The morning sky is brightening over Montego Bay as the lean, black-garbed 'Dancehall' star known by the name of Bounty Killer concludes a riveting performance that none of the thousands of fans present wish to see end. It's almost 6am and I-Octane, the night's headline act, has yet to hit the stage.
Welcome to the 21st annual Reggae Sumfest, held this year July 24-27 in Jamaica's north coast tourism capital. Billed as 'The World's Greatest Reggae Show', Sumfest just might be, along with New Orlean's Jazzfest, one of the most exciting musical experiences in the world. And as NOLA's musical tribute to itself isn't strictly 'jazz', Sumfest isn't only reggae (and its hard-edged offspring 'Dancehall'), but a celebration of all the musical forms this culture has influenced. It's hard to overestimate the impact of this island nation of slightly less than three million people on the popular music of the world. Witness the massive success of recordings like Pit Bull's 'Don't Stop The Party' - a masterful reworking of The Maytals 1972 hit 'Funky Kingston'. As explained by Sumfest Executive Director Johnny Gourzong, other countries may boast larger reggae events, but Sumfest is where Jamaica's musical talents are determined to be seen and heard at their best - before thousands of their very demanding countrymen and women. "Every artist works hard designing something special for Sumfest" added Gourzong, who expecting over 40,000 fans to attend. He was confident this year's festival was on track to be the biggest Sumfest of all.
Dancehall Night, Thursday July 25: Survival of the Fittest
Although Sumfest officially kicked off with the 'Get Wet Beach Party' the previous Sunday (July 21), its de facto beginning is the highly anticipated 'Dancehall Night'. The evening's rather mind-boggling line-up commenced promptly at 9pm, consisting of Ruff Kutt Kru, Mikey Ranks, Alkaline, Payne, Baby Tash, D.I., QQ, Blade, I-Wayne, Spice, Bugle, Macka Diamond, Kip Rich, RDX, Assasin, Popcaan, Tommy Lee, Lady Saw, Beenie Man, Aidonia, Bountry Killer and as a cab driver proclaimed "the new boss," I-Octane. If only one complaint can be leveled at Sumfest, it's that just too much happens. Eight acts had already crossed the festival's stage at Catherine Hall (an expansive, if usually empty, field at the city's western edge that has served as Sumfest's venue for several years) by the time I-Wayne elevated the evening's proceedings to a higher plane of intensity. Swathed in the bright yellow, red and green of the Ethiopian flag, he stuck to a positive message of Rasta righteousness, not needing to prompt the audience to chant in response to songs like 'Living In Love' and 'Book Of Life'. Every performer plans 'surprises' for Sumfest and I-Wayne was joined by the grittier DJ Kiki-I towards the end of his short set. Female artist Spice, who came to public notice touring with the notorious Vybz Kartel, entered the stage enclosed in a huge transparent ball. Although navigating the globe across the stage in her 13-inch heeled silver-flake boots proved difficult and caused her to fall, she was soon on her feet and hitting her stride sans boots. Howls of laughter and recognition erupted from the crowd as she confronted a handcuffed Vybz Kartel—that was actually a look-alike. Kip Rich staged his confrontation with a mock policeman who proved to be no mean rapper himself, then introduced a white-suited midget who proceeded to perform simulated sex with a rather large woman (more laughter). Dancehall DJs make much of their claim that they provide a voice for the little man. Through it all it must be emphasized that the beat was almost non-stop, with the brief change-overs between artists handled by MCs who knew the show was not about them. "What you want is what you get," declared MC G.T. Taylor, "and what you get is more than you bargained for!" There was really nothing to do but let yourself get carried away by the on-rushing musical spectacle.
After an intense, but lengthy, set by a seemingly unhinged Tommy Lee, Lady Saw took command of the stage. Long-time survivor of the Kingston scene, she is well-known internationally due to her appearance in the film 'Made In Jamaica'. Dispensing hard-learned advice to the ladies about cheating men and how to cheat back on them, she dragged an audience member on stage for some provocative dancing proclaiming, "I've never been with a white man before!" to the delight of the crowd.
