Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Spirit of Jamaican Culture Showcased at the Rebel Salute 2019 Music Festival

Thank you, Rebel Salute. My love, appreciation, passion, and respect for Jamaican music and culture has increased tenfold after my recent excursion to attend the roots reggae festival in Priory, Saint Ann, on Friday, January 18 and Saturday, January 19 at Grizzly's Plantation Cove. As a Jamaican-Canadian music lover and communicator, my presence on the island this year reinforced my dedication to supporting the culture and progress of Jamaica and its people.

I've been to numerous live shows before, and I happily invest my money into the live experience of my favourite recording artists. Beginning with Michael Jackson in 1984, to Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye, Janet Jackson, and Prince...if I enjoy their music at home, I definitely want to enjoy it in a performance venue as loud as possible, surrounded with thousands of other fans. It's the natural progression of appreciation for the art form and the creators of the experience. This includes soca artists like Kes, Machel Montano, and Bunji Garlin as well: live energy is a must.

THE POWER OF LIVE PERFORMANCE

Few things can compare to seeing Janet Jackson dance and sing decades worth of hits at a packed Air Canada Centre with 20,000 other supporters. In fact, to date, her 2001 All For You tour was probably the best live performance I have ever witnessed. The nostalgia alone had me on my feet and grooving from beginning to end, singing every word, and enjoying every special effects and subsequent memory.

Whether it's an international pop star like Janet at the ACC (now Scotiabank Arena), or attending a reggae concert in a downtown Toronto venue to hear artists like Baby Cham, Buju Banton, Beres Hammond, Munga, Mavado, or Sanchez, I am addicted to capturing the art of musical production and presentation, and constantly crave new levels of enjoyment. This obsession is nothing new.

Dozens of ticket stubs, a collection of tour books, a list of Ticketmaster alerts, and a keen eye and ear to social media to stay up-to-date with my favourite artists and their appearances still couldn't have prepared me for what would be one of the most significant concert experiences of my forty young years. Rebel Salute impacted me in ways I never expected.

It's been 26 years now that reggae legend and Jamaican ambassador Tony Rebel started his birth-month celebration on the island. Rebel, an artist we all know and love, who has blessed the international airwaves with classic reggae songs like Fresh Vegetable, If Jah Is Standing By My Side, and Sweet Jamaica, was a gracious host and personable MC, continuing to set a positive and groovy tone for the weekend's festivities.

Rebel Salute is recognized as "a world-class event that delivers a spectacular experience of authentic roots reggae, wholesome culture, and healthy living," according to the event website. This "family-friendly festival promotes the positive aspects of reggae music, and by extension the best of Jamaican culture."

The event has been frequently referred to as a pilgrimage, and arriving at the venue on Friday evening to obtain our Media Accreditation, we could see attendees approaching the venue with chairs, blankets, travelling duffel bags, and layers of clothing, prepared to camp out for the two days and not miss a beat presented by the line up of artists.

The entrance fee: approximately $60 Canadian dollars for general admission, and just over $100 for VIP admission. While the general admission area was open, surrounded by food and craft vendors, with space to dance and roam, the VIP section featured a comfortable seating area, and housed many dignitaries and Caribbean elite. Please note that $60 in Toronto can't even get you obstructed view seating to see one or two international artists; $100 would be the approximate cost for a seat in the upper bowl in most cases. We would be expected to pay $60 to see Agent Sasco and Tony Rebel alone.

Upon entry to the backstage area and my home for the weekend--the Media Pit--the group read like a who's-who of Jamaican reporters, personalities, artists, and of course representatives from popular media channels like iNeverKnewTV, Loop Jamaica, and on behalf of the Jamaica Tourist Board, OnStage TV, and other respected outlets. International journalists, bloggers, and reggae documentarians also gathered in this area to ensure optimal footage of the artists and performances to transport back to their home countries, and share via social media.

