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Words: Chris Zacharia
For such a small island, Jamaica makes a lot of noise. There’s a loudness to the food, the sport, the culture, defying its size.
But nothing captures the unrestrained spirit of Jamaica quite like reggae music. Since the days of Bob Marley, reggae music – an off-beat dancehall spin-off – has conquered clubs worldwide.
Few other countries can boast such a close relationship between their music and their culture. Reggae music isn’t just Jamaica’s music, it’s Jamaica itself, a sonic embodiment of a nation. You hear that jaunty beat, those guttural vocals, and somehow you feel the spirit of the island.
‘Reggae music did not fall from the sky, out of nowhere’ says L’Antoinette Stines, one of the island’s most famous dance teachers. ‘It grew from the earth, from Jamaican soil’.
Sumfest is Jamaica’s biggest reggae festival. Now in its 26th year, the festival is thriving. As well as the week-long festival, culminating in a Friday-and-Saturday-night finale featuring some of the genre’s greatest legends, this year Sumfest has been augmented by a symposium and an awards show.
‘Celebrating the music is important, but so is having a forum for conversation. To nurture our music, we need to talk about our music’ says Stines to the crowd of the symposium.
Coming from Cyprus, an island similar in size to Jamaica, I feel dwarfed: where’s Cyprus’s world-conquering musical heritage? It’s only when you compare Jamaica’s impact to other countries that you begin to realise how remarkable it really is.
‘I’ve been to festivals all around the word’ says Copeland Forbes, the longest-serving reggae music manager. ‘Wherever you go, there is reggae. Each festival has a tent dedicated to it’
So how did reggae music, from an island in the Caribbean about the size of Yorkshire, become a global sensation?
‘Bob Marley made a huge difference’ says Firstman, a Rastafarian who lives in a reservation village not far from Montego Bay. ‘Without him, Rastafarianism would have gone extinct’
Anywhere you go in Jamaica, Bob Marley is waiting for you. He’s at the airport’s gift shop, he’s blaring from the taxi speakers, his portrait gazes at you from lighters, mugs, t-shirts, pens.
If Bob Marley is a legend elsewhere, in Jamaica he’s a demi-god. They call him the second coming, a messenger, a latter-day shaman. It’s impressive, but also a bit puzzling – doesn’t it risk deifying a human being?
‘To understand why we speak of Bob so highly, you have to understand what it was like to be a rasta in the 1960s and 1970s’ explains Firstman. ‘Before Bob Marley, Rastafarianism was faced with extinction. We were being driven off our land, our rituals were made illegal, women did not feel safe with us. Rastafarianism was dying. Then Bob Marley appears. And suddenly our culture becomes world-famous, our language, our ethos, our clothes, our way of life – everything. And that’s why we say Bob was our saviour’
It’s hard to think of a single musician who did as much for his culture as Bob Marley did for Rastafarianism. Born to a white English father and a black Jamaican mother, the death of Bob’s father in 1955 precipitated a move to Trench Town. A notorious council estate in Kingston, Trench Town’s concrete and corrugated iron dwellings housed thousands of poor Jamaicans.
‘When he was eleven years old, Bob and his mother moved here – to Trench Town’ our tour guide Blackie explains, walking us through the yard.
If reggae came from Jamaica’s soil, then Trench Town was the seed. A self-contained social housing project in Kingston, Trench Town gave birth to a huge number of reggae stars, including Bob.
Blackie shows us Bob Marley’s old room.
‘As a child, Bob no have his own room. He stay with his mother. But as the boy gets older, he needs his own space. For women, you know? So his mentor, Vincent ‘Tata’ Ford, convinced them to convert a kitchen storeroom into a bedroom for Bob’
We stand in the sweltering square, not much bigger than an elevator. There’s a bed across one side, adjacent to a sideboard.
‘But Bob didn’t just eat and sleep here. He play his first ever show here in Trench Town, at the theatre’
I wonder what it must’ve been like to grow up here. Were the cramped conditions an obstacle, or was there something about Trench Town which made the music flourish?
We head to the official Bob Marley museum. Here, the Disneyfication of Bob Marley reaches new heights: from the ‘One Love’ café (sauces include Jammin’ Jerk BBQ, Catch a Fire Scotch Bonnet, and One Love Spicy Tomato), to the trademarked dreadlocked logo, the place seems like a shortcut to cynicism.
Fortunately, our guide tells Bob’s story well. This house, located in Kingston’s is on the same street as the Prime Minister and the Governor General. Bob’s manager at island Records, Chris Blackwell, introduced him to it in 1972. Bob vowed to buy it, moving his friends and relatives in.
