Unlimited Culture ADD

Reggae Jam 2023 - Festival Report | Part I

08/04/2023 by Gardy Stein

Reggae Jam 2023 - Festival Report | Part I

Welcome to the Reggae Jam Festival 2023! Once again, people with the best taste in music have arrived from near and far to come together in unity and celebrate Reggae and its community for the days ahead. The trip to Bersenbrück is always a highlight of the summer, and nothing, really nothing can stop us from making this weekend happen.

Many eyes have been anxiously watching the Wacken Open Air, a Heavy Metal Festival not far from here, which had to stop more than half of the festival visitors from entering due to bad weather conditions - it had been raining for days, and the festival site was one big mud hole. However, the situation in Bersenbrück is not as bad, since "the soils here are different and the amount of precipitation was smaller" as the official Reggae Jam account informed us.

We are on site now, the sun is shining for the time being, and we are looking forward to presenting you the festival runnings – right here in the festival report, in the photo galleries we will add, and on our social media channels. Put on your gum boots and enjoy!


Thursday, August 3rd 2023

Despite the rain and the difficulties in setting everything up dry and proper, the people are in high spirits already. Yes, the weather is an issue here as well, but the Reggae Jam Crew did everything they could to dampen the impact of the liquid sunshine, providing wood chips for the muddy places and bringing equipment quickly from A to B in those cool speedy little carts.

The first stop after arriving and getting organized is Da Sandwichmaker, and it's here I meet my Reggaeville colleagues and enjoy an early selection of the Ring-A-Ting sound. A sign announces Tóke at 9pm, and we decide to take a little walk along the Hase river before that. The neighbouring  Riverside Disco has grown into an Urban Art space including a small stage and big speakers powered by Sun Fire Sound, and many different DJs will play here over the weekend (check the official program for details). Wooden art pieces can be seen all around: an owl in front of the stage, a frog under the palm tree, and the festival's mascot, the Rasta motor-cyclist, next to the big, illuminated REGGAE JAM letters on the other side of the river. Picturesque!

Next, we make a step to the Dancehall where Sensi Movement (who took over from Blessed Love earlier) is currently playing a sweet '90s Dancehall selection, and salutes go out to Buju, Super Cat, and contemporaries. Back at Da Sandwichmaker's, Tóke and band (Cookie on percussion, Jon Moon on keys and Mo on bass) have just started their set which, as Toké explains, "has become a dear tradition" over the years. He takes us back to some of his early releases, covers Buju's Not An Easy Road and arrives at his Ras Muhamad combination Open The World. When he sees a good friend among the spectators, he chants "Stevie, Stevie!" in greeting, and Ganjaman aka Jan Magan aka Steve sits down with Toké to deliver a spontaneous freestyle. The two are then joined by Lenny Souljah from Unlimited Culture who sings his Sandwichmaker song, and CEO Steffen Prase thanks them with a happy smile. "What's the main dish this year?", Toké asks, and Da Sandwichmaker answers: "Vibes!"

Around 11pm, we switch to the Dancehall tent once more (big advantage: the dry wooden floor!) and are immediately surrounded by the pumping beats of Sheriff's Soundpatrol – the welcome party of festival founder Bernd Lagemann aka Sheriff in full effect! "Thank you all for coming despite the weather!" the man himself says, sending solidary greetings to the struggling Wacken Open Air. "We are well prepared, all the artists are on their way… we will see each other for the next three and a half days, and we are looking forward to it. Enjoy Reggae Jam!" Sheriff continues, and the crowd's reaction leaves no doubt that they are, indeed, enjoying themselves. Selecta Trixa fires some custom-made Reggae Jam dubplates, among them Glen Washington's One Of These Days, Skarra Mucci's My Sound and Lila Iké's Where I'm Coming From – boom! Every subsequent track is energetically introduced by MC Tommy and loudly cheered by the party massive, from old-school to new Dancehall to Afrobeats, making this first night the perfect opener for what is to come. 

Friday, August 4th 2023

The night was dry, more people keep arriving, and big patches of blue sky promise a wonderful day. With Kabaka Pyramid, Barrington Levy and Burning Spear headlining the program tonight (and many exciting acts before them), it's a good thing that curfew was early last night and the program starts late today. TGIF!

