08/16 - 08/22 2023
Rototom Sunsplash 2023 - Festival Report
08/24/2023 by Gerry McMahon
The 7-day, 6-stage reggae festival that is Rototom took place again in Benicassim, Spain from August 16- 22, 2023 last. In a timely manner, this 28th edition took as its rather ambitious tag: ‘United for Peace’, as it aimed to encourage a global peace movement.
Attracting over 220,000 people from 77 countries, in addition to the massive Main Stage, the festival also has a Lion Stage for what’s called ‘emerging talent’, the Jumping arena is reserved for black roots music, whilst the new Jamkunda stage is the Afrobeats area. On top of that, the festival site has an extended and newly designed Dub Academy and a Dancehall stage for the late-night party goers and the early morning revellers.
DAY ONE - WEDNESDAY | AUGUST 16, 2023
The festival’s Main Stage entertainment opened with a rather low-key Don Carlos performance, as this living legend allowed his (fifth) son Geo to kick-off proceedings. Thereafter, the father offered us such classics as Zion Train, Laser Beam, Favorite Cup, Front Line, ‘Moving’ and his signature classic tune Just A Passing Glance. It should also be noted that Carlos treated us to a fine rendition of Satta Massaganna, serving to confirm that there’s life in the old troubadour yet!
Sometime later Bob Marley’s celebrated and competent lead guitarist Junior Marvin took to the Main Stage. Showing that his voice can still carry a tune – though ably aided by 2 fine female vocalists – Marvin served up many of the classics from Marley’s hit list. These included opening with the Eric Clapton popularised ‘I Shot The Sherrif’ and moving on to such classics as ‘Rebel Music’, ‘Stir It Up’, ‘Get Up Stand Up’, ‘Roots Rock Reggae’, ‘Could You Be Loved’, ‘Exodus’, ‘Heathen’, ‘Rastaman Vibration’, ‘Is This Love’ and ending up with ‘One Love’.
The set delivery confirms that despite the passing years Mr. Marvin has still got what it takes. Jamaica’s own Lila Iké followed soon after, displaying her remarkable vocal range on ‘Sweet Inspiration’, before reminding us that work with Protoje on a new album is well advanced, with a sampler in ‘Solitude’ on offer and the popular ‘True Love’ song - which was cleverly interspersed with Bob Marley’s ‘Waiting In Vain’ – also lighting up the massive gathering. And after she was done playing her guitar, Ike couldn’t resist jumping into the photographers’ pit to meet and greet her front row fans!
En route to the second day of the festival, your reviewer bumped into the aforementioned Don Carlos, who assured all that he had no hand, act or part in the ban on photos being taken of artists that included the 7 coloured rainbow peace banners at side stage. When prodded on the suggestion that some artists were opposed to the ‘rainbow’ - due to its association with the LGBTQ community - he explained that ‘the rainbow is created by Jah and different elements use it for different reasons’, seeming to agree with Alborosie that what people do in their bedroom is their own business!
DAY TWO - THURSDAY | AUGUST 17, 2023
Tiken Jah Fakoly kicked off the second day’s proceedings from the Main Stage. Fakoly is recognised worldwide as a militant artist with a powerful stage presence, as he wields his ‘Rod of Correction’ throughout the show, where almost every song namechecks his beloved African continent and the tricky topic of revolution. With his 10-piece band he did special justice to ‘Africa’ and ‘Discrimination’, serving to confirm that he’s in great shape, ‘fit as a fiddle’ and well able to energise an appreciative audience.
At around the same time, over on the ever-popular Lion Stage, The Cimarons took us in a time capsule all the way back to 1974, when they hit the U.K. reggae scene with a bang. Their set included the well-received ‘Rock Reggae Rhapsody’, ‘Harder Than The Rock, ‘Struggling Man’, ‘Paul Bogle’ and the immortal ‘Talking Blues’. But it was ‘Ship Ahoy’ that really moved the masses, with Michael Arkk on vocals, backed by 2 original members of the band - Franklyn Dunn on bass and Locksley Gichie on guitar.
After France’s relatively low profile Biga*Ranx - who did himself no favours, with a live streaming and photos ban - had departed the Main Stage, the eagerly awaited Barrington Levy made his entrance. Jamaica’s ‘bad boy’ lost no time in promoting a new single - ‘Money is the Drug’ - from his upcoming 20th album, as his fine voice and lengthy experience in the trade confirmed why he is the consummate professional. Levy taunted, teased and thrilled his audience with a solid selection of favourites, including ‘Murderer’, ‘Prison Oval Rock’, ‘Too Experienced’, ‘Girl Salute’, ‘My Woman', ‘Black Roses’, ‘Collie Weed’ and ‘Here I Come – Broader Than Broadway’. He was then surprised to find that he still had time for ‘Minibus’ and ‘Wife and Sweetheart’. However, he didn’t have time for the scheduled press conference, suggesting that he was less than impressed by the sound effects (that threatened to knock him off his stride) coming across from the nearby located Dub Academy. Thereafter, Capleton and his pyrotechnics got stuck in on the Main Stage, to the delight of thousands!
