for Black New Orleans civil rights activists Oretha Castle Haley and Jerome Smith.

Alfred Uganda Roberts Jr.’s gate pass for the 1974 Louisiana Heritage Fair at the Fair Grounds Race Track, when admission cost $2 (THNOC, 2002.0151.4.7)

The collection also includes Roberts’s well-loved passport and scrapbooks of news articles about performances, travel documents, music festival passes, business cards, and snapshots of his earlier years. The back of his 1974 gate pass to the Louisiana Heritage Fair, pictured above, indicates that he played with eight groups that year—evidence of just how easily conga drums can fit into just about any kind of music. Check out this Spotify playlist of songs he recorded and some of his musical inspirations.

HNOC also purchased his set of conga drums, which appear in most of the recordings. (HNOC, 2022.0161.3)

Alfred Uganda Roberts not only left his mark on seminal New Orleans recordings, but he worked to teach new generations of New Orleans drummers to keep the Afro-Caribbean influence on New Orleans R&B alive. He participated in and hosted countless drum circles in New Orleans parks. It was at one of those gatherings that he met Quint Davis who invited him to play at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where Roberts would perform every year until 2019. He taught music students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Southern University in New Orleans (SUNO), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2018, he performed at the opening of the “Drumsville” exhibition at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, which honored him as an important part of the long musical tradition of drumming in the Crescent City. Before being diagnosed with lung cancer in August of 2019, he played at Carnegie Hall with Sir Paul McCartney and was honored by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater.

Roberts remained active in New Orleans’s music community into 2020. In January of that year, months before his passing, he participated in Music Pictures, a documentary featuring Irma Thomas, Benny Jones, Little Freddie King, and Ellis Marsalis. Uganda can be seen playing the congas alongside Johnny Vidacovich on Thomas’s album Love is the Foundation, which was released in 2021. Roberts passed away on May 5, 2020, and his Celebration of Life was held in Congo Square on April 11, 2021, once the city permitted large outdoor gatherings after the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available. The celebration included a drum circle and a performance by the Treme Brass Band.

A large painted portrait of Roberts, which was commissioned as part of a house float honoring him and Ellis Marsalis, was displayed at the ceremony. The original portrait, which is by Brendan Palmer-Angelle, now hangs at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. (HNOC, 2022.0161.2.56)

According to his wife Linda, Alfred often said that although he may not be remembered through children and grandchildren, he hoped to always be remembered for his music. Because of his generosity, his influence will surely be felt for decades to come, and his personal tape library stands as a testament to that contribution. In the book that accompanied the exhibition Drumsville: The Evolution of the New Orleans Beat, Robert Cataliotti calls Uganda Roberts “a culture bearer, a groove master, and an integral influence on the evolution of the New Orleans beat.” The Historic New Orleans Collection is proud to be a part of that history.

About the Historic New Orleans Collection 

Founded in 1966, the Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Follow HNOC on Facebook and Instagram.