Well rested and equipped with gumboots, today it's high time to check out the Roots Plague Dub Hangar aka Dubcamp. Although the path leading there is a bit muddy, the camp itself is perfectly dry, and the crew (many of whom are already here since Sunday) did a great job constructing the different sites over here: a bar, kid's area, food stalls, the huge central tent around the Roots Plague Sound, the stage and, to the left and right of it, two beautiful sound systems. From the right, the sweet notes of Keble Drummond's Keep On Dancing bubbles from the speakers, a 7'' put on by the Island Report Soundsystem currently playing. Operated by Andi and Josh (with the helping hands of Nils, Ruben and Mai), they take a clear stand against "racism, sexism and homophobia", as Josh just announces on the mic.

With a rainbow flag flying high on the speakers, dogs running all over the place, children laughing (painting, playing, climbing…), some people dancing, some enjoying the sunshine with eyes closed, and some bathing naked in the Hase river, this place is another universe, still part of the Reggae Jam, but home to a different vibe than Main Stage, Riverside Disco or Dancehall. Definitely not to be missed! Thank you for the peace, bass and unity you promote, Dub Hangar! To the deep bass played by Step By Step Soundsystem which is now taking over, we slowly circle the festival grounds on the hunt for food.

The museum in the town's monastry is worth a visit, since it has two festival-related highlights to offer. On the ground floor, a Playmobil diorama depicts the Reggae Jam festival, complete with stage, camping grounds, crowd and vendors. It was created by Nicole and Michael Post, who are passionate collectors and started to build this homage when, due to Corona, the festival couldn't take place. Further up, under the roof of the museum, the special exhibition Dub Museum - 50 Years of Dub from Jamaica can be attended for free for all festival visitors. Originator Helmut Philipps is on site, answering questions about his amazing collection and sharing his deep knowledge.  

Due to construction works, this year the public swimming pool is closed, which is a pity, especially for the families with children who always enjoyed the refreshing dip in the water in close vicinity to the festival. The building site also impacts the backstage area, which has considerably shrunk in size so that Team Reggaeville installs itself at one of the tables set up for consuming the yummy catering. The kitchen crew is already busy preparing for the invasion of hungry mouths, and team chef Claudia asks everyone out so that the area can be cleaned one last time.

Outside, we witness the last preparations before the gates open: the photo pit is fenced in, securities take their position on all main passageways, and more (pine) wood chips are spread out on the muddy floor in front of the stage, making the place smell like a Christmas market. Barely minutes before the first visitors arrive, the workers finish, loading brooms and shovels in their carts and take off. What an amazing feat to coordinate everything so that this on-point delivery is possible – respect Team Reggae Jam!    

With the strike of the clock (literally, from the church next door), the festival is opened. Dr. Ring Ding, stage manager Ashraf, Ganjaman and Sheriff welcome everyone to the 29th edition of the Reggae Jam festival: "The sun is out, it smells of pine trees, and you are here – it's wonderful!"

It really is. The first act of the night, Betrayers of Babylon, are a German band from Essen and use their music as a platform for socio-critical lyrics (for an example of their sound, check their latest single releases Lang Ersehnte Amnesie, Epic Fail or Coffee Empty Sadness). While watching their set, I discover more wooden art pieces (a peace sign in the middle of the stage, a huge lion on the backstage wall etc.) and take a mental note to find out the name of the artist who did them.

One of the very few German Reggae bands with frontwomen, Conscious Culture do exactly what their name suggests. Singers Malijah, Kira and Nadia Eva are both a joyful sight and a sweet sound to behold, and their three-fold harmonies deliver covers (e.g. 5446 Was My Number) and some of their own songs from the album Kindred Souls, released in 2022. A special moment is when Dr. Ring Ding joins the three ladies on the mic, delivering a version of Depeche Mode's Enjoy The Silence to the skillful instrumentation of Aljosha Genings (guitar), Christoph Melchers (keys), Sebastian Pathé (drums), and Flo Bohde (bass).  

