Best Moments... Rototom Sunsplash 2022
08/22/2022 by Gerry McMahon
The popular 7-day Rototom Sunsplash Festival returned to Benicassim in Spain on Tuesday, August 16th last. This impressive festival’s soundscape spans roots, rocksteady, dancehall, afrobeats, ska, hip hop and much more besides. In fact, this 27th edition of the festival offers more than 80 artists over 73 hours of concerts across a mesmerising and exhausting 6 stages!
Though it is impossible for any one person to attend even a fraction of the festival’s many events – including the Reggae University, the Social Forum, the Dub Academy and the Dancehall – some highlights from the festival are summarised below.
THE SKATALITES - Tuesday (August 16, 2022)
It is customary for the festival’s opening Main Stage act to convey respect for reggae’s roots or past. And what better way to do that than to kick off proceedings on the Main Stage with the evergreen Skatalites (with the everlasting trombonist Vin Gordon in tow). This tour-de-force can trace its roots back to 1963 and by the time ‘Pussycat’ kicked in, the audience was well and truly rocking to the sounds of ska – and that’s after the revellers had passed a full afternoon at the reggae-infused sun beach grooving to a variety of DJ sets. In the absence of the wonderful and warm Doreen Shaffer, the vocal duties were taken up by the fine figure of bongo man Larry McDonald, before Julian Marley appeared on stage to take lead on the familiar Wailers hit ‘Simmer Down’. Thereafter the Skatalites worked their way through a slew of familiar tunes, with Christine Keeler and Rock Fort Rock going down especially well with an appreciative audience.
DAMIAN 'JR GONG' MARLEY - Tuesday (August 16, 2022)
When Damian Marley first played Rototom (and Spain) in 2013, the festival’s main arena (and the campsite) were bursting to capacity, with a record attendance. And again, Marley attracted an impressive crowd for his veritable tour-de-force end of tour show, with the band playing Sun Is Shining as Marley took centre stage – from which the security staff had to discreetly remove the same invading admirer twice! – before he worked through his popular set. This peaked with his wonderful rendition of Medication, coming hard on the heels of a lengthy speech on the many merits of marijuana. The show can be described as a musical and visual feast, as the stage backdrop flipped from image to image – often of Haile Selassie and Bob Marley – whilst Damian – the Junior Gong – belted his way through an impressive set (that included There For You).
Undoubtedly Damian’s late father would have been hugely impressed by his son’s innovative interpretation of Punky Reggae Party, Get Up, Stand Up and Could You Be Loved (when he was joined on stage by his younger brother Julian). Ably aided by his talented female vocalists, Marley gave full vent to Everybody Wants To Be Somebody, before seeing out his set with tracks that his late father might not have recognised, including Exodus, Road to Zion, Welcome to Jamrock and the new song that he recently forged with Kabaka Pyramid called Red, Gold and Green. The punters were well sated by the time Marley’s one-and-a-half-hour extravaganza came to a close.
CLINTON FEARON - Wednesday (August 17, 2022)
Having set the bar high on the festival’s opening night, Damian Marley’s brother Julian then took up the mantle with a wonderful and well received concert before nature had its way, as high winds necessitated the evacuation of the festival arena. However, this was long after the hard-working ex-Gladiator Clinton Fearon and his Riddim Source had their say on the Main Stage. As you’d expect, Fearon’s show was polished and professional, as he led us through a slew of popular songs from his extensive portfolio. Dressed in white from top to toe, Fearon’s repertoire included Feeling the Same, Freedom, the impressive Breaking News from his new album of the same name, Trod On, I Wanna Dance, Sleepin’ Lion, Show Me Some Love and Let It Grow. Though the warmest reception was reserved for this Gladiators' compositions Chatty Chatty Mouth and Richman Poorman. Reflecting the generousity of his disposition, Fearon also took time to thank all of his crew and to introduce his fellow musicians, even extending them some solo time in the limelight.
JULIAN MARLEY - Wednesday (August 17, 2022)
All the while, uncertainty reigned as the festival site threatened to turn into a dust bowl. However, this did not deter Julian Marley – who made a very favourable impression at the Reggae University the previous day - as the set and his sound held firm against the elements. This enabled Marley to leave a positive impression, based upon the competent delivery of such popular songs as So High and Jah Works and his late father’s immortals, including Natty Dread, Lively Up Yourself, Zimbabwe, Jamming and Exodus.