DAY THREE - FRIDAY | AUGUST 18, 2023
The barefooted Mutabaruka and associates opened up Day 3 on the Main Stage, with the shivering sounds from a slave ship, before giving full vent to ‘The System’, ‘The Monkey Speaks His Mind’, ‘Johnny Drughead’, and ‘Nah Give Up’. But it was the arrival of Protoje – after some Nigerian Afrobeats - that really moved the masses. Opening with an easy, varied and tranquilising medley from his band, Protoje then let rip with the powerful ‘I & I’, before treating us to such songs as ‘Criminal’, ‘Rasta Love’, ‘Like Royalty’, ‘No Guarantee’ and ‘Who Knows’. He then set the house alight with ‘Kingston Be Wise’. Overall, this was a long awaited and welcome return to Rototom for Protoje. His vivacious presence, constant bestriding of the stage and audience exhortations - like ‘if you see someone not moving, you shake them’ - all combined with some quality songs to ensure that this artist will be back to Rototom sooner rather than later.
Whilst Protoje was doing his thing, Burning Spear – fresh from his Israeli concerts, where (unlike UB40, U2, Peter Tosh etc.) he remained mute on local conflicts - availed of the Rototom opportunity to eventually launch his new ‘No Destroyer’ album, after a 12-year wait. This first release in 15 years is at his wife Sonia’s behest – who co-wrote the ‘Negril’ track thereon. Spear used the short press conference to further his promotion of Marcus Garvey’s case and refused questions from the floor. With the passing of time, Spear may have lost some of his agility and intensity, but his live shows continue to pack a punch. The one-and-a-half-hour performance – interspersed by an introduction of the aforementioned Mrs. Rodney [CLICK HERE TO WATCH] - took a different tack to that at Rototom 2022.
Instead of galloping through a selection of the more popular tracks from his heyday, Spear gave us a much shorter set, albeit with extended – via much dubbing and bongo playing – versions of ‘Door Peep’, ‘We Been There’, ‘The Youth’, ‘Man In The Hills’ (albeit without the sweet bird chirping sounds), ‘Creation Rebel’, ‘Jah No Dead’ and ‘Rocking Time’, with his ‘Marcus Garvey’ calling card reserved for the encore. Notably, none of the new album was on offer in the set list – as he relied on old tried and tested tracks - serving to suggest that at 78 year of age Spear’s best musical days may be well behind him. However, he’ll be hoping that the odds keep shortening for another Grammy with the new release. As his compere – the wonderful Night Nurse DJ Amy Wachtel pointed out when bringing him on stage - the new album is already at No. 1 on the US Apple Music Reggae Chart.
For his years, Spear can still shake, shuffle and sing well, whilst his audience exhortations haven’t changed over time. Rototom did well to (eventually) add Spear to its 2023 line up, as his presence alongside Protoje (on the Friday night) was most certainly one of the festival’s high points.
DAY FOUR - SATURDAY | AUGUST 19, 2023
As a result, the fourth day – despite attracting the festival’s largest audience - passed in something of a blur, as Inna de Yard brought their rootsy reggae to the Main Stage to ease open the evening’s entertainment. The staple starters, courtesy of Winston McAnuff’s vocals and stage sprints, were ‘Africa’, ‘Come Away Jah Children’ and the ‘Sun Is Setting In The Sea’. Both Kiddus I and Cedric Myton also took turns on the mic., with the latter excelling on ‘Humanity’ and the mandatory classic ‘Fisherman’. However, it was ‘Let The Teardrops Fall’ that really moved the masses, with guitarist Dwight Pinkney from the Roots Radics (and many more besides) enjoying yet another visit to Rototom.
Of course, most of the evening’s excitement surrounded the prospect of Grammy winner Kabaka Pyramid taking to the stage. Alas, shortly before his arrival, surprise guests Iseo & Dodosound were kicking off at the Dub Academy. Having witnessed this duo in action many times, your reviewer ‘hot footed’ it to the Academy and was not to be shifted by a Grammy winner or anybody else! The combo. belted through their wonderful repertoire with style and spring, and most certainly raised the issue of an elevated stage to allow the milling masses to see their musical heroes in action.
