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Reggae Geel 2015

Reggae Geel 2015

Reggae Geel 2015

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

A dancehall flavour, mellow vibes and special guests, as Geel approaches its fifth decade.

Intro

At the ripe age of 37, continental Europe’s oldest reggae festival, Reggae Geel, held its 2015 edition in the Flemish city of the same name. A record 69,000 people are estimated to have attended across the Friday and Saturday where July met August.

Reggae Geel’s large, potato patch bordered site has five major music areas. These comprise the Main and Yard stages, the Bounce dancehall and Skaville tents, and the illuminated woodland 18” dub corner (whose fragrantly coniferous seclusion offers a pleasant alternative to the hedonistic, gladiatorial feel of dub arenas elsewhere).

Reggae Geel 2015

The tagline for Geel 2015 was Catch A Vibe: and the general vibe was mellow and unhurried (which occasionally confused visiting artists expecting jump-up US style hip hop audiences). Unlike the extreme heat and storms of recent festivals in Germany, the weather was pleasantly sunny in the day if a little chilly at night (the only hazard: the vicious wasps’ appetite for cherry beer).

Compared to previous editions, where Bunny Wailer and Damian Marley headlined, the 2015 Reggae Geel had been scaled back slightly in budget. Yet the organisers had curated a very carefully considered weekend – with a predominantly old school dancehall flavour, but enough variation between the five zones to cater for broad tastes.

Friday highlights

Ambassadors of dancehall on the main stage

Spragga BenzNever mind their behaviour or lyrics: many current dancehall artists simply cannot replicate their recorded sound live. So for the main stage on Friday, the bookers had chosen some of the genre’s strongest exponents in terms of performance.

Soaring canary-voiced singer Barrington Levy represented the songs of its inception. The less melodic if charismatic Spragga Benz (and his arsenal of Dave Kelly rhythms), and the historically on point party tunes of Shaggy: its deejay dominated middle years. There was an additional sense of shared purpose and camaraderie. Barrington returned for a combination with Spragga on Levy’s hit Murderer. Spragga was once a mentor to Assassin, the closest thing to dancehall’s present and, despite a few wobbles from his band, purveyor of the evening’s toughest set.

Assassin and Protoje

The last of the rockstone giants, Assassin’s voice live sounds beefed up by a top studio producer. He is also a great ambassador for the music in his perspective – repeatedly calling for an end to violence against women. He is equally at home over reggae backings (Rebellious Nature on Weedy G’s Rise and Shine). In fact, you could imagine his output becoming increasingly like Capleton’s (who he saluted by chanting Or Wah? on the Stepz rhythm after his Ediot Ting Dat).

But the highpoint came when Assassin brought out surprise guest Protoje for a rendition of Who Knows (Proto taking the chorus: which he – not Chronixx - originally intended to sing). Hopefully these two will work together again soon…

Friday disappointment

Valve sound too quiet in Skaville

The Valv-o-tron sound system of Paul Huxtable has played great indoor sessions at the London International Ska Festival. Unfortunately, he could not bring all of his rig to Geel and, in an outdoor setting with noise from other regions, you had to go right up to the speakers to get the crisp valve magic. Hopefully he can return at full power.

Original Valve Sound System

Friday talking points:

Geel catch a vibe in their mellow way

“This is the best festival in the world” said host Ron Muschette of Mello FM on several occasions. It is certainly one of the most chilled. Shaggy and Barrington Levy – both based in the USA where audiences go wild on instruction – seemed perplexed by the mellow Geel goers’ lack of participation. Headliner Shaggy, for all his pomp and spectacle, felt strangely flat compared to past festivals. “Are you sleeping?” “Do you want me to go?” Levy asked, stopping and starting his beautifully sung cover of Bob Andy’s Too Experienced. 37 year old Reggae Geel preferred enjoying itself without the need to jump around.

OMI is massive

When Shaggy’s selector DJ Cue spun OMI’s Cheerleader it got a bigger cheer than Bob Marley – demonstrating its world conquering appeal.

Saturday highlights

More of a mixture

Where Friday’s main stage action was mostly dancehall (bar the casually dressed Uprising Roots, rising all-rounder Tydal, and butter-voiced Christopher Martin), Saturday offered more of a mixture. Sure, there were still plenty of foundation deejays in Josey Wales, Brigadier Jerry, and hugely-anticipated headliner Super Cat. But alternatives included the roots-ragga of Prezident Brown, the soulful grown folks’ music of Bitty McLean, Lukie D and Etana, then stepping judgment that is the Twinkle Brothers.