3:24am and the MC questions "Nobody tired now?!" The crowd roars "No!" Beenie Man, the 'King Of Dancehall' and closing act for many a past Sumfest, skips along an ever changing torrent of well-known hits, never seeming to alight on any one of them long enough for the audience to catch up. Still a performance by Beenie Man is not to be missed.
At 5:10am, Dancehall's 5-Star General (and long-time rival of the beloved Beenie Man), whom the MC intones "has always respected ...his mother," is called to the stage. Bounty Killer still cultivates Dancehall's reputation for danger, holding up two fingers like a pistol while demanding a 'salute' that was answered by fireworks instead of gunfire, as too often in the past. Hard, uncompromising and brilliant, he repeatedly commanded the band to "pull up" (stop), so he could harangue the crowd about his sacrifices as a sort of Dancehall Robin Hood and his views on Jamaica's many serious ills. Unfortunately, this included the condemnations of gay lifestyles prevalent in the Dancehall scene. Crushed with debt and poverty, cross-dressing hardly seems worthy to head any list of Jamaica's pressing problems.
It's in the proverbial cold light of day that I-Octane is ushered on at 5:53am. As if to prove they aren't fatigued, they seem to rush an otherwise excellent set. They will more than make up for it later in the day with a powerful set on the festival's smaller 'Digicel' Stage.
International Night 1, July 26: Stayin' Alive
Topping the previous night's proceedings (that morning's actually) would seem to be a doomed task, and the crowd looked seriously reduced as Kiarah Dubwah, Droop Lion, Sophia Squire, Nature and Iba Mahr performed. Sporting a checkered jacket and fuchsia hat, a dapper Barrington Levy soon had things really rocking with 'Living Dangerously,' his 1998 collaboration with Bounty Killer. A veteran entertainer who has mastered reggae to Dancehall and everything in between, Barrington spun out hit after hit, even evoking Elvis in his prime with 'Dancehall Rock & Roll'. Bemoaning that he had to play ten albums in forty-five minutes," he fended off requests from the audience, but still found time to lead everyone in an a cappella version of 'So Many Girls In The World,' make a few observations critical of the lyrical content of Dancehall, perform some Dancehall, host a surprise on-stage marriage proposal, then dig into the slow, irresistible groove of 'Murderer' before finishing up with the Bob Andy Classic 'Too Experienced'.
The crowd had been reaching critical mass, anxious to hear American star Flo Rida play Jamaica for the first time. Nobody is disappointed as he slammed into a whirlwind show accompanied by perky Australian vocalist Sia. Flo makes the most of audience interaction, whether presenting girls with long-stemmed roses during 'Where Them Girls At,' demonstrating 'Low' with more girls pulled from the crowd, making a moving dedication to Trayvon Martin with 'Cry Just A Little,' or diving off the stage into the middle of a sea of delirious fans a la Iggy Pop as he performed 'Wild One'. He wrapped the whole thing up with his super high-energy take on Etta James's 'Sometimes I Get A Good Feeling,' leaving everybody feeling good—and reeling.
A total shifting of gears was expertly executed by Beres Hammond, who after teasing the audience with a bit of his monumental hit 'What One Dance Can Do,' easily cruised along a two-way bridge of love with the audience, smiling as he repeatedly raised out his arms in a gesture of helpless acceptance of the situation. Finally sitting at the edge of the stage, he happily obliged the crowd by singing bits of requested songs a cappella like the appropriately titled 'Burn In The Morning Son'. If there was any flaw to his rendition of his memorable hit 'Putting Up Resistance,' it was that it ended all too soon.