The visual impact of this act is almost as compelling as the music, but was lost on the Dub Academy’s low stage. The audience gladly sang along to pair’s uplifting set list, as ‘Freedom’, ‘Lost City’, ‘Infinity’, ‘I Wonder’, ‘Flower of the Desert’ (with its catchy entrée), ‘Digital Shoots’, ‘Roots in the Air’, ‘Forever’, ‘My Art on the Market’ and ‘Vampire’ amongst others, swayed the expanding audience for a definite Rototom 2023 highlight and hopefully a foretaste of their return to the Main Stage next year.
DAY FIVE - SUNDAY | AUGUST 20, 2023
Having passed the half-way mark, the festival’s fifth day saw Linval Thompson and the Lone Ark open the Main Stage with ‘Jah Dreader Than Dread’, with Johnny Osbourne (featuring the Lone Ranger) arriving thereon a little later, to treat us to ‘Truth and Rights’. At around the same time the hard-working Reggae University crew were interviewing the fluent Kabaka Pyramid, who explained that when he heard he’d won the Grammy ‘me head just cave in, in a good way. The Grammy was a great thing, give thanks’.
Shortly afterwards former Grammy winners Steel Pulse followed, with 67-year-old David Hinds showing his agility and years of experience in an extended show to make up for his late start. Steel Pulse played a competent and varied set, going all the way back to 1980 for ‘Drug Squad’, closing the song with some sweet sax preceded by a trombone solo. The audience was also treated to ‘Bodyguard’, ‘Rally Round’, ‘Don’t Shoot’, ‘Babylon Makes The Rules’, ‘Don’t Let Go’, ‘Life Without Music’, ‘Your House’ from the True Democracy album from 1982 and ‘Steppin Out’ from 1984’s Earth Crisis, before accelerating to 2019’s ‘Stop You Coming And Come’ from the group’s last album Mass Manipulation. However, to the disappointment of many, yet again the classic ‘Ku Klux Klan’ was not to be seen or heard!
The festival’s penultimate day saw Gaudi, Don Letts and Steel Pulse’s David Hinds telling their stories at the Reggae University. It was interesting to hear how Letts – Marley’s herb dealer in London in the 1970s – was always owed money (by Marley) and how Letts acknowledges that he himself is ‘not a well-adjusted human being’. Indeed, he (almost) couldn’t help himself from taking over the University’s proceedings, though his well-honed presentation skills ensured that it was an entertaining takeover!
David Katz then waltzed Steel Pulse’s Hinds (and keyboard player & founding member Selwyn Brown) through their back catalogue in an interesting input, where Hinds explained his approach to set list selection. Though (for a very public politicised personality) it was notable that he didn’t confirm that he actually votes in elections. However, he did pass on a gem a wisdom, when explaining how he motivates himself for ongoing gigging, as he approaches each show as though it’s his last.
DAY SIX - MONDAY | AUGUST 21, 2023
The evening’s Main Stage big name act was Gentleman, but not before local artists Barcelona’s Adala and Valencia’s Zoo had their way in provoking a wonderful audience response. But it was the evening’s opening act that stole the show. The Pioneers can be traced back to the 1960s, and at Rototom 2023 it was Jackie Robinson and George Dekker who led the vocal charge. Their set included such classics as ‘Let Your Yeah Be Yeah’, ‘Time Hard/Everyday’, ‘Feelin High’, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, ‘Reggae Fever’, ‘Starvation’, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, the wonderful ‘Jackpot’ and a double take on ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’. All round, The Pioneers were a refreshing tour de force.
DAY SEVEN - TUESDAY | AUGUST 22, 2023
The festival’s closing night saw Rototom meet its Spanish hosts half-way, as the latter put on a novel ‘flamenco’ show. ‘Flamenco’ is a local art form that merges song, dance and music. However, in this case it was merged to the music of Bob Marley as the artists aired his hit list, though with a much stronger emphasis on the reggae than the flamenco! Arguably the night’s biggest act followed next, as Ali Campbell’s UB40 took to the Main Stage to regale us with ‘Here I Am’, ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’, ‘Homely Girl’, ‘Cherry Oh Baby’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Seems To Me I’m Losing You’, ‘Many Rivers To Cross’, ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, ‘Stick By Me’, ‘Red Red Wine’ and the closing crowd pleaser ‘Kingston Town’. However, Campbell’s embargo on live streaming (and photos) was regrettable, as it left the sizeable younger, older, remote and disabled attendees without a decent view of the show.
Thereafter, the ‘no vote’ campaigner Anthony B danced and sang his heart out, bringing down the curtains on the Main Stage, whilst Gaudi, Don Letts and Earl Sixteen kept the flag flying on the Lion Stage until the early hours. All round, Rototom can pride itself on yet another wonderful, varied and full festival. Long may it last!
WATCH ROTOTOM SUNSPLASH 2023 HERE: LIVE | REGGAE UNIVERSITY