article and photos by Sista Irie, photojournalist
“Fake news is only a problem now because it is affecting European and American politics. So everyone is talking about fake news, forgetting that in Africa, we have been under fake news for 400 years.” Seun Kuti, Reggae University, Rototom Sunsplash 2017
The evolution of Spain’s second largest music festival and the most prominently loved reggae festival on the planet began with a small group of alternatively minded, deeply committed, social activists who stood by their counter culture values in direct conflict with mainstream adversaries. The critical importance of this achievement was setting the precedent that good can overcome evil without compromise. The work of JAH manifested itself in Rototom Sunsplash through the power of art, music, compassionate thinking and human determination.
The United Nations of Reggae
Rototom Sunsplash is undeniably one of the most beautifully designed reggae festivals in existence. The festival attracts widely diverse audiences spreading “one love” energy beyond many international borders. To attend Rototom Sunsplash is to fall into a reggae fusion dream, a city of red, gold and green synergy, saturated with pulsating tribal rhythms, intellectually fueled panels, the sensual lure of aromatic cultural foods, the rich gumbo of diverse languages, and a fun and inspiring children’s playground, all blended with an abundance of good time vibes shared by peaceful loving families of all ages. Rototom is the United Nations of reggae!
The fertile seed of Rototom Sunsplash began as a quaint little bar in Gorizia, Italy, owned by the liberally minded, Filippo Giunti. Attracting a close group of like-minded friends and a progressively minded fan base resulted in a move to a much larger venue in Gaio where three stages showcased Rock, Reggae and Techno. Alternative music and rebel culture pervaded the times. Young people required a pure and unrestricted release for freedom of expression. Over time, the growing popularity came with increasing pressure from local authorities that resulted in a rebellious reaction. As a result, the Rototom crew initiated a peaceful, pro-active take-over of an abandoned government warehouse. The region at the time was governed by right wing bureaucrats whose goal was to dismantle targeted music and art culture. Filippo and friends rehabilitated the building into a community of creative music and visual arts with exhibitions, painting, cinema and poetry. The officials responded with mandatory eviction. The venue closed.
In the face of extreme adversity, the peaceful movement of a music and art culture began anew in a small garden embracing the idyllic peace and love culture of reggae music. Rototom Sunsplash was born and with the critical aid of their own radio station that attracted fans from all over Italy, the word quickly spread internationally. In 2009, the Italian police returned to the festival again with violence, accusing Rototom Sunsplash with the promotion of illegal drugs (ganja). The Rototom family, voted to leave Italy, resulting in an outstanding decision to move to another country. After careful research, Benicassim, Spain was selected for the new home.
The team, worked hard to establish this new location creating a multi-cultural village where “different races, cultures and religions could come together and live peacefully.” The chosen spot of Rototom Sunplash is in a large and beautifully positioned park nestled in the quaint tourist town of Benicassim, a community within walking distance to the beaches and sea. The town is obviously overjoyed to inherit such a magnificent festival bringing huge economic benefits with the help of peaceful fun loving tourism. The Benicassim community extends a happy, loving atmosphere throughout. The streets are dotted with reggae posters, art, sculptures and artifacts in store windows, restaurant entrances and outside cafes. The town fills to the brim with international dreadlocks of every skin color, all enjoying the aura of music, relaxation and fun.
Celebrating Africa and the African Village at Rototom 2017!
“It takes a village to raise a child.” Igbo and Yoruba (Nigeria) proverb
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a highly self-actualized nation to raise world consciousness. His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I, during his reign as Emperor of Ethiopia, modeled the virtues and principles of compassionate living. Starting with his homeland, H.I.M.’s teachings attempted to inspire respect for universal human rights, free of racial bias as stated in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, October 4, 1963:
“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned;
Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation;
Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes;
Until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race;
Until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.
Until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed;
Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will;
Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven;
Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.”
These words once woven into Bob Marley’s widely acclaimed song WAR clearly revealed to the world a direct connection between Africa, Rastafari and reggae music. To celebrate reggae is to celebrate Africa. Rastafari is the messenger and music is the vessel. Rastafari is now embraced world-wide, and the Rastafari movement through music continues to be presented not only by Jamaican artists, but includes the modern day blending of African and reggae artists at a new accomplished level. Seun Kuti, son of Fela Kuti, emphatically stated in his Reggae University panel, that most music begins in Africa. He further states that reggae music is African music.
The #CelebrationofAfrica is a timely reminder of the ‘beauty and the beast.’ The beautiful traditions and mores of African people who have suffered for the past 400 years should become a strong reminder to not allow today’s political chaos and biases to continue the wrongs of past history.
The beauty comes from electrifying performances with brilliantly dressed dancers, singers, musicians, food, juices and educational panels (Social Foro) with the purpose of developing a strong appreciation for African traditions. The love of diversity comes from human integration and cultural immersion resulting in the hope to undermine preconceived biases.
Additionally, the African Village is a beautifully crafted grassy area embellished with a dynamical and colorful stage, large drumming circles, gift and clothing vendors, agricultural and native foods, as well as educational travel brochures for the country of Ethiopia, the seed of civilization. The village becomes a specialized community where diverse culturally oriented talents add to the mystical vibrancy of a reggae world community with no borders.