THE ROMEOS - Thursday (August 18, 2022)
Fresh from their early retreat on the previous night, a good crowd assembled next day (Thursday) to hear Xana Romeo and Aza Lineage educate all at the Reggae University on the trials and tribulations of women in the reggae business. Having acquitted herself in a considered and competent manner at the University, Xana – Max Romeo’s daughter – took to the Lion Stage later that evening where she overcame her anxiety (as she’d momentarily forgotten that she was at Rototom!) to deliver a performance that her father would have been proud of.
Earlier in the evening her 77-year-old father Max – with the able assistance of his son Azzizi – opened the Main Stage proceedings with aplomb. Max’s set list included an assembly of old and new material, as the crowd gave an especially warm welcome to the tried and trusted One Step Forward, Three Blind Mice, War Inna Babylon, Let’s Live Together, Valley of Jehosaphat, Chase the Devil/Disco Devil, Marching, Uptown Babies Don’t Cry, Ska, Ska, Ska and the 45 year old Melt Away.
The festival’s wonderful variety was subsequently reflected on the Main Stage, as Romeo’s roots reggae gave way to Morodo’s Spanish reggae, Mali’s multi-talented Fatoumata Diawara and dancehall rapper Sean Paul. Paul let rip to popular acclaim with an action-packed and visually engaging show. However, evoking memories of Ziggy Marley in 2019, to the annoyance of many, Paul’s concert was not broadcast via the livestream feed to the internet nor on the festival’s site screens, as legal and commercial interests served to trump the wishes of some of his disadvantaged fans.
EEK-A-MOUSE - Friday (August 19, 2022)
The bad news on Friday was that the perennial paperwork problems that afflict the Rastaman had kicked in again, preventing Black Uhuru from fulfilling their 2022 summer tour and Rototom attendance obligations. The good news was that ‘bad boy’ Eek-A-Mouse (named after his favourite racehorse) had agreed to step into the breach – and did he do so in some style! I had long forgotten just how edgy and entertaining this artist is, as he deployed vocal variations and a host of musical styles, serving to remind all of just how captivating this artist can be. Ably assisted by a tight band and a talented and colourful saxophonist, we were reminded about his new Put Food On The Ghetto Youth Table album release, from which the audience were treated to an impressive Mona Lisa sample, alongside the ever-popular Ganja Smuggling, with Wa-Do-Dem bringing proceedings to a close to rapturous applause. The scene was well set for Morgan Heritage’s subsequent taking to the Main Stage later that night, as this professional and prompt troupe blasted off with Strictly Roots, Don’t Haffi Be Dread’ and Peter Tosh’s African. Suffice to say that they never looked back!
MARCUS GAD - Saturday (August 20, 2022)
Rototom’s Saturday menu was jammed with many attractive options, but this reviewer opted for Marcus Gad and his Tribe’s one hour concert at the Lion Stage. Thanks to a host of impressive performances, the Lion Stage has proven to be a great success for Rototom this year. And so it was with the French Caledonian Gad, who surely extended and expanded his reputation via this outing. Assisted by a competent 5 piece-band, Gad presented as a young and invigorated vocalist, with a strong stage presence and an impressive musical range. Having set the tone by opening with Rebel Form of Soul from his Rhythm of Serenity album, Gad proceeded to Walk a Talk and Credential, before urging his large audience to Keep Cool – in a bluesy ivory tinkling mode as backdrop to Gad’s powerful vocal range – all in tribute to the elders and Marcus Garvey.
Gad then dipped into his non-musical gardening hobby to give us the spiritually-sounding Honoring The Soil, informing his appreciative audience that he was now sowing (rice) seeds at Rototom as a symbolic act. No doubt some of those seeds are human, as Gad continued to seduce his audience, encouraging all to sing and sway! After the pacey Cane and Cotton, Live Life kept the crowd singing and swaying before Gad surpassed himself with a rousing and rapid rendition of his classic Chanting. This was before the equally effective Kanake kicked in, as Gad ended on a high, asking the audience to join with him on a song set for release on his next album entitled Ready for Battle. On the downside, it was regrettable that the show’s allocated duration curtailed the set list. Many of Gad’s classics went unheard, including Enter A Space, River, Brave New World, Pouvoir and Live Up To The Day. Hopefully Gad is saving those sumptuous sounds for Rototom’s 2023 Main Stage?
