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Drifting Away from Rastafari Roots

Memories of a summer music festival by Barabara Blake Hannah taken from the Gleaner Newspaper.

THE events that tarnished the reputation of the annual Montego Bay reggae festival have caused in me an immense melancholy and nostalgia for times past. By whatever name it is now called, to old-timers like myself this annual reggae festival will always be simply "Sunsplash" -- the original name of the event which brought together the best of Jamaica's new world music in the presence of a happy mixture of irie locals and groovy foreigners.

Comparing the memory of what "Sunsplash" was to what it has now become, is like seeing a favourite child grow into an adult serial killer with a cannibalistic fetish.

In "the old days" of the glorious, revolutionary seventies when Sunsplash started, I was one of the faithful. It was a wonderful time to be alive, and young and Jamaican. It was a time when the fervour of Michael Manley's people-powered "socialism" and the friendship of Fidel Castro's Cuba were celebrated by the conscious words and rhythms of Rastafari reggae music and its humble superstars.

It was a time when Bob Marley competed actively for top spot and popularity with such equally famous musical greats as Peter Tosh, Jacob Miller, Third World, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Fred Locks, Dennis Brown, IJah Man Levi, Freddie McGregor, Sister Carol, Judy Mowatt, Mikey Dread, Marcia Griffiths and others too numerous to mention. A concert would inevitably include performances from such bands as Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Culture, and Steel Pulse. Each night would feature at least one of the dub poets -- Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, Mikey Smith, Oku Onuora and Jean Breeze. And who can forget 11 year-old Nadine Sutherland belting out her beautiful strong voice to everyone's total delight!

Overseas stars of the calibre of Stevie Wonder and Lucky Dube would not merely perform, but would include in their acts the honouring of Jamaica and Jamaican culture. It was a relaxed beautiful time, when the annual reggae festival was the most wonderful place to be in Jamaica for one whole week.

I remember chillin' with the group of people beside Third World's car parked inside the field just in front of Muta and Yvonne's food stall, while Stevie Wonder sang, "We're jammin' jammin' jamming till the break of dawn." What great company! I remember lying inside my small tent pitched in the centre of the field, watching over my sleeping infant baby while Lucky Dube made his first, earth-shattering entrance and blew us all away with our first taste of African reggae. What a great moment in life to be alive!

The vibe, both at the venue and in the streets of MoBay, was just "irie". Sunsplash was a week when racial and social barriers disappeared, and the Rastafari message of Peace and Love became the overwhelming mood in and over the entire western end of Jamaica.

The only job of the Sunsplash security forces was to keep out would-be gate crashers, for there was never any trouble in the venue. It was at Sunsplash that people first felt comfortable about lying down on the ground and falling asleep at a concert, for it was at Sunsplash first that there was the trend for all-night music events to end at dawn. It was at Sunplash that people first felt comfortable about smoking their spliffs in public, while enjoying the evening's entertainment just as one would do at home, or relaxing with friends at the beach or mountains. The police turned a blind eye, acknowledging that in their off-duty hours they too loved reggae and the associated culture, so no one felt paranoid about sitting on the Sunsplash field with a spliff.

The genesis of this year's problems began in these idyllic years, immediately following the passing of our beloved Bob Marley. Historians have asked whether it was part of the alleged "CIA plot to destabilise Jamaica" that after the death of a spiritual leader whose philosophy influenced so many, there followed the high-profile promotion of a new and dubious trend -- dance hall with DJs chanting X-rated lyrics over a beat which was more pocomania (a little madness) than reggae (the music of the king).

THERE are Rastafari purists who will chastise me for giving reggae a Rasta paternity. But that is only because of the secularity and vulgarity of the lyrics that have become today's reggae. In early years reggae was a music that carried a spiritual, revolutionary message which made it universal and unique. Reggae was the music of spiritutual praise and education.

Dancehall, especially its new "king" Yellow Man, became so immensely popular that it would be given one or two slots in the Sunsplash running order per night, at around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning when people like me who didn't like the slackness would take an hour's sleep on our "reggae beds".

As the years progressed, and dance hall as a genre showed that it had a distinct following that was totally different to the general Rasta-oriented Sunsplash crowd, producers with an eye on the bottom line decided to branch out dance hall and give it a night of its own. This is how the hydra-headed monster of dance hall with its evil tentacles of violent, sexist, hate-filled lyrics, has grown into the outrageous outburst at this year's festival.