Camera in hand, I was determined to capture every sound, anecdote, and memory, well aware that the abundance of talent and music that would cross the stage would be a spectacular show to watch post-production. Travelling on behalf of myself as an independent journalist and communications specialist via @KyaPublishing, my intent was also to capture images and video for my @JamaicanCanadianLove platform, as well as my personal channels of communication. Also visiting Jamaica with me from Toronto, reggae DJ and radio personality @iAmChrisDubbs, who was documenting the journey for our radio show (The VIBE DRIVE on Toronto's 105.5fm) and reggae-loving network. On behalf of our country, and representing reggae fans internationally, documentation was key. The moment wasn't about our place on the island as individuals, so much as it was about the space we were ready to occupy: spectators of the greatest show on earth.

FRIDAY NIGHT VIBE

The artists scheduled to perform on Friday night were overwhelming at a glance, as listed. To see them on stage was even more exhilarating. Between touring the venue, observing artist interviews, capturing footage, and conversing with others present, I was fortunate to catch the performances of The Wailers, Capleton, Luciano, Tony Rebel, Wayne Marshall, Wayne Wonder, Junior Kelly, and Perfect Giddimani, but unfortunately missed some of the other highlights like Koffee and Dawn Penn, who performed earlier in the evening.

With consecutive long nights anticipated, a big part of the enjoyment factor at Rebel Salute comes from pacing yourself, being comfortable, and knowing that the show can easily span 12 hours from start to finish each day. While the adrenaline is plenty...human nature also dictated how much I could physically stand and film, and realistically enjoy the entertainment to the fullest. Ideally, I would have perched in a chair from 7pm show time, throughout the night, and straight past sunrise into the hot Caribbean morning with all of the amenities and energy necessary to capture it all. In the end, I did get a good 7 hours in the first night, and was definitely still satisfied with the segment of the show I witnessed.

SATURDAY NIGHT SESSION

I barely came down from my musical high from Friday night, when Saturday's showcase was upon us again. Blessed to take in performances from Queen Ifrica, Pantoranking, Agent Sasco, Bobi Wine, Jesse Royal, Mr. Vegas, Bounty Killa, and Dre Island, I reluctantly departed after 9 a.m. (with a hotel to check out of and a flight to catch in Mo Bay) despite glimpsing Jah Cure and Bushman backstage, preparing for their sets.

A never-ending stream of reggae artists, of talent, memories, music, and production, it was challenging to take it all in at once! Between artist interviews in the lounge, artist sightings in the VIP area, and a high traffic of production, PR, management, and supporters mingling about, my goal was to capture as much of the essence of the event as possible.

As a communicator, my objective is often to bottle those feelings: the euphoria, the exhilaration, the excitement, anticipation, and most importantly, the VIBES! Much like our favourite reporters are on-the-scene to let us know what's happening and who it's happening with, I have settled into my role of being the "fly on the wall" to quietly observe, and pointedly share what I see.

An amateur videographer/photographer with professional intention, I didn't want to miss a moment because I knew what it meant for me personally as a writer, and also how fortunate I was to be in the presence of greatness, and amongst those responsible for maintaining and projecting fruitful images of Jamaica and Jamaican culture to the world. Humbly, I put together a visual collage of my first visit to Rebel Salute, in hopes that it would continue to inspire me over the following cold months in Toronto, and reinvigorate my spirit, refocusing my efforts down south to the birthplace of my parents, and home of the majority of my relatives.

Here is the final product:


The video represents my first opportunity to be amongst so many powerful Jamaican voices at one significant moment. Turn left, there's the Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness seated with the Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment, and Sport Olivia Grange, and other dignitaries. Former Miss Jamaica Yendi Phillipps stood only a few feet away, as did Agent Sasco before his performance. Queen Ifrica mingled in the crowd to catch the performance of her husband Tony Rebel, and Wayne Wonder wandered past me, dressed in white and looking fresh for his early morning performance.