7:44pm, RED STAGE – TÓKE
With last night's Sandwichmaker-session still fresh in our memories, it is nice to see this young artist again so soon: Tóke on the big stage, accompanied by yesterday's musicians Mo and Jon Moon plus a new guitarist, Fritz, drummer Mo and Bronwyn on backings. The intro is sung in Indonesian, as Tóke spent several months there recently, probably bringing the incense he's holding from there, too. Open The World is his next track, followed by the lively Easy & Sway, and when he finishes that, the singer wishes us "a blessed morning, give thanks for the day! This moment right here will never come back, even if we meet again tomorrow, wearing the same clothes… it won't be the same. So live this moment, people!" The gratitude he thus invokes is captured in his next track Grateful, and Tóke keeps up a vibrant interaction with the audience throughout his set. At one point, he climbs over the fence and joins the people up front, asking them to squat down and jump up with him during the energetic Dreams. Fyah!

Bush Braff, Rumpus, and Jet Black are the names of his most recent singles, and today, the artist Yaksta, also known as the Bush Lord, makes his first appearance at Reggae Jam. He conquered many hearts by storm at Cologne's Summerjam a few weeks ago, and the visitors here seem to feel no different about this talented singer with swag (his black & gold stage suit is stunning, and those star-shaped glasses!). Starting out with Johnny B. Good and One Love, he stresses that all of us, no matter if we're black or white, should come together like this, in unity. "Love to all of you!" he says, balancing on the bass speaker in front of the stage and shaking the hands that stretch out to reach his. "We claim abundance, we claim goodness, we claim unity!"

His band, The Skalawagz, provide the crisp, danceable music that marks Yaksta's output, and the acoustic version he's now "singing for the queens" matches perfectly the atmosphere of falling dusk and colorful illuminations.

"Art is the freedom to think other perspectives." As promised, I'll bring in people's perspectives on art throughout this report. This quote comes from Karsten Frehe, a dear friend, CEO of irieites.de and art teacher. He urgently recommended me to watch the band Total Hip Replacement, and here I am, in the crowd, doing just that. "It's an honor to be on the same stage as legends like Burning Spear!" they share, and continue to introduce themselves: "We are from Ghana and Denmark, making music together, because in this time we need understanding to have peace!"

Their vibe is infectious, involving the audience in several fun choreos and keeping up a lively interaction, occasionally even in German. The instrumental skills of the nine musicians on stage are amazing, each one getting his or her spot in extended soli. They even swap instruments at times, and trumpetist Richmond surprises us by delivering a rap while guitarist Emmanuel plays West African highlife melodies. All these elements make for a dynamic exchange on stage and with the audience, and their set already is one of my highlights of the festival. This is music that transcends single hits, making their output enjoyable in its entirety (check their most recent album Anyankofo for a listening example!).  

"This was number 1 in 1962!" the artist on this side claims before diving into a dynamic delivery of Rough And Tough. Incredible as it is, this small man gleefully moving to his music on the stage is 78 years of age – a true Reggae, Rocksteady, and Ska veteran! He gives us a taste of the latter genre with Artibella, and movement is high among the crowd. The SteadyTones, "the finest Ska backing band in Europe" according to Dirk (together with Taha and Youness, he's the one organizing the interviews between artists and media), provide the soundtrack for this exceptional show, during which Cole reminds us to "Love life, celebrate life!"

Ever since his album Dangerously Roots, I'm a fan of Duane Stephenson and thus more than grateful to see him live and in this surrounding. His unique voice, positive message and respectful attitude make him an important artist of our times, one who is "completely underrated" as my colleague Alex puts it when we meet while watching this fabulous show. "Selector play that song, sweet Reggae music all night long…" Yes, that's what we are here for, as the crowd loudly affirms, and the subsequent Marley cover of Fussing And Fighting is . A special forward is voiced (and clapped and whistled) as soon as he starts the beautiful August Town, a song that Duane became known for internationally.

With the wish for an encore clearly there, the artist and the Next Generation Family band send us Cool Runnings as a farewell gift, and when I bump into Beule (part of the Reggae Jam construction crew) backstage, I express my deep respect for the way they made sure everything from stage to gates is set up properly, thus assuring the "cool runnings" of the festival.     

