An obituary by Geraldine Wyckoff for The Louisiana Weekly.
Percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts was most widely recognized having performed and recorded with the legendary pianist, vocalist and composer Professor Longhair. “We had a lot of the same rhythm structures in our genes,” Roberts, who was at Fess’ side from 1972 until his death in 1980, once said, “He had a little rhumba, mambo kind of sound with the way he played the piano.” Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, who throughout his career specialized in calypso, Afro-Cuban and Caribbean styles, died on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 at the age of 77.
Percussion was a natural for the young Roberts, who grew up in the Treme, as his father played spoons, bongos and piano for friends and family and his mother was a dancer.
He was introduced to Cuban and Caribbean music as the many merchant marines living in his neighborhood would hold jam sessions when they came into port. “After hearing those drums, I said I like the way that sounds.”
As a teenager, Roberts, who began playing bongos, headed to the Havana Cuba club on St. Bernard Avenue that was owned by a Cuban woman known for her well-stocked jukebox. “Me and some friends of mine would go to the club on the weekends and bring our bongos and cowbells and stuff like that and play with all the music on the box. The seamen would bring her the hits of Havana and the music would just go on all day long, all night long.”
Surprisingly, Roberts’ first professional gig as a bongo player was with Chris Owens & the Maracas Girls on Bourbon Street. In this setting, Roberts was dubbed Jamaican Joe and wore a calypso shirt complete with puffy sleeves.
A friend gave Roberts the nickname Uganda after the two saw a Ugandan dance troupe at Southern University that included an exceptional conga player who utilized three drums. When Roberts began playing three congas his friend exclaimed, “That sounds like Uganda on the conga. It just picked up from there.”
Roberts added congas to his repertoire when realized that the bongos weren’t going to cut it if he wanted to play jazz. He began sitting in at spots like Holly’s on Basin and North Villere Streets where he had the opportunity to perform with the likes of drumming greats Smokey Johnson and James Black. At Lu & Charlie’s his congas backed brothers Earl and Willie “Tee” Turbinton.
Throughout the 1970s, whenever producer/recording studio owner Allen Toussaint needed some congas or bongos in the mix, Roberts got the call to join the Sea-Saint Studios house band that was composed of members of the Meters. His congas are heard on the Meters’ “Afrika” and “Hey Pocky A-Way.”
As a freelance musician, diversity marked Roberts career. He is heard on Dr. John’s albums Goin’ Back to New Orleans and Dis, Dat or D’udder. The percussionist also performed regularly with blues guitarist John Mooney and led his own group the Afro Calypso Band.
The rhythmic and intuitive magic between Uganda and Fess began in 1972 when New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis introduced the two musicians. Their first gig together was a house party and then they did Jazz Fest and were soon hitting the road often times as a duo. Roberts is in the band on Fess’ albums Rock ‘n Roll Gumbo and Crawfish Fiesta and they are partnered as a duo on The London Concert. “I would stick with him like gravy on rice.”
Alfred “Uganda” Williams, a man of gentle ways, was truly a New Orleans musician as he brought whatever was needed in whatever style that was required to enhance a performance. He loved music.