The large digital clock at stage left reads 5:28:33 (forget jokes about 'island time,' Sumfest is staged with professional precision that would shame the Swiss). The sun is rising, the crowd has been on its feet for 8 1/2 hours—and is dancing to the music of Tarrus Riley. With his memorable lyrics, studious good looks and conversational yet melodious voice, no other younger artists are carrying the traditions of 'old school' reggae to a broad, contemporary public like Tarrus. Forced by constraints of time to compress his many popular songs into medleys, the singer left one longing for full doses of some of his soaring hits like 'She's Royal'.
At 5:46am, for anyone who made it to the closing set by Jah Cure, hearing their majestic ballad 'Reflections' live was reward enough in itself.
International Night 2, July 27: The Final Offensive
The worrisome afternoon rain showers obligingly disappeared by the evening's 9pm start time, but nevertheless seemed to slow down the fans appearance at Catherine Hall. Appearing in quick order were Berry, Boys Club, Miguel Antonio, Ashley Martin and the dynamic Nomaddz. However it was the much anticipated appearance by Chronixx, the sixth artist on the evening's bill, that proved there was a lot of life left in Sumfest 2013. Backed by a full seven-piece band, he confidently strode and bounced across the stage, delivering his message of awareness and Rastafarianism to an ecstatic audience. After leaving the stage to his guest artist (and girlfriend) Kelissa McDonald and her brother Keznamdi, he returned with his 'Access Granted,' garnering howls of recognition from the ever increasing, and now dancing, crowd.
A performance by Romain Virgo ratchets up the excitement level even further, and by 1:40am, as the still growing crowd waits for the appearance of American star Miguel, a young female singer named Tifa gives everyone a hilarious taste of the real Dancehall on the festival's secondary 'Digicel' stage. Digital, a Jamaican cellphone service provider, is one of many sponsors whose information booths and refreshment stands ring the festival grounds. There are also sponsored 'hospitality booths' that give lucky invited guests a clear view of the stage, as well as cocktails and snacks, from their second floor lounges. The refreshment stands, however, reflect the popular nature of the event, offering 'Red Stripe' beers for as little as J$200—a bit less than two U.S. dollars. For less than half of that, you can buy peanuts from the vendors who course through the crowd, balancing artfully-arranged packets of their wares on their heads. Then it was time for the smooth soulfulness of Miguel Jontel Pimentel, better known simply as Miguel, whose massive hits like 'Adorn' and 'Sure Thing' quite frankly sent the females present into swoons. Smooth as he was, he did manage to slip a few unexpected mike moves a la James Brown into his set.
Out of all of the many musical offspring of reggae great Bob Marley, none seems as capable of bearing the weighty mantle of their near-mythic father than 35-year-old Damian 'Jr. Gong' Marley. Heralded onto the stage with giant video images of cataclysmic world-events and the Emperor Haile Salassie I, as well as a live Rastafarian cheerleader twirling a huge imperial Ethiopian flag, Damian's appearance was met with a wave of screams from the women and girls of the audience. Sporting serious floor-length dreadlocks, his heavier approach was electrifying, expanding on his father's message of pan-Africanism, love and indignation at the world's inequities—-not to mention a bit of his knack for tunefulness. After pleasing the crowd with songs that included selections from no less than three Grammy-winning albums, he crowded the stage with a triumvirate of Dancehall royalty including The Sizzla, touching off a four-way high-energy vocal throw-down. And although he hardly needs to rely on his father's material, he did pay homage to him by closing his set with a powerful rendition of 'Could You Be Loved,' then returning for two more encore songs.
It's 5:17am. Reggae stalwarts Chalice are doing an admirable job closing this year's Sumfest. As I leave, they're still rocking the house as the sun rises one more time on the world's greatest reggae show.
Born in Maspeth, Queens in 1954, travel and food writer-photographer, destination wedding expert and history buff, Peter Zaremba is perhaps best known as a founding member of the rock & roll band The Fleshtones as well as the personable host of the seminal mid-80's show 'The Cutting Edge' on MTV.