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Rototom Sunsplash 2012

Rototom Sunsplash 2012

Rototom Sunsplash 2012

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

Still one of the most affecting and memorable festivals in the world.

The 19th edition of sprawling, scorching reggae village-within-a-village Rototom Sunsplash (its third in exile from Italy to Benicassim, Spain) fell, as readers will know, shortly after the 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence. Bearing the not-strictly-accurate but suitably-celebratory sub-heading "50 years of reggae music" - there was a duly Jamaican bent to the lineup. Yet the unique cultural mix at the self-styled "European Reggae Festival" was also expressed in contributions from around the globe.

Rototom Sunsplash 2012

A little austerity downscaling left festivities at a trim if still impressive seven days - with the secondary Lion Stage and dedicated cinema no more. Even so, Rototom, bedded into its dry rocky home boasted six major music areas, its Reggae University forum, an African Village, and an outdoor circus. The night before official opening this pop-up community gave something to the world outside when Dennis Alcapone, Winston Reedy, Mighty Diamonds and Pablo Moses performed at Benicassim's Place De Les Corts Valencianes.

The JA heritage flavour was apparent come Thursday's opening proper - plus an unusually high standard of musicianship befitting the source of the famed European Reggae contest. Veteran-since-before-independence Derrick Morgan, now unable to see his fans or walk unassisted, could nonetheless galvanise the main stage with his 1962 ska anthem Forward March. As the dusk bats of Benicassim wheeled, a sprightly Beres Hammond - just shy of his own 57th birthday - serenaded the people in slightly strained yet rich voice: his Harmony House band playing with remarkable power - as if rising to the challenge of the musicians to follow. Those were Sly & Robbie, guitarist Ernest Ranglin and keyboardist Tyrone Downie - who between them had played on much of Jamaica's popular canon. Though Robbie's singing is frail compared to fleeting guest Bitty McLean - and perhaps curation-wise they should have gone on before Beres - their jazz reggae meanderings remained one of the week's essential spectacles. Finally, at ear-splitting soft-rock-band volume, the reformed Morgan Heritage blasted the main area into the small hours.

By the Friday, the "Rototom effect" - campers boiled out of their tents after minimal sleep and passed out in the arena - was already in evidence. Their wakeup came from the main stage's debut dancehall artist, Tanya Stephens, fresh from her talk at the Reggae University, soaked with perspiration by the end of a well received set that included the earthily humorous You Nuh Ready Fi This Yet and a - sadly horns free - It's A Pity. Next were Latino Reggae Contest winners, Argentina's Dubies: worthy victors from their chops - even if their songs sounded like one extended intro. The magisterial presence and delivery of Michael Rose (backed by London's Ruff Cutt band) referenced former producers Sly and Robbie only via Black Uhuru numbers such as Abortion (whose lyrics were perhaps missed by many of the audience). He did, however - in one of those festival moments - bring on his pre Riddim Twins producer Niney to duet on the latter's Blood and Fire. An influx of concentrated humanity then descended for Alborosie - ever a Rototom draw and this time meeting "friends" from his combinations: Etana, Kymani Marley and Mr Rose. Albo doesn't always seem to enjoy being on stage as much as the studio but sure enough, when flanked by Rose for Waan The Herb, Etana for Blessings and Kymani for a series of Bob's tunes, he raised his game. His band's newly-added horns helped too.

The live band theme continued the next day with 2012 European Reggae Contest winners, Serbia's Irie FM. Led by the Anthony Doyley-like voice of Vukasin Markovic, resembling the wolf that builds his name, and following the Serb singing trombonist tradition, they were technically impeccable (if like many winners, backward-looking in their tastes). Rototom Sunsplash 2012Jamaica's own live roots sensation, Raging Fyah, made their Spanish debut with typically cool assurance. Where other island groups failed to enter Europe, they lead the charge for a home-grown alternative to dancehall abroad. Freddie McGregor, who missed his discussion at Reggae University, was still chasing the clock and skipped his penultimate Saturday slot. Instead Gold and Green Queen Marcia Griffiths gave a commanding and ever professional medley of her hits (Feel Like Jumping) and others (My Boy Lollipop) assisted by Ruff Cutt. She then took up backing vocals for a tribute described as "representing the Wailers" joined by Peter and Bob's sons Andrew Tosh and Kymani Marley. Their two voices, while excellent, seemed to fight rather than blend, however. Next Freddie, 40 minutes late for his replacement allocation, arrived, recalling the landmark five decades with silky effortless Dennis Brown covers, the ska of Justin Hinds Carry Go Bring Come, and Blues Busters' Wings Of A Dove.

