Splashback: the return of Reggae Sunsplash

In 2006, Jamaica’s famous Reggae Sunsplash music festival returns after an absence of nine years. Garry Steckles, for one, is thrilled

Buju Banton. Photograph by URBANIMAGE.TV/Tim BarrowMaxi Priest. Photograph by URBANIMAGE.TV/Rico Rodriguez

The imminent revival of Reggae Sunsplash, a genuine, 24-carat Caribbean cultural icon, is cause for rejoicing among fans of genuine roots reggae. The first Sunsplash since 1997 takes place August 3 to 6, appropriately enough in Jamaica’s Garden Parish of St Ann’s, the birthplace of Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, and Burning Spear.

The lineup, from a serious reggae fan’s point of view, looks more than splendid: among the performers scheduled to appear are Culture, Toots and the Maytals, Alpha Blondy, Steel Pulse, Morgan Heritage, UB40, Maxi Priest, Buju Banton, Wyclef Jean (okay, he’s not strictly reggae, but he’s serious roots), Gregory Isaacs, and Diana King. And for dancehall night — a Sunsplash tradition in its later years, and a huge crowd-pleaser — the headliners will be Elephant Man and Beenie Man. (I hope Elephant Man sees fit to hire some live musicians for the occasion, something he’s not prone to do when he feels he can get away with performing to recorded tracks.)

The return of Sunsplash hasn’t been greeted with universal joy in Jamaica, and Don Green, one of the four founding members of Synergy, the company behind the original Sunsplash, has had less than complimentary things to say about the new Sunsplash owners and organisers, a group spearheaded by Kenny Benjamin, one of Jamaica’s most prominent businessmen, and Wayne Sinclair, managing director of Event Partners 2006, and backed by some of the island’s most powerful companies, including Cable and Wireless. The sniping, I guess, was inevitable — hey, this is the Caribbean, and no major cultural event I can think of has escaped its share, fair or not, of controversy, backbiting, and recrimination.

Personally, I hope, fervently, that the revived Sunsplash is a huge success. If it is, it can only benefit roots reggae, and it’ll be cause for rejoicing among people like me, whose most precious musical memories often conjure up Sunsplashes past.

I attended something like ten of the festivals first time round, mainly at Jarrett Park, the event’s original home, and the Bob Marley Performing Centre in Montego Bay, and the vibes, as well as the music, were strictly positive at all of them.

My favourite Sunsplash? 1982, at Jarrett Park, was wonderful, with outstanding performances by Big Youth, Chalice, and Toots and the Maytals that were recorded and are still commercially available. But international night at the ’91 festival at the Bob Marley Centre lives on in my memory as perhaps the best single evening of reggae I’ve ever been privileged to see and hear. This was when South Africa’s Lucky Dube, on his way to reggae superstardom, made his first appearance in Jamaica, determined to prove to the music’s toughest audience that he was the genuine article, and he was the highlight of a truly remarkable evening.

The following year, Sunsplash brought Lucky Dube back as one of the headliners on the festival’s “star-time” Saturday evening. As always, he was sensational. But he played second drum and bass that evening to Culture, who blessed us with a performance that was majestic even by their heady standards.

Years later, Joseph Hill, Culture’s legendary lead singer, confessed to me, with a hint of mischief in his voice, that he’d gone on stage that night to make a point — that reggae was Jamaican, and that much as he respected and admired Lucky Dube he wanted to establish, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Jamaicans could play it and sing it better than anyone else. The original Sunsplash was that kind of festival.

The new Sunsplash venue, which can accommodate up to 150,000 people, certainly sounds like it’ll be in keeping with the event’s past, and like it’ll be a place that can allow organisers to take it into a new dimension. Sunsplash 2006 will be held at Richmond Estate, a two-hundred-acre property with the Caribbean on one side and Jamaica’s fabled Blue Mountains on the other.

It’s near to a solid concentration of hotel rooms, and the sprawling grounds will have areas designated for dominoes — a Caribbean passion that might be on the verge of challenging poker as television’s flavour of the month — family activities, arts, crafts, food stalls, sky boxes, and spiral seating. Two stages are planned, good news for those of us who’ve whiled away eternities between set changes, and festival-goers have been promised up-to-the-minute big-event goodies like giant screens and surround sound.

One link between Sunsplash past and Sunsplash present is Charles Campbell, who was director of operations from 1984 to 1994 and who’s in charge of both operations and production for the revived festival. Says Campbell: “The truth is that we needed to take a break, take a long look at the festival and ensure that the product we had to offer would be in keeping with the Reggae Sunsplash tradition.

“We think that we have now found a formula that will work — a new venue, new investors with innovative ideas and a number of members from the original Sunsplash team, to ensure that the characteristic features of the festival are retained. What we will be presenting is not a new festival; it’s an enhanced Reggae Sunsplash.”

Campbell’s optimism is echoed by some of Jamaica’s most respected musicians. Says Sugar Minnott, one of reggae’s all-time great vocalists and a Sunsplash favourite: “If it going to have the calibre of management that it once had, then I welcome it because nothing not happening. No tour nah gwaan. Only some little clubs in America by individual performers.”

Adds roots-DJ Tony Rebel: “Sunsplash was the show that all us wanted to be on as a youth. All of us grew up loving it and we’ve not lost that love for it. I have been on it twice in Montego Bay as well as the year when it was staged at Dover and I feel honoured. I would like to be on it again. Nuff respect to the promoters at the time.”

My old friend Copeland Forbes, who managed the late Peter Tosh in the days when I was promoting many of Peter’s concerts in Canada, is another reggae veteran who’s fully behind the rejuvenated festival. “I think Reggae Sunsplash is the people’s choice,” says Forbes. “I support the idea one hundred per cent.” Me too.