By Sista Irie, Austin, Texas
“Friendship is the mortar that helps to overcome the difficulties and permits the big jump.” Rototom organizers.
For many years, I heard about a magnificent reggae festival; one I could only imagine taking place every year in the lovely, romantic setting of Italy. For me, ROTOTOM began as a purely mental exercise, an ongoing daydream about a highly roots-charged reggae festival so amazing in scope I could hardly fantasize. Rototom’s reputation was intriguing since reggae festivals in North America were struggling, dwindling in number and at a time when Jamaican touring acts were fading. I could not fathom how a music event as massive and impressive as a ten day reggae festival could sustain over 22 years.
Now I know.
Success did not come easy. ROTOTOM ,the festival, grew from a small number of musically inclined, socially conscious people who understood the power of collective minds. Their story is reminiscent of the seventies dramatized by alternative life styles, revolutionary attitudes and a strong commitment to social activism. The official festival began in 1994 in Italy with four partners, including Filippo Giunta, who continues as a primary organizer, spokesperson and chief executive. For the first ten years, the festival moved around Italy and expanded from mostly reggae into a music event primarily focused on promoting world peace. From the very beginning, ROTOTOM was much more than a music festival. It was a blend of top rated musical entertainment poignantly aligned with serious political discussions and socially responsible reasonings.
Sadly, as with most peace loving movements, the authorities began to take issue with the infiltration of reggae culture and began making things difficult. Reggae, reasoning and herb are rarely separated and led to the Italian authorities expanding a giant push against the event. This unfounded and ultimately poor decision by the authorities eventually landed Rototom into the romantically, beautiful and relaxed beach community of Benicassim, Spain. This quaint little village rolls out the red carpet and benefits greatly from what appears to be a very harmonious relationship between the festival, organizers and staff and most of all, the community. Cafes, retail stores, groceries, bus lines, beach camping and other businesses provide an engaging atmosphere of comm-UNITY displaying everything from Rasta icons on bicycles to Lion of Judah flags, posters and decorations in each window.
Ultimately, after many years of experiencing reggae festivals in the USA, Canada, Jamaica and Germany, I made the decision that my reggae knowledge would remain less than whole without making the trek to ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH. Although I knew of ROTOTOM as the largest and most well produced European reggae festival in the world, there was much to be learned. I had never even questioned where the origin of the name. According to Wikipedia, “Rototoms are drums which have no shell. They consist of a single head in a die-cast zinc or aluminum frame. Unlike most other drums, they have a variable definite pitch.” The name accurately reflects the harmonic energy of the festival. Day and night, the heartbeat rhythms infectiously drew fans into various corners of a giant reggae city, a surround sound of live and recorded music. As soon as one passes through the entry gates, one transitions into an alternate reality where people of diverse languages, cultures and lifestyles come to fulljoy the hedonistic pleasures of music, educational fulfillment, creative liberties and wellness activities.
Rototom was birthed as a place to enjoy entertainment while stretching the boundaries of consciousness. As a result, Reggae University and Foro Social, became a critical consideration for serious reggae fans to travel to Benicassim from all parts of the world. Skillfully crafted educational sessions are the works of Riddim Magazine editor, Ellen Koehlings, Italian radio dj and reggae historian, Pier Tosi and British reggae author, David Katz. Each day, experienced members of the reggae music industry comprised of legendary performers, film makers, entertainment attorneys, and other subject matter experts gather to share their perspectives on the past, present and future of reggae music.
Several topics covered this year included “Champions in Action at the Dancehall Foundation,” with Briggy and Josey, “The Trod of the Rastafari Ancients- Testimonies of the Past,” and “Ganja and Rastafari in Jamaica” led by Ras Flako and the House of Rastafari, “Let Your Yeah be Yeah– the Enduring Appeal of The Pioneers,” “Jamaica’s Artistic Renaissance” presented by Lloyd Stanbury, author of Reggae Roadblocks, Joan Gordon Webley, Attorney from the arts collective Nanook, Uprising Roots Band, visual artist Matthew McCarthy, as well as “Message to the Nation- The Many Phases of Clinton Fearon,” and “Building Bridges Outta Babylon– the Dub Files Project,“ presented by Mellow Mood. “Tales of the Blackhearts Man” with Bunny Wailer and Maxine Stowe attracted a standing room only crowd.
ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH 2015 included a variety of documentaries and films extending unique opportunities to observe a variety of reggae and Rasta related releases nestled across eight days of incredible music and other creative activities. Lee Scratch Perry’s “Vision of Paradise,” “Kingston Crossroads” by Jonas Paul and Oliver Becker; the anticipated viewing of “Dreadlocks Story” by Linda Ainouche, and “Congo Beat the Drum” by Ariel Tagar attracted fascinated audiences of mixed languages and national origin.
Music was the air to breathe, abundant as a multitude of delicious tapas, with five to seven stages defining the scope of reggae history including Dub Academy, Ska Club, Dancehall, Roots Yard, Showcase Stage, Main Stage and more. Rototom Radio, housed in a customized two story building, filled in short musical gaps while guest djs, including myself, were invited to present cross cultural reggae radio programs. The evening headliners on the Main Stage included Junior Marvin and his Wailers, Naaman, Popcaan, Super Cat, Jah Cure, Hollie Cook, Chambao, Josey Wales and Brigadier Jerry, The Pioneers, Katchafire, Bunny Wailer, Major Lazer, Clinton Fearon, Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, Morodo, Barrington Levy, Cham, Shuga, Kiril Dzajkovski, Capleton, Bad Manners, Uwe Banton, Africa Unite, Cantando A Marley, Aswad, Green Valley, Mellow Mood, Lee Scratch Perry and rounded out the last night by Uprising Roots, Protoje, Etana, Matisyahu and Soja. If that was not enough music to last a lifetime one could move from the main stage to the smaller stages and discover reggae from a multitude of countries including Jamaica, Poland, Spain, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Kenya, United Kingdom, Brazil, Venezuela, France, Austria, Mexico, Granada, Peru and more. The unification of Jamaican roots reggae music with the cultural nuances and instruments of other countries resulted in a highly evolved sense of reggae accomplishment.
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ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH is held to high standards by political activists. One controversial issue arising within the festival this year was the proposed appearance of Matisyahu. The American born Jewish performer was invited, uninvited and re-invited to perform. A Spanish pro-Palestine group known as the BDS from Valencia asked for Matisyahu to videotape a statement in advance supporting land rights for Palestinians. Matisyahu refused and due to BDS pressure on the organizers was removed from the line-up. Jamaican singer, Etana was invited to take his place. Over the week, Rototom organizers eventually acknowledged Matisyahu should be allowed to perform and issued a public apology inviting him to return as a featured headliner. Although fans did not show strong emotion either way, a small group of BDS activists peacefully waved Palestinian flags on festival grounds. The audience was packed and security tight as Matisyahu took the stage. Peace, love and unity prevailed while fans of all ages, races and backgrounds blended together into the crowd. (see Sista Irie’s Facebook Note “Peaceful rEVOLution”)
ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH is a beautifully blended orchestra of visual, audio and aromatic delights all in concert with a “Reggae rEVOLution,” the festival theme. This holistic experience for reggae lovers is nothing short of a once in a lifetime opportunity. I admit I may well be addicted and will ensure my future attendance in Benicassim. No matter how much reggae knowledge one gains from the Western side of the globe, the European approach and respect given to reggae as a culture and statement for peace cannot be ignored. The Europeans and ROTOTOM organizers have created what other festivals dream to accomplish. Rototom Sunsplash is the epitome of reggae success. The question remains, is this success because Europe has always supported reggae music commercially (i.e. radio) and through continuous bookings of live performances by top rated artists or do the festivals promote a reggae culture that endures when the summer ends? And last of all, how can we on the Western side of the globe learn from experiences such as ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH?
As a photojournalist, I could not possibly take in all the opportunities presented on a daily basis, and yet, the networking, educational opportunities, creative and artistic inspirations were fulfilled way beyond expectation. I am a true believer. I have now witnessed my fantasy in action and with maximum respect, I must pay tribute to the hard work and livity of Rototom organizers, not only for design and execution but equally for their stamina while remaining true to the political and social pressures imposed on them.