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ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH 2016 was a very successful festival. Boasting the cream of reggae’s crop and its largest ever audience, the question for the organisers now is: What next?
Setting And Context
Perfectly pitched on the Spanish east coast north of Valencia, nestling under mountain cover, this eco-friendly festival offers punters the complete holiday experience. It extends to a host of sea shore activities, that include African dance and dancehall workshops, sporting endeavours to djs doing their thing. Alternative endeavours include ‘body and mind’ treatments, circus shows and conscious craft work. Of course, some pass on these options, preferring instead to avail of the freedom of the nearby nudist beach! In fact, this ‘festival that never sleeps’, organises about 30 discrete entertainment activities daily – and that’s on top of the 18 hours of concert performances to be experienced across the various stages on each of the festival’s 8 days!
Reflecting the struggle against oppression that reggae music is frequently associated with, ROTOTOM’s 23rd edition adopted the ‘Reggae For Freedom’ motif. This theme can be traced right back to the freedom fighters in Zimbabwe’s bush, where the rebels took on the ruling regime, with Marley’s music serving as their soothing balm. More than 35 years on the struggle continues, with reggae music commonly aligning itself with the world’s disadvantaged and downtrodden.
Though mind-numbing drink and drugs may be a common characteristic of many music festivals, to its credit ROTOTOM does try to promote and reflect the role of reggae in the creation of a better world and the provision of a perspective that can help hugely when the pressure drops. This has long been a distinguishing and key characteristic of the festival – and long may it remain so.
Yet again, this ROTOTOM festival witnessed another magnificent mix of races, colours and creeds, as represented in the audience and the array of artists performing across the various stages and clubs. The festival’s unique character was also in evidence, as beyond the numerous stages both the Reggae University – celebrating its 10th year – and the Social Forum frequently opened to full houses, as they addressed the burning political, philosophical and practical issues of the day. Whilst the University explored reggae’s rich past, complex present and uncertain future, the Social Forum focused on the refugee crisis, the future of the European Union, the Syrian war and Latin American politics.
With an appropriate nod to Bob Marley and the Wailers, his legendary backing I-Three vocalist Marcia Griffiths kicked off ROTOTOM 2016’s main stage proceedings. As you’d expect, Marcia’s set was pacey, pure and somewhat surprisingly hugely helped by synthesisers simulating brass to excellent effect. For many, this (opening) concert was the festival’s highlight. Thereafter Assassin strode in inna Dancehall stylee, to the wildly animated response of his adoring audience. Next up came Spain’s own Macaco, serving a delectable dish of varied musical moods, all played to perfection. The 23rd ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH’s main stage closed its first night with another throwback to the last century, when Michael Rose and his Dub Akom band eased into a series of classic Black Uhuru hits – with Rose on top of his game – before allowing the audience to retire to the Dub Academy, Showcase stage, the Dancehall arena, the Roots Yard or even back to bed!
The festival’s second day saw I Jahman Levi open main stage proceedings with a nostalgia laced performance dipped in the material of his 1980s’ golden era. His set reserved special mention for the much maligned multi-millionaire Chris Blackwell, as the artist showed little sign of the ravages of time in his enlivening performance. However, it was Green Valley that really got the Spanish youth swaying in their thousands, wholly justifying their burgeoning reputation as a capital crowd pleaser. Having served their brand of Californian style reggae, Big Mountain made way for old school Israel Vibration. This legendary roots trio was reduced to one for the occasion, with Apple having long departed in a cloud of confusion and Wiss getting caught in the perennial visa problems afflicting Rasta travellers. However, this did not deter Skelly from carrying the flame – aided and abetted by the accomplished Roots Radics – he rocked the thousands with a host of old school anthems, most effectively characterised by a rousing rendition of the classic ‘Highway Robbery’.
Kabaka Pyramid gave a spirited opening to Day 3 and the crowd warmed well to his set on the main stage. Then came Meta and the Cornerstones with a Senegalese-New York fused version of reggae. By the time Morgan Heritage came on the crowd had swelled sizeably to savour their live showbiz-reggae-dancehall music mix. However, it was next up fighting fit Alborosie, who drew the festival’s largest crowd up to this point, as he closed the night with an extended show, featuring old and new material, embellished by brilliant brass inputs that were all too rare on the festival’s main stage. Such is the artist’s physical and musical prowess, that an enduring memory of ROTOTOM 2016 will be that of Alborosie sprinting from stage side to side, belting out his classics. His set left the audience lusting for more, and their needs were duly met by the Mad Professor at the Dub Academy, Marla Brown at the Showcase stage, whilst many others opted for Lampadread at the Dancehall stage.
Pablo Moses showed up at the Reggae University on the same day. Some serious reasoning followed, with tales of early days’ sleeping rough through the night outside studios in search of an audition. He also reminded the audience of what he told United Reggae five years ago in Brussels, regarding the importance of education. Interestingly, Pablo still says that his greatest achievement in life is using music to finance his children’s education.