Two hundred and fifty kilometers from Addis Ababa lies Shashamane, land given by His Imperial Majesty for the repatriation of displaced Africans who want to return home. Rastafarians live on 200 hectares of land and many repatriate to Africa from countries near and far. As said by one Rototom team member in the historical video noted above, even though it was in reference to the festival, it remains true that “Every Exodus has its Promised Land.” One cannot speak of reggae without acknowledging Rastafari. Rastafari’s home is Ethiopia.
The Main Stage: (8:30-2:00a.m.)
Perhaps the biggest attraction during the Rototom Sunsplash experience is the diversity of countries represented in performances throughout the various festival stages. The Main Stage features each night’s headliners. The stage is immense in size, accompanied with first class professional sound equipment and robust lighting to rival any massively produced rock festival. A rapturous crowd gathers into the main stage area each night when summoned by a cadre of drummers who round up fans throughout the park and march ‘en masse’ to the stage. Every night, I loved observing this action as it is one of the most creative ways I have ever witnessed in harnessing and alerting fans to come forth and claim their position for the night’s five to six hours of top notch entertainment. This years featured headliners included 31 top reggae showcases from earliest roots legends such as Inna De Yard, Heptones, Silvertones, Steel Pulse, Don Carlos, Toots and the Maytals (and more) to modern day artists such as Gentleman, Kymani Marley, Mellow Mood, Chronixx, Luciano and Shaggy. Special recognition of the theme “Celebration of Africa” was delivered by dramatic performances by Nkulee Dube, Seun Kuti, Alpha Blondy and Youssour N’Dour. The most outstanding showcase, in my opinion, came from Inna De Yard, featuring legendary Rastafari incients, Cedric Myton, Winston McAnuff (Electric Dread) and Kiddus I. Younger members rounded out the group, Var Pentateuch, Delroy ‘Wormbass’ Nevin and Kushite McAnuff.
The Lion Stage (9:00 p.m.- 6:30 a.m.)
The Lion stage is strategically located near the entrance of the festival and nestled among a slew of aromatic food and drink vendors. This year’s Lion stage seemed immense in size and displayed a brilliant array of magically colored lighting. Nearly twenty countries from the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, South America and Scandinavia were represented in performance throughout the eight days. Some of my favorite acts on this stage included Nattali Rize (Australia), Lyricson (Guinea), and the Patois Brothers (Italy). Even so, there were more than fifty acts, many I observed only briefly due to vast walking distances, yet the ones I caught even for moments were excellent and powerful in talent.
Dance Hall (10:00 p.m. – 5:30 a.m.)
It’s no surprise the Dance Hall is always jam packed. DJs from twelve countries plus their guest hosts continuously rammed the dancehall. Jamaica, Kenya, Spain, France, Costa Rica, Canada, Germany, Italy, Russia, South Sudan, Gambia and USA provided diversity and cultural nuance for each night’s pleasure. Dancehall fans immersed in the pulsing sounds of a pounding bass creating a trancelike and danceable energy heard across the grounds. The dancehall goes into the early morning hours and becomes a favorite spot mentally transcending dancehall fans from the energy of a live band performance to the perfection of the sound system culture.
Dub Academy (10:00 p.m.-5:30 a.m.)
The revitalization of Dub culture has grown rapidly across the world and is further enhanced by modern technology. Sound system DJ’s these days perform at the professional and entertainment level of live performing artists creating their own superstardom. Why not? At the heart of reggae music and Jamaican culture is the sound system. The resident crew each night was hosted by Blackboard Jungle from France, although many nations were featured with men and women both in the star role. Dub music originated in the 60’s introduced by King Tubby, Lee Scratch Perry, Errol Thompson and others. The popularity has always had an underground following even when the music itself was not being produced as prolifically, however, especially now, Dub music continues to be embraced and acknowledged as a significant contribution to the reggae music industry and is practiced throughout the globe.
Reggae University; Film Fest and Photo Exhibition
Reggae University covers highly researched topics shared through artist interviews including historical clips of music from the early years of an artist’s career. Fans ask questions regarding artist perspectives and experiences on political and social issues that further defines their role in the industry. The panels begin late afternoon, hosted by UK’s David Katz and Italy’s Piere Tosi. Cultural Reggae and African related films lead up to each educational panel. The walls of the tent displayed many legendary photographs by Adrian Boot.
It is impossible to capture and relay all the important conversations held with so many participating artists, however, here are quotes from two dynamic speakers.
“Music is from Creation and music is for everyone. So when one gets a sound and a feel of music…. and spreads it around, it becomes joyful.” Don Carlos
“It’s not an ego thing. It’s just natural. You will see if you watch the Inna De Yard Show. You will see for yourself. It’s just automatic. It is just magic at this point in time. So you can watch it, on your C-tube, You-tube or whatever Tube you watch. Inna De Yard is number one in the world today.” Cedric Myton- on the Inna De Yard Project
The hand built two story building standing on the edge of the main stage arena is a symbol of the little engine that could. Radio Rototom spread the word, grew the masses and cultivated the branding that is now the largest, most respected and well-loved reggae festival in the world. Visiting DJ’s such as Sista Irie’s Conscious Party from Austin, Texas were invited to share their radio shows in their native language filling the airwaves from morning until early evening with a wide diversity of reggae music as represented by many countries.
Reggae is a nation. Rototom Sunsplash is a United Nation. The United Nations of Reggae is a group of people who learn to love each other through music and art no matter race, culture or geographical birthplace. Rototom Sunsplash continues to innovate and expand their footprint.