Walking around the artist area, I saw Jah Cure giving an animated interview, just as Chi Ching Ching and his comrades watched the live feed of the concert taking place. Before I could blink, a bedazzled Mr. Vegas emerged from his dressing room in a bright zoot suit with a feather in his fedora, ready to take on one of the most coveted spots on the weekend's schedule. I casually passed Chuck Fender in the wings, waiting to walk up the steps to the stage, and listened to the banter on stage from Mutabaruka, and from Foota Hype.

I captured the sea of beautiful black faces singing along to classic reggae tunes, waving Jamaican and Ethiopian flags and recording portions of the concert on smartphones for their own archives. I saw Rastamen and the Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley occupying the same space of enjoyment, and music lovers blowing horns to salute their favourite artists.

I observed (with glee) the great Bounty Killer, who performed as the sun came up, while men, women, superstars, and commoners alike stopped everything they were doing to give Rodney Price their full attention as he commanded the stage and brought us all back to the 90's bliss of dancehall music that shaped so much of the culture we love.

It was indeed a pilgrimage, for someone like me who has visited Jamaican numerous times throughout my life. For weddings, for funerals, to spend time with family in Mandeville, at church services and trips to Fontana, or to enjoy the beaches at Alligator Pond. I've done the all-inclusive thing in Montego Bay, partied at Pier 1, and jumped up on the streets of New Kingston for Carnival. I have dipped in hotel pools in Ocho Rios, and watched the sunset at Rick's Cafe in Negril. I've travelled up, and down, and up, and down Spur Tree Hill, where I've spent the majority of my Jamaican moments in Manchester. I have toured my father's hometown of Christiana, and danced with friends and strangers at Margaritaville.

Tony Rebel, Koffee, Wayne Marshall
No stranger to Jamaica, I have seen many parts of the island, and enjoyed my visits to the fullest from the age of 3 until the present time. I have embraced my Jamaican upbringing, and taken pride in my heritage. But nothing could have prepared me for the FEELING I would walk away with, after the Rebel Salute.

It was pure joy, with an overwhelming musical force of self-love and pride. Here are a few significant moments that contributed to those emotions:

THE PERFORMANCE OF QUEEN IFRICA

Via Loop Jamaica
I have always been a fan of this woman, but my appreciation for Queen Ifrica has now hit a new high. Listening to her familiar lyrics in this setting, and observing as she pointedly spoke to the Prime Minister and his peers with confidence and determination made me reconsider my own inner strength, and it reminded me to never be afraid to speak my truth and use my voice for something I believe in. She expressed beliefs that some might deem controversial, she explained why she has been banned from performing live in some countries, and yet she stood firm in her views and encouraged the listening Jamaican audience to do the same. Queen Ifrica was unwavering in her positions, and yet still communicated her music with the grace and dignity that Jamaican women should all aim to possess.

Queen Ifrica spoke directly to the women, and expressed her concerns about the public perceptions being circulated through social media and lyrics. She didn't hesitate to remind her peers of their roles as ambassadors for Jamaica, and gave a powerful performance to demonstrate what a focused and deliberate message could manifest.

Likewise, legendary Jamaican poet, educator, musician and media personality Mutabaruka didn't hesitate to take advantage of the audience of politicians and national decision makers, and engaged in an entertaining yet determined conversation with the Minister Olivia Grange about performance spaces on the island, and the availability of support for musicians.

Witnessing the embraces between the musicians and politicians was impactful, knowing that the exchanges were being viewed across Jamaica and the world through live-stream, as well as the determination of the artists to speak on behalf of the Jamaican community. These interactions, in the moment, were moving.