Post-Saturday attendance was lower and a couple of no-shows altered the roster. Protoje, who had warned at Summerjam that he wouldn't play further European festivals without his band, did not appear, so Etana, originally billed for the following Friday stepped in. Pregnant with her second child, her voice wasn't quite as powerful as two years previously, although in Etana terms that remains more powerful than most singers on the planet. Her musicians, France's Dub Akom continued as buzzsaw cultural deejay Jah Mason stalked the stage. Europe's love for 90s and early 2000s Bobo roots is comparable to grunge's status in the antipodes - and a dogged performer like Mason will never go out of style. Barrington Levy arrived 35 minutes late for the performance of the night. Slimmed down lately, his active lifestyle was reflected in his extraordinary vocals - hitting high notes on Bob Andy's Too Experienced and My Time with ease. His band's 80s slickness was matched by Steel Pulse's closing slot. David Hinds' tones are unchanged by time - although it was disappointing that Drug Squad was the oldest tune played.

Ruff Cutt rested on Monday so England was represented by the Charmax band backing both the Congos and Max Romeo. The Congos' collaborations with Californian psychedelic artists Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras left Cedric Myton doing some spooky Theremin-like vocals on their Black Ark songs. Likewise, Romeo bolstered his Lee Perry hits with guest appearances by sons Ronaldo and Romario, whose careers he is pushing hard. Backstage rumours flew that headliner Beenie Man had lost his passport and might not attend. Fortunately, although a tired sounding yet authoritative Beenie would admit between songs he had indeed lost his documentation he eventually appeared. As well as sides such as the frenetic Come Again he did the JA50 thing via Toots' Bam Bam, bantering with his Zagga Zow band before going to join Coppershot Sound in the dancehall area.

Rototom Sunsplash 2012Again Tuesday began with the foundation, as Johnny Osbourne delivered one of the week's most anticipated opening shows. Supported by a Ruff Cutt, less tight than previously and sadly without their sax player, Osbourne reminded us "I am the dancehall godfather" sharing Truths and Rights, Purify Your Heart to name just two. Unfortunately, the chance to compare Raging Fyah with fellow Edna Manley grads C-Sharp, was eliminated by their cancellation. Jah Shaka returning to Rototom, and following a captivating Reggae University talk that day, was by this time spinning and chanting to acolytes in the Dub Station. Back under the big gold lion, Tarrus Riley's slick BLAKSOIL band were stalled when volume had to be adjusted during their intro but as Dean Fraser took up his sax for the Heathen and 'Singy Singy' sang from offstage for Shaka Zulu Pickney, everything went to plan. At the nearby Ska Club, Clive Chin (like Osbourne, a Reggae University alumnus that day) was digging into his archives (and giving his strangely compelling late-night-radio-style commentary) until late.

The final day saluted Jamaica with the last of three consecutive veteran openings by Wailing Souls. The Ruff Cutt again seemed wobbly and lead vocalist Pipe's voice rusty, but songs like Mr Fire Coal Man are the essence of Jamaican music. From there the 50th celebrations subsided and foreign reggae contributions closed the main zone. The techno-roots of the UK's Zion Train (featuring Ital Horns) had punters flocking and leaping in the air. Finally, Ivory Coast rootsman Alpha Blondy and his own horn-packed Solar System - who drew the biggest crowd two years previously - brought down the black curtain, finishing with a pacier-than-on-record Brigadier Sabari.

The slight scaling back of the event meant there was noticeably less  to do music-wise off stage this year. Also, the food - while superior to many rivals - had declined a little with price monitoring less stringent. Spanish cuisine is very pork-centred and there was no authentic Jamaican food on site (the Jamaican area, was rather unfortunately placed by the toilets). But these were minor observations for the repeat visitor, whereas anyone arriving for the first time would still be blown away by the scale, the diversity and the unique vibe. Rototom remains one of the most affecting and memorable festivals in the world.

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