ALBOROSIE & SHENGEN CLAN - Sunday (August 21, 2022)
The festival’s Main Stage was allocated to the roots’ generation on the penultimate night. This entailed the Abyssinians – with Donald Manning still on board – opening proceedings, before Sly Dunbar arrived with his illustrious Revolutionaries. The night ended with Alborosie giving a characteristically strong and energetic performance. As an old and good friend of Rototom, the audience reacted most appreciably, as Alborosie swung his locks in a cartwheel fashion to let rip on Rock The Dancehall – which kept the audience singing and (arms) swaying from beginning to end - For The Culture, Rastafari Anthem, Ginal, ‘No Cocaine, Challawa, Shark Attack, Can’t Cool, Living Dread, Strolling, Ring The Alarm, Herbalist, a very extended version of John Holt’s Police In Helicopter before he closed his one and a quarter hour set with Kingston Town. It’s to Albo.’s credit that he’s able to give his band members (and some guest vocalists) their time in the limelight, even if he still feigns annoyance with them on his return to the microphone. It is also to Albo.’s credit that he delivers his set in a ‘full on’ manner, using every inch of a very large stage to maintain a powerful impact, augmented by a magical lights display and some clever choreography.
BURNING SPEAR @ REGGAE UNIVERSITY - Monday (August 22, 2022)
The final day of the festival started early (for some) with the news that the great Burning Spear (aka Winston Rodney) would indeed make a Reggae University appearance at 16h15 that day. However, between the jigs and the reels and the disappointment of those arriving on time, Spear came to University one hour ahead of schedule and was gone by the time most people arrived at the appointed time. At University, Spear spoke fluently about his early days and the trials and tribulations associated with being an independent artist. And when asked about his return to touring, he explained that though ‘I’m a pretty old guy … my works is for the people. That’s why I came back’.
Spear also took time to push for a ‘subject in school on Marcus Garvey’, insisting that the ‘time is right’ and that he has lots more songs in store on this particular subject! And for those who did get in early, Spear treated us to a singing sample of exactly what he has in store for us on the subject.
ISEO & DODOSOUND - Monday (August 22, 2022)
The wonderful trip-hop roots reggae mix that is Spain’s Iseo & Dodosound (and their all-important brass-backers the Mousehunters) opened the Main Stage’s proceedings with a characteristically bright and breezy take on the Lost City. Iseo’s gay and graceful stage presence, set to her sumptuous and sensuous vocal capacity, made for a high-impact entrée, sending her (mainly) native audience wild with delight. Next up came Infinity and I Wonder, from their tip-top new album entitled Blossom (a track that also got an airing).
The duo and their backers stormed through a popular set, with special receptions reserved for Flower of the Desert, the Cuban-influenced Chan Chan, Digital Roots, Freedom, Frozen Desert and the catchy Arigato. Before shutting up shop, Iseo explained that ‘we’ve got our hearts in the hills of the music’ and as they took their bow to the Congos’ Fisherman it was easy to see why. This combo may not be in the conscious roots category, but they certainly know how to create catchy choruses alongside apt and innovative sounds (from Dodo), effectively embellished by their brass accomplices.
BURNING SPEAR - Monday (August 22, 2022)
Despite some of the less than flattering assessments on social media of Burning Spear’s recent tour performances, his appearance at Rototom was a special and successful occasion. Whilst he may not have been the festival’s biggest draw (on a Monday night), he certainly didn’t disappoint. Following the same set-list that has been played throughout the tour – and already comprehensively reviewed by Reggaeville from the London and Berlin shows – there was little evidence that Winston Rodney’s voice, movement or agility had receded since his retirement.
This was a ‘full-on’ one-and-a-half-hour invigorating show, as Rodney reeled off many of the most famous tunes from his very early days in the recording studio. Whilst some may have been disappointed that neither Columbus nor Happy Day got an outing, how could you argue with Door Peep, The Youth, Jah Nuh Dead, Rocking Time (with its many innovations), Marcus Garvey and many more besides?
Rodney frequently had recourse to his double bongo beatings, exercise routines, dance moves and standard fare audience exhortations like: ‘Talk to me people. Do you want some more? Are you sure you want some more?’. The advantages associated with rigorous rehearsals and repeat performances meant that the band was well capable of carrying the show for decent intervals, whilst Rodney regained his composure, before yet again letting loose. And many were enthralled when he showed that he could still ape the bird sounds during the renowned Man in the Hills song, whilst he gave special treatment to Haile Selassie’s coronation on ‘Red, Green and Gold’. Spear thanked all as he departed the scene, leaving his capable cohorts to see out ‘African Postman’. And already the question was being asked: ‘Will we ever see him in Europe again?’ Que sera.