BOUNTY KILLER ON STAGE

Having him touch the stage just after sunrise on Sunday morning was the perfect climax to a weekend of reggae music. Although Rebel Salute is known for being a roots reggae affair, the emergence of Rodney Price to perform many of his dancehall hits from the 90s onward electrified the crowd who had been waiting overnight to hear him perform. Coming on shortly after a true performance from one of his peers, while Mr. Vegas had the audience laughing, enjoying his costuming, singing along to his catalogue of hits, dancing, and taking in his conversation points (as per usual, Vegas did not bite his tongue and insisted that Jamaica "put some respect" on his name), the energy level was already at a peak.

No one can move, and capture attention and respect like Bounty Killer. His unique voice, both in lyrics, and in rhyming speech, are one-of-a-kind and something that signifies dancehall music and enjoyment in a classic manner. Receiving the biggest forward of the weekend (at least that I was present to observe), his twenty-minute set was non-stop vibes and musical power that helped to define an era of music that many can argue has yet to feel the same.

The beauty of Rebel Salute was its ability to capture an artist like Bounty Killer, while also paying homage to legends like The Wailers and Mykal Rose in the same space. The fans that waved flags and repeated lyrics to Agent Sasco, were also present to sing along with Dawn Penn and Wayne Wonder.

The performances of Queen Ifrica and Bounty Killer resonated most with me, but that still isn't to take away from the displays of excellence from Agent Sasco, Luciano, and Tony Rebel that I had the pleasure of taking in.

It was a reminder that there is an infinite amount of talent on the island of Jamaica, and that even two fulls days of performances could barely capture all of the wonderful products that exists in reggae music, and the numerous individuals that drive the daily machine of the industry to ensure that it stays fresh, progressive, and never loses its core values.

AFRICAN CONNECTION

A poignant reminder of the influence of Jamaican culture and music on an international level, were the performances and conversations that Nigerian artist Patoranking and Ugandan artist Bobi Wine shared with the Jamaican crowd.

Patoranking, the 28-year-old artist popular for his catchy Afrobeats hits like "My Woman," was honoured to bless the Jamaican stage and let patrons know how much the music had guided his style and visions. Evident in his movements and his dancehall sound, it was beautiful to see how humbled he was to be in Jamaica, and how thankful he was for the industry that he emulated through his own career.

Likewise, Bobi Wine (36) expressed his gratitude for Jamaican culture and reminded his audience that it was reggae music that inspired him to rise up from his challenging Ugandan upbringing, and pursue music as a method of communication and reaching the people of his country. Banned from performing in Uganda due to political positioning, Bobi Wine let the Jamaican audience know that there was a Ugandan/African audience of millions also tuned into to his performance virtually.

Mutabaruka and Tony Rebel took the time to stress the significance of Bobi Wine's voice and activism, to the people of Uganda, and encouraged everyone to dive deeper into the story of the cultural and political leader.

Even from the continent of Africa, the messaging of reggae music and culture is felt. From my home country of Canada, the residence of approximately 300,000 Jamaicans, the majority of which live in my hometown of Toronto, the power of reggae music is felt. It is a tool for connecting Canadians of Jamaican descent to our heritage, and a method for non-Jamaicans to feel connected to the culture. In a city where white, South Asian, and non-Jamaican citizens can embrace and excel in the playing and sharing of Jamaican music through events and DJing, it is no surprise that Jamaican music has this impact almost anywhere it is present.

I don't take it for granted, the international appeal, and cultural influence that the music of Jamaica has...on myself, on strangers, and on popular culture overall. I was proud when UNESCO voted to protect the national treasure that is reggae music, and recalled the reggae festivals and artists that emerge from California to Germany, New Zealand, to Florida, and up north here in Canadian towns like Regina, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. I first fell in love with reggae music as a child, first started to understand it as a young teenager, truly enjoyed the culture in my twenties and thirties, and now that I'm approaching "middle age" I have an overwhelming pride and joy about reggae music that increases with each new interaction.