This concert is a heartfelt homage to the sweet Rocksteady and early Reggae music, of which Alton Ellis was one of the founding fathers. His son, Christopher Ellis, carries on the legacy by playing songs like Willow Tree (we'll come back to the tree theme later), Breaking Up Is Hard To Do or I'm Still In Love. Letting the latter flow into Uptown Top Ranking, Christopher then levels with the audience by climbing into the photo pit, shaking hands and building memories. Of course he comes to his own songs as well via the end of his slot, Rub A Dub for instance, during which he introduces the band, or Still Go A Dance, which closes a fantastic set, backed by the Inheritance Band (a special shoutout to the lady in the blue dress who mastered both saxophone and transverse flute during the show).

"I love the turnout, Reggae music is alive and well!" The voice of Grammy kid Kabaka Pyramid rings through the night, and the wild rush that his performance created at Summerjam (and Ostróda Reggae Festival, I hear) is felt here as well. Ready Fi Di Road, Lead The Way, Nice 'n Easy, and the Jemere Morgan combination Grateful are joyfully greeted, and Faded Away as well as Red Gold And Green get a special forward from the crowd. "Big up Kenya, Uganda in the place, all the flags… Caribbean, Germany! Where are my herbalists?" Calling out for legalization, Kabaka then sings a Police In Helicopter medley, followed by the Reggae Revival anthem The Movement (which indeed brings movement to both on and off stage). "We are proud to be part of this movement! And festivals like these give us a platform from early, so we haffi give thanks!"

The day was long, filled to the brim already with musical impressions, but there's still more to come. When Barrington Levy enters stage, I expect a repetition of his fine Summerjam show, but something is different. For one, the artist didn't style himself as caerfully as he did back in Cologne (which should not be important, I know), and also he seems to be in a bad mood, talking about doomsday as soon as he comes out on stage and cussing the sound engineer; also, I don't see him smile at the audience, like, at all. While the first part of the show is engaging, with hits like Murderer, Oval Rock, Under Mi Sensi, Too Experienced, and the wonderful Living Dangerously (during which the man standing behind me sings Bounty Killer's lines), somehow it goes downhill from there, hitting rock bottom in the rather lame delivery of his new single Money Is The Drug. Levy drones on for far too long, losing the crowd's attention and favour almost completely. Shouting "Reggae Jam, are you sleeping?" at the top of his voice doesn't help to lift spirits, and, as harsh as it sounds, I am almost relieved when his show is finally over and we can turn to the remaining highlight of the day:

Welcome, legend! The place is packed, anticipation hums in the air, and when Burning Spear steps out to the intro, there is a roaring response from the crowd. The Burning Band (David Reichley on bass, Cecil Ordonez on lead guitar, Justin Martin on rhythm guitar, Jeremy Clemmons on drums, Vincent Hamilton on keys as well as a fine brass section consisting of Micah Robinson on trombone, Sam King on sax and James Smith on trumpet) starts to play Give Thanks And Praise, and carefully, almost tenderly, the 78-year old veteran starts to sing along. During the subsequent medley of Man In The Hills and Africa, the Spear joins his band on the congas, even starting to dance, and the crowd's response is cordial and immediate. "Talk to me, people! Talk to me!", Winston Rodney repeatedly calls out, visibly enjoying the attention and love he receives. During Jah No Dead, a band member unrolls the Panafrican flag (red, black and green), and much too soon, this unique highlight is coming to a close with an extended version of One People. Thank you, Burning Spear, for the musical blessing!

Those with enough energy left to party have several possibilities to dance the night away: at the Urban Art Riverside, Boneshaker Sound and Soundvalley Movement are at the controls; the Dub Hangar resonates with a "tune fi tune" juggling by Roots Plague and Masego Sound, and in the Dancehall, Silly Walks just took over from City Lock. It is here that we dive into the crowd and enjoy the festive mood, the lighters, the dancing and the singing along… what a joy to be at Reggae Jam again!  

As the dominant theme of this year's edition turned out to be "art", let me close the day with a nice quote by Jon Moon (producer and keyboarder playing with Tóke): "I think art is everything that transcends the pure functionality of an item, when it exists to bring us joy, when creativity begins. For example, when you have a spoon not only for eating the soup, but which is also beautiful to look at. Art makes life worth living, and it also defines mankind."