Touring the vast rooms and the spacious outdoor yard, it’s easy to imagine what a fantastic creative space it must’ve been. The tour takes us through the recording studio into Bob’s old bedroom, complete with his Bible, Haile Selassie portrait and his original guitar.
In the international room, the walls are plastered with pages from Le Monde, Corriere della Sera and The Times, showing the vast crowds which welcomed him around the world.
‘Bob’s music transcended language. You don’t need English to understand his message’ our guide says.
Fathering twelve children, nearly all of whom devoted themselves to music, Bob created a dynasty of musicians dedicated to spreading reggae around the world. His youngest son, Damian Marley, is the most critically acclaimed – and he happens to be headlining Sumfest 2018.
Sumfest is held near Montego Bay on Jamaica’s west coast, the opposite side to Kingston. The drive along the coast is beautiful. It reminds you how green Jamaica is, an island with abundant fresh water and plenty of rivers.
Montego Bay is traditionally a tourist hotspot, but Sumfest is full of locals. Everyone we speak to knows it, loves it and is either looking forward to going or looking for tickets.
Like true Brits, we arrive early at 9pm. But things don’t really kick off until midnight, with the party going on until dawn.
Agent Sasco and his leopard print jacket pulls us into the crowd. Energetic, compelling and with uplifting lyrics (‘Don’t forget where you a come from but don’t stuck in the past/Because a nuff mountain to climb, whole heap a river to cross’), Sasco captures what people love most about reggae.
I-Octane is next. Midway through his second song, he does something I’ve never seen at a festival. Tailed by security, I-Octane climbs off the stage, grabs a wheelie bin and carries it into the middle of the crowd. Surrounded by dumfounded fans pointing smartphones, he climbs atop and continues singing in the middle of the crowd. He continues for another song, and then another, and another after that.
But I-Octane doesn’t stop there. He brings a fan on stage with him, dancing and grinding with her to the lyrics, before hauling up one of the security guards (‘You man! Get up here wid me man’) to sing a verse.
The next night is even more dramatic. Having learned our lesson, we arrive closer to midnight, and the atmosphere is rocking.
After a drink, we head down to the main stage for Maxi Priest. He’s been making reggae music since 1984, and is now one of the most successful reggae fusion artists of all time.
We’re hit by a wall of sound. The energy of the musicians, the flashing lights, and the power of Maxi Priest’s deep bass rapping has us hooked. It’s one of those shows where, even if you don’t know any of the songs, you’re mesmerised. An hour passes far too quickly.
After Maxi Priest has left to huge cheers the crowd starts building again for Damian Marley. After learning so much about Bob, I’m fascinated to see one of the clan perform. But while the resemblance to his father is more than passing, Damian’s music is unique.
Thousands of faces gaze in rapture. I’m reminded of something Firstman said when describing the power of song: ‘For Rastafarians, music is spiritual. It connects us to each other, to our ancestors, to the earth’. It’s such a simple idea, but in a world of twerking pop-stars, synthetic Millennial Whoops and meaningless lyrics, the idea feels radical.
It’s well past 3am, but the crowd is only growing in size. It’s hard to imagine anyone drawing a bigger audience at Sumfest than Damian Marley, but Beres Hammond is reggae royalty. Making music since the 1970s, Grammy-nominated Hammond has released fifteen studio albums to huge popular and critical acclaim, scooping up the Order of Jamaica in 2013.
With his CDs playing in every one of our minibus journeys, Beres Hammond has been the unofficial soundtrack of our tour of Jamaica. I’m exhausted, dawn is approaching, and I’ve smoked a spliff the size of a broomstick, but I’m determined to stay up and watch Beres Hammond.
He doesn’t disappoint. Filling the stage with a big brass ensemble, Beres Hammond has a voice like Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee: smooth, rich, and revitalising.
At last, dawn is breaking over Montego Bay. The music goes on until mid-morning, but it’s time to find a bed to collapse on. As I’m leaving the festival, I catch the first rays of a stunning sunrise.
Suddenly I’m reminded of the first words that were spoken to me by our driver, the night we arrived.
‘First time in Jamaica?’ he asked, as I stared mesmerised into the dying blues of dusk.
‘Well, what took you so long!?’
Gazing into the sunrise, accented by the colourful reggae beat pouring from Sumfest, and I can’t help but agree.
Start your journey to Jamaica with the Jamaican Tourist Board
Check out the highlights of Sumfest 2018 here