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Rototom 2017

Rototom 2017

Rototom 2017

By on - Photos by Gerard McMahon - Comment

Rototom Sunsplash 2017 adopts an African angle.

Rototom 2017 moved toward the quarter-century mark with a focus on Africa. Given its history, politics and ongoing tribulations, ‘Celebrating Africa’ may seem like a contradiction. However, Rototom 2017 gave it a mighty good go, as the festival hosted some of the continent’s finest musicians and decorated proceedings with a host of African-tinged activities.

Rototom - Twinkle Brothers

The Twinkle Brothers – who reminded us that they have been on the go since 1962 – opened the 8 day festival at the Main Stage to an eager audience. Working through hit after hit, they left us in no doubt but that ‘Since I Threw The Comb Away’ they are getting better with age. These Grant brothers have left a fine legacy, most evident in the audience’s reaction to ‘Jahovia’ and ‘Never Get Burn’, which was ably aided by Errol ‘Black Steel’ Nicholson’s booming bass. They left the stage to South Africa’s Nkulee Dube, whose late father Lucky Dube would have been well pleased with his daughter’s lively and well received performance. However, when Barcelona’s La Pegatina let rip, the native audience went wild. Playing mainly Spanish ska-style and Catalan rumba via a mix of instruments including an appealing accordion - set to high energy choreographed band movements – this was an invigorating and important input from the talented 8-piece ensemble. As Rototom’s love affair with Spain takes hold, native bands like La Pegatina hold a crucial key to reggae’s future.

Rototom - Steel PulseOf course, the highlight of the night was accorded to Steel Pulse, whose front man David Hinds put his carefully cultivated showmanship on display to maximum effect. Though many bemoan the fact that Steel Pulse have left behind much of their more rootsy ‘Ku Klux Klan’ style or sound that made them famous in the 1970s, Hinds and his cohorts have done well to survive the ebbs and flows of the volatile music business, retaining a wide and varied following whilst remaining intact over a 40 year time span. This was a fitting finale to the Main Stage’s opening night.

The real ‘old timers’ kicked off proceedings at the same location on the second night, as The Heptones brought the memories flowing all the way back to 1965, with original member Earl Morgan leading the charge. With inputs like ‘Party Time’ and ‘Book of Rules’ the audience dutifully responded. This was subsequently supplemented via The Silvertones, with Keith Cole, Gilmore Grant and Joel Brown pleasing the audience by starting off with Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Hour’ before taking many more trips down memory lane. Thereafter, Seun Kuti took to the stage with an impressive vocal and visual show, marking the second pure African input to the festival’s Main Stage proceedings. In contrast with La Pegatina’s wild whooping on the previous night, Kuti’s music evoked an entirely different reaction, with many falling into a hushed trance in response to his shaman type promptings. Notably unlike La Pegatina, Kuti was not backward about coming forward via a host of philosophical and political inputs between songs, serving to extend a righteous indignation at the corruption and cowards that also fell foul of his famous father Fela.

In sharp contrast on the message and the music fronts, Shaggy then got stuck in with a loud, lively and lush dancehall set. Though some may have preferred had Shaggy remained in service with the American marine corps, the vast majority of (the ever-swelling) audience on the night delighted in his appearance and antics.

Rototom - Inna De Yard

Day 3 opened on the Main Stage with the 9 member Inna De Yard – fresh from their afternoon appearance at the Reggae University - taking a mainly roots route. Their set climaxed with Cedric ‘Congo’ Myton’s immortal ‘Fisherman’, with accompaniment from Kiddus I, Winston McAnuff and the understated but influential Robbie Lyn - who dominated the keyboards, whilst successfully experimenting with a delightful melodica tube input. Lest the youth should feel ostracised, the band’s age mix and stage focus was well complemented by the lively Var and Kush. This set was predominantly percussion driven, and acquitted itself appropriately, despite the absence of an orthodox drum kit. Thereafter New Kingston capitalised on their promotion from the Lion Stage (due to the passing of a relative of the absent Sinsemilia band) before the legend that is Don Carlos brought the memories flooding back.

Rototom - CarlosStill able and willing, ex-Black Uhuru’s Carlos – who is a very ‘rare bird’ in Europe in recent years - worked through an hour’s hits to great acclaim. Top of the pile with his adoring audience were the brass-fuelled ‘Front Line’, with ‘Just A Passing Glance’ and ‘Satta Massagana’ also successfully hitting the spot in a set also comprising Natty Dread Have Him Credentials’, ‘Laser Beam’, ‘Hog & Goat’, and ‘Rootsman Party’.