While in Jamaica, tickets for the Buju Banton Long Walk to Freedom Tour went on sale, and subsequently crashed websites due to high demand. I witnessed the legendary Bushman shed tears over his love for reggae, and plea for reggae practitioners to take heed to the music's original intention and international force of love and progress. It was a significant weekend, and I enjoyed feeling every energy while on the island.

These words resonated with me, upon returning to Toronto, as did the entire experience. I've seen many reggae artists perform live here, and in the U.S. I've enjoyed the music throughout my life, and now have joined a radio program that is dedicated to sharing this music twice a week (Monday and Friday from 6pm to 8pm on VIBE 105.5fm). I continue to write fiction with Jamaican-Canadian protagonists, highlighting our unique urban Toronto culture, and documenting our experiences for generations to come. The question remains: what next?

To some, Rebel Salute was just one of many adventures in reggae music that takes place on the island every month. It's now been exactly a week since I left the Grizzly Plantation Cove grounds, and yet the spirit of the festival is still vibrating (strongly) within me. Since then, I'm sure the artists have already performed again, and the major news outlets have long reported the highlights from the festival. It may be just another day in Jamaica this Sunday, with the countdown to Buju's show beginning, with many other notable stops along the way.

But here in Toronto, I'm still on a Rebel Salute high. I have recognized that we all have a role to play in how our music and culture are consumed, communicated, and interpreted. It's one thing to take Jamaican culture at face value and focus on the celebrities, the dancing, the insane dancehall acrobatics, and the social media beefs. It's OK to get caught up in the sound clashes and the friendly competition to excel in the party/DJ/soundman industry. I don't mind individuals like Mr. Vegas speaking his mind, and folks like Spice spreading her wings to infiltrate the U.S. pop market. I understand that reggae music exists us all in different ways, and plays a different role in our lives. From weekly fashion, to studio sessions, spiritual healing, to vacation music, reggae music is diverse and eclectic enough that it can easily impact a great variety of people in a plethora of ways, and still not change its core.

What I would like to see more of is a re-emergence of appreciation and respect for roots reggae music, and the lyrics of hope, progress, political motivation, with increased dedication to love and peace. Not only through focusing more on uplifting Jamaican people, but through using music as a tool to influence and continue to encourage good things.

There are so many exported elements of Jamaican culture that people around the world cling to, emulate, and celebrate. From this one small island had come so many significant cultural artefacts that we can revel in and consume. The most significant of all, the reggae music, is the one we should all be committed to protecting and nurturing. God bless Tony Rebel for having the vision of Rebel Salute as a peaceful, spiritually solemn, and fantastic presentation of Jamaican roots reggae culture, and for curating the perfect mix of vendors, food, performers, staging and attendees to remind us of how important this treasure really is.

At the local media launch for Rebel Salute, I was moved by the words of Queen's Counsel Paula Llewellyn, Jamaica's Director of Public Prosecutions. Commending Rebel Salute for exemplifying positivity, she stressed that: "We own the authenticity of reggae: nobody can take that away from us. But I would like The Preservation of Reggae to also include an acknowledgement, that with this awesome gift, and with this awesome power, you must have a recognition that responsibility must be intermingled there. That responsibility means that you have to be careful--not careless--as a practitioner, an an exemplar of what being a reggae ambassador is all about."

Likewise, at the media launch Tony Rebel stated that, "It is a spiritual mandate to preserve the healthier aspects of our culture. Let's listen to music that can motivate you, and music that can inspire. That is why everybody makes the trek in January, because they see it as a spiritual renaissance. The camaraderie of Rebel Salute: you don't see it no where else."

I am honoured to have been a part of the 26th year celebration of Rebel Salute, and to have felt the significance and power of the festival "inna real life" during this significant and powerful time during MY life. Embracing the power of Jamaica is something that my spirit believes strongly in, and I have been motivated to commit my energies to ensuring that whatever I am capable of giving to this beautiful country, culture, and body of musical work, I will do so proudly.

God Bless Jamaica, Land We Love.




Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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