More special guests

The three legends of the mic, gruff Josey Wales, wise and characterful Briggy and the hypnotic eccentric Super Cat all united at the end of the latter’s set. They took turns on classic rhythms the Storm and Bobby Babylon before Cat sang John Denver’s Leaving On A Jet Plane to signal they were done. But the “Wild Apache” wasn’t finished. Later the Cat joined closing dancehall arena act David Rodigan who spun his treasured dubplate of Don Dada. Protoje also reappeared.

Earlier in the day, the son of the great Alton and Ghetto Youths international artist Christopher Ellis featured upcoming lovers rock star Aysha Loren on his father’s Ain't That Loving You. This was the icing on an assortment of his dad’s hits plus a few of his own (it would have been nice to hear more than just the title track from his brilliant Damian Marley produced EP Better Than Love).

Zion I Kings band

The US/Virgin islands collective’s work is critically acclaimed and this was a rare chance to see them play in Europe, backing two of Saturday’s vocalists. Pressure Buss Pipe was solid, albeit resting his voice, singing minimally on the choruses, while Chuck Fenda was mad, visceral and melody-free. The musicians, though, were super tight.

Etana and Twinkle Brothers bring the roots

Come early evening, some sung roots reggae was needed. The pace changed thanks to a stunning set by Etana and France’s Dub Akom band, sharing only the best and most cultural items from her now fulsome portfolio. It has to be one of her greatest shows.

Etana

The bottom-heavy Biblicism of the Twinkle Brothers (Norman Grant without Ralston, Black Steel filling in for Dub Judah reprising his original role on bass) was a further shift in tone. In addition to classics like Repent and Rasta Pon Top they gave a special rendition of Revelation 18 – the first ever solo tune by Jah Shaka (himself preparing to close the 18” Corner). Perhaps conscious of London’s Reparations march taking place that same weekend, Norman castigated Belgium for its colonial history saying “You recently passed a law stating when a dog does a shit you have to clean it up. You have to clean up what your ancestors have done”.

Derrick Morgan in Skaville

75 year old founding father Derrick Morgan was on blazing fire in the Skaville tent – singing his own music such as Tougher Than Tough and a credible cover of Toots54 46. The cancellation of his date in London the next day meant seeing him was a must.

Saturday disappointments

No Charlie Chaplin

For all the buzz about Super Cat, many also wanted to hear Red Pond deejay Charlie Chaplin chant on the mic. Sadly, he seems to have refused to take his flight.

Quiet in the 18” arena for anyone but Shiloh

The slab like dubs of the Netherlands hosts King Shiloh Sound shook the 18” Corner. The volume was comparatively quiet when Tippy of I Grade Records (fresh from assisting Pressure and Chuck Fenda with the Zion I Kings) came to showcase his productions. Shaka could have been louder too.

Saturday talking points

Super Cat’s Super Catalogue

Super CatSuper Cat performs so rarely that he was the chief draw of the event. He was hailed as a hero at Sting 2013, however reports on other appearances have been mixed. At Geel he took a while to get going, and is perhaps not in his prime technically, yet his catalogue and unique character were a winning experience. Walking on with a white towel over his head which he removed to reveal a messianic mane of hair, his stream of consciousness patter included everything from critiquing colonialism to quoting James Cagney. His enthusiasm, and the sense of being in the presence of a legend, were hard to escape.

Copeland Forbes’ birthday

Bizarrely, Ron Muschette made the audience sing happy birthday to non-present reggae manager Copeland Forbes. Copeland is a keystone in the business, having represented Gregory Isaacs and Peter Tosh, but it’s unlikely younger attendees knew who he was.

People floored by Shaka

Early arrivals to the 18” Corner strung hammocks between the trees. As Shaka communed with the clearing in the small hours, people were lying down on the ground – something never acceptable in an original UK dance.

Outro

Despite budgetary constraints, thoughtful line-up choices resulted in a very nice programme of music for a first time visitor. Ultimately, the real stars of the weekend are the location, the atmosphere and the number of options for your ears. Geel is the perfect festival for walking around, taking in lots of different areas and judging it on a tune-by-tune basis.

Some of the tents and stages are a little too close together – and next year a few more roots artists would be welcome. Otherwise, this three and a half decade veteran strikes just the right balance of planning and spontaneity to create an essential destination for the roving festival fiend.

Gallery

Reproduction without permission of United Reggae and Veronique Skelsey is prohibited.

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