Changing the tone and the tune, whilst Bristol’s Dubkasm were jam-packing the Dub Academy with a ‘Satta Massagana’ kick off, next up on the Main Stage were The Specials. Despite some harrowing times in his personal life since securing legendary status, front man Terry Hall did the business and (unlike many of his contemporaries) can still boast a ‘full head of hair’! The Specials show proved a welcome close to the night’s Main Stage proceedings, with ‘Ghost Town’, ‘A Message To You Rudy’, ‘Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ going down spectacularly well. Fitting that the set should also include ‘Monkey Man’, with Toots and his Maytals next up on stage as the festival reached the half-way mark.

And so it was that 74 year old Toots gave us a fine rendition of ‘Monkey Man’ from the Main Stage on the fourth night. Though this show differed dramatically - in both set list and style - to that reviewed in New York last November (for United Reggae), it was also well received by what was probably the largest assembly for an opening night act. Though Toots’ performance took in a few of the old reliables, like ‘Country Roads’, ‘Pressure Drop’, ‘La Bam Bam’, ‘Funky Kingston’ and ’54-46’, it specialised in extended versions, serving to confirm both his musical prowess and versatile voice, but also giving full rein his reputable band. From the old to the new, next up came Stick Figure from California, with what can fairly be described as ‘pleasant listening’. But what better evidence in support of their status and credibility than the fact that the band’s 6th album, entitled Set in Stone, recently rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Reggae albums chart. Kenya’s Treesha competently filled the gap – dutifully honouring female legends like Marcia Griffiths, Sister Nancy and Dawn Penn - before the eagerly anticipated Gentleman and Kymani Marley took to the stage to bring proceedings to a half-way climax and close. With the crowd now surpassing the 100,000 mark, these popular figures did all that was expected of them, evoking much empathy via Bob’s ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘Iron Lion Zion’ and ‘Is This Love’ and much more from their joint ‘Conversations’ album.

Rototom - Raging Fyah

Day 5 on the Main Stage was opened by the popular Beenie Man and his Zagga Zow band, whose ‘full on’ performance attracted a large early evening attendance. As the alleged ‘King of Dancehall’, Beenie Man’s ‘Dancehall Queen’ got the crowd going, though he didn’t forget his roots either, with a nice homage to Toots via ‘Country Roads’. Jamaica’s Raging Fyah then cooled down the tempo with some melodic roots and culture - but often edgy - reggae, that included a fine rendition of ‘No Woman No Cry’, together a good mix of their own material.

Rototom - Christopher Martin

So now I can see what the Christopher Martin fuss is all about. With Raging Fyah long departed, Martin arrived bringing a youthful, energetic and agile dimension, taking total control of his stage with accompanying sweet tones. The audience were sorry to see him go, especially with Beenie Man showing up again to ably assist Martin. However, their wait was not long, before Senegalese singer, songwriter, composer, occasional actor, businessman, and politician Youssou N’Dour presented centre stage. Some years ago Rolling Stone magazine described him as ‘perhaps the most famous singer alive’ in Senegal and much of Africa. And he didn’t disappoint. By the time his famous Neneh Cherry ‘7 Seconds’ liaison was delivered, the fawning crowd’s appetite was well whetted.

Rototom - Black RootsBristol’s Black Roots opened the 6th night of festival with a brass-fuelled 10 piece ensemble of roots music. Drawing on their large stock of material dating back to 1979, their current spin ‘Son Of Man’ was especially well received, whilst the classic steppers’ rhythm inputs ensured a modern dimension to the sound. The striking looking Hempress Sativa then delivered a strident set of conscious roots’ rhythms via Mellow Mood’s talented and tight Italian 3-piece band. Reminding us that the ‘only good system is a sound system’, the Hempress took to the vast Rototom stage as if it were her own living room, as she proceeded to belt out some classics from her debut album ‘Unconquerebel’. This woman has a lot to say and – lucky for us - she can capably deliver it in mellifluous verse and tones. Italy’s Mellow Mood’s arrival saw the crowd swell well, as the popular duo danced through a series of popular tunes from their 4 albums, whilst their band kept the reggae ship sailing sweetly on the ocean. This set the scene for the newly incarnated Wailers’ band to do their thing. With Junior Marvin and (for a little while the seated) Aston 'Family Man' Barrett making the connection to the original Marley line-up, the standard staples like ‘Buffalo Solider’, ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ and ‘Could You Be Loved’ met the audience’s expectations with ease. There is every indication that the Wailers band – who were also well able to steer from the Marley set at Rototom - will continue to tour worldwide, with Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett’s son (Junior) ready to take over the mantle from behind the drum kit (or the bass guitar, if he can get his hands on it amidst the fierce competition!).