As that genre of Jamaican music has increased in popularity, the style has become one of tenement-yard-style tracing, and those Jamaicans who are accustomed to a daily life in which such "tracing matches" are commonplace, applaud the winners who act out their hate battles on the dance hall stage. As a result, dance hall artistes have had to go to greater and greater lengths to outdo themselves in the art of amplified tracing.

The cross-over of dance hall to the Afro-American community in turn produced hip hop, with lyrics glorifying a ghetto culture of violence, outrageous sexism and the demon of extravagant materialism. Not to be outdone by the "child" it spawned, dance hall went one better. The Jamaican women dance hall fans taught their US counterparts how to "wine" and "skin out", while Beenie Man asked: "Zim zimma, who's got the keys to my Bimma?" .

This is the reality which has overtaken our beloved annual splash-in-the-sun reggae festival -- a Jamaican event which was so unusual, so wonderful and so rich of talent, that it has been imitated all over the world. This has happened to such an extent that many of the American and European foreigners, who used to travel to Jamaica each summer and spend their money at a time when tourism was slow, now stay home and attend any of the many reggae festivals held in their country showcasing the same performers whom Jamaica no longer invites to perform on our own stage.

This August, while Merciless, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer were warring in Montego Bay and fans were waiting to see Snoop Dog light his blunt on stage, hundreds of thousands of dollar-rich fans were attending reggae festivals in America and Europe featuring performances by such top-line artistes as Buju Banton, Burning Spear, Third World, Morgans Heritage, Culture, LKJ, Steel Pulse and Mutabaruka. It is laughable that while Muta is "banned" from the Sumfest stage "for insulting white people", he performs regularly to sold-out all-white audiences in America and Europe, not forgetting his many invitations to perform in Africa.

In fact, to get a taste of the original Reggae Sunsplash vibe, one would have to travel to California to attend the Reggae On The River Festival -- an annual three-day festival presenting the best of reggae in a setting where culture, craft and peaceful vibrations are the overwhelming experience of the hundreds of thousands attending. In fact, it is this festival and no longer the Jamaican event, that is considered the top reggae show in the world and to which only the very "toppa top" artistes are invited.

SO, with all these memories and facts in mind, I have some observations that come from a very personal place, but which I hope can help the organisers bring back the vibe. First of all, I think that by straying so far from its Rastafari roots by such actions as sponsorship by alchohol and US fast-food companies, the festival has departed totally from the key ingredient -- Rastafari -- which not only made it attractive to outsiders, but which also created and maintained a peace and love which calmed the event and gave it a vibe.

The Sumfest event's organisers are even further removed from Rasta roots than the original creators of Sunsplash; this is not a condemnation, but a critical element which needs to be addressed. As it is, the Rastafari symbols and colours used by the event are totally misleading, and can only be representational if true Rasta artistes are the main headliners each evening. If the Rasta vibe is over-present, patrons will not be subjected to artistes wielding machetes, cursing the prime minister, or simulating outrageous sex onstage.

The Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), Jamaica Promotions Corporation (JAMPRO) and other government agencies who align themselves, give money and press support under the red-gold-and-green colours, must take into consideration the serious "diss" which is being done to the Rastafari community by the financial efforts of non-Rastas. Jamaica's official colours are not red-gold-and-green -- they only became the unofficial colours because of the popularity of Rastafari around the world. So when a debacle like dance hall night takes place under Rastafari colours, it shames Rastafari around the world.

If Sumfest continues to place the word "reggae" in its title, it must showcase real reggae. It cannot pay the biggest fees for non-reggae artistes and still call itself Reggae Sumfest. Many of this year's artistes would have been more appropriate in a jazz and blues festival, or at Sashi. If Reggae On The River can fill three nights with nothing but reggae acts, surely the home of reggae can do the same.

Let's bring back the original reggae vibe to the annual summer music festival, or else change the name to Dance Hall and Hip Hop Sumfest. Because the memory of the late, great Reggae Sunsplash is too wonderful to destroy. I miss you, Bob Marley.
E-mail Sis Barbara at emaskel@hotmail.com

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