He opened the fourth night on the main stage, proving to be one of the festival’s genuine highlights, with ‘Revolutionary Dream’, ‘Give I Fe I Name’, ‘Will Power’, ‘Dubbing Is A Must’ and ‘Ready Aim Fire’ all successfully hitting the spot – ‘earth moving’ might be more accurate! Ziggy Ricado’s brand of new reggae then preceded the eagerly anticipated Jah 9, who did not disappoint her followers, displaying an array of styles and vocal pitches that were delivered with impact. As in 2013, the festival’s biggest crowd up to the half-way stage awaited the arrival of Damian Marley. This success story had the audience in the palm of his hands, as he wisely merged his own musical material with that of his immortal father Bob, thus ensuring that all punters, young and old, departed with a smile. This smile was even worn when a power failure left all but the main stage area coping by candlelight, whilst the news went out that ROTOTOM’s camping facilities were at maximum capacity – sold out.
On the half-way point, an all too rare Congos reunion came to pass on the main stage on the festival’s fifth night. The famed quartet of vocalists delivered a welcome trip down memory lane, drawing heavily on their unrivalled ‘Heart of the Congos’ album – though this didn’t stop Watty Burnett from giving his rendition of ‘Rainy Nights in Portland’ or 73 year old Ashanti Roy from doing the splits! Thereafter the UK’s Gentlemen’s Dub Club took things in a different direction and just before midnight Inner Circle’s presence enabled a set designed to appeal to all tastes, with Skatta making a valiant high-energy effort to replace the irreplaceable Jacob Miller. Bringing main stage proceedings to a close for the night, the well regarded Dub Inc. from France played to a massive crowd – many of whom had remained on site after Marley’s performance the previous evening.
On Thursday (Day 6) Alaine’s dulcet tones opened with promise on the main stage for Tarrus Riley (who also had Dean Fraser in tow). No opening act at this ROTOTOM festival had experienced such a large audience. Biga Ranx then availed of the opportunity to capitalise on ROTOTOM’s first ever ‘SOLD OUT’ sign, as about 50,000 arrived to see Manu Chao deliver the longest and most popular main stage set of the festival. Though ROTOTOM excels on many criteria, some would have liked screens for a clearer view of their hero. For those who found the switch in (musical) style disorientating, a path was beaten to hear London town’s Jah Shaka working through a six hour set at the Dub Academy.
The penultimate night of ROTOTOM 2016 opened on main stage with a melange of inputs, before the Wailing Souls and Junior Kelly kept the massive swaying in advance of Beres Hammond’s popular performance. Though many had come solely for and gone in the immediate wake of the Marley and Chao’s inputs, Hammond can feel pleased with the quality of his delivery, which went down well with his many fans.
ROTOTOM City’s extensive walkways had emptied considerably by the eighth and final night. This wasn’t helped by the festival’s first full downpour – which may have pleased the local authority and the agricultural community – but wasn’t ideal for camping! Before the deluge, Max Romeo – with son and daughter in tow for 3 songs apiece – played to a sizeable crowd congregated around the main stage. Starting with ‘One Step Forward’ and ending with ‘War Inna Babylon’ and ‘Chase The Devil’, it’s clear that Romeo’s years on the road have not diminished his graceful style of delivery. After a French-based input from the rising star of Yannis Odua, the family theme resurfaced when Freddie McGregor and offspring got the ‘Big Ship’ sailing on the ocean, before the politically outspoken and popular Tiken Jah Fakoly brought his Ivory Coast sounds to the festival’s main stage for the finale. Needless to say, this did not deter a large crowd from then assembling for the popular U.K.-based Skints at the Dub Academy or at the disco warming up in the African Village, though others preferred to wind down in the Roots Yard and at the Juanita Club.
That a non-reggae act enabled the festival’s first ever ‘SOLD OUT’ sign must give food for thought. Whilst it may accelerate ROTOTOM’s advancement of ‘new’ and all other forms of reggae, it also poses another – albeit ‘good’ – problem for the organisers. Going forward, ROTOTOM must decide on the mix most appropriate to its musical and financial future. When Bob Geldof was organising the musical glitterati for the ‘Live Aid’ concerts for Ethiopian relief in the mid-1980s, he responded to the accusation that he had neglected reggae by pointing out that Bob Marley was dead and no one had taken his place. The same can still be said. That is, a similar case can now be made at ROTOTOM – where headline acts like Major Lazer (2015) and Manu Chao (2016) are bringing in the crowds. It is unlikely that any reggae artist – including the fading star of the brilliant Burning Spear, who has yet to perform at ROTOTOM in Benicasim – would fill this gap if a luminary like Damian Marley is already hard pushed to. Related thereto, though the festival may boast an attendance of up to 40 and 50 thousand per night – and claims a total of 250,000 over the festival’s 8 days – only a blind man or woman could miss the fact that though there may be an array of nationalities in attendance, the audience is mainly young and Spanish. With Spain serving as the new headquarters of ROTOTOM, it is evident that the festival must meet its audience more than half way. Given the history of ROTOTOM, it is clear that it has both the expertise and the flexibility to do just that.
ROTOTOM 2017? Esperamos volver!
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Source: United Reggae Articles