All the while on this 6th day of festival the range of varied activity continued unabated. Lutan Fyah and the (eagerly awaited) Bombino fired the Lion Stage, whilst the Dancehall stage offered dance class (or ‘keep fit’) and a host of other dynamic options. And if these didn’t sway your soul, there were also Caribbean Uptempo, Roots Yard, Jumping and African Village sounds. However, many preferred to pass time visiting the endless array of food and fancy good stalls or even the Reggae University – ably hosted by David Katz - which yet again hosted an array of insightful discussions with many of the luminaries in the trade.

Rototom - Chronixx

The festival’s African theme resurfaced when the African Head Charge launched the 7th and penultimate day of festival. Though sparsely attended on opening, the ‘Charge’ saw the fruits of their labours rewarded by show close. With a set much resembling that one would have enjoyed from Count Ossie and his Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, the influence of the Mad Professor at the mixing desk almost ensured there was something of offer for every reggae taste. Iseo and Dodosound then came closest to creating the opening night’s fervour, as the Spanish audience ignited to their local heroes. This left a very solid base for Chronixx and his Zinc Fence band to build on, which he duly did. Whilst his set was comprised of many high points, the fever pitched when his ‘Who Knows?’ collaboration with Protoje came echoing from the Main Stage.

Thereafter, as the festival site started to rock, from Chainska Brassika’s brilliant brass brightening the Lion Stage to the Fire Warriors packing the Dancehall to King Earthquake’s rootsy rocking at the Dub Academy, it was all go. Alpha Blondy could even go through the motions on the Main Stage and win all hands up. However, after a blistering opening with the ever-popular ‘Jerusalem’ and a string of other well-received anthems, including ‘Cocody Rock’, Blondy split the scene. Having started the show well behind schedule, the shock amongst the very disappointed audience was palpable, as an extended encore was anticipated and would have been appropriate.

Rototom - Nadine SutherlandThe festival’s grand finale evening opened to Nadine Sutherland, who reminded us of the novelty of the occasion for her, as she belted through her set. This left room for the growling and prowling Daddy U-Roy to further remind us of the history of the music via John Holt’s ‘The Tide is High’ and his own ‘True Born African’ and ‘Wear You To The Ball’. Long may U-Roy continue to growl and prowl!

The resumption of ‘good vibes’ on the Main Stage suited Big Youth just fine. His powerful and dramatic stage presence bore some similarity to a live opera show! Having ‘Hit The Road Jack’, to bring the set to a close U-Roy re-appeared, assisting Big Youth in a fine rendition of ‘Stop That Train’. Thereafter Amparanoia went down well, via a world music set strongly sourced in her Spanish roots. Bringing the festival to a fitting close, Luciano gave an absorbing and athletic performance, packed with soulful tunes and spiritual messages that met the requirements of his many adoring fans at Rototom.

Turning to Rototom 2018, perhaps the shape of things to come is reflected in the fact that this year the Lion Stage boasted almost 20 shows that could be called ‘Spanish’, in comparison with just 6 of Jamaican origin. However, the status quo prevailed on the Main Stage, with ~15 Jamaican-connected bands performing, in comparison with 3 of Spanish origin. However, ‘credit where credit is due’. Of all the bands to grace the Main Stage, none evoked the animated response of the audience in quite the way that Spain’s La Pegatina did. In fact, if allocating second and third place on this criterion, probably Spanish outfits Iseo and Amparanoia would rank. Overall Rototom 2017 went well – with around 220,000 in attendance and ~2 million enjoying the live stream concerts. With almost 350 shows yielding 450 hours of live music and 183 extra-musical activities, Rototom can legitimately claim to be the world’s biggest and best reggae festival.

Rototom 2018 - the 25th or ‘Silver Anniversary’ - is eagerly awaited.

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