Rototom Sunsplash: A Celebration of Reggae

It is some time after the break of dawn, Sunday, August 29, 2010. The sun hovers, orange and soft, slightly above the hills that stretch to the northeast of the coastal town of Benicassim, near Valencia, Spain. The cleaning crews have been drenching the acres of concrete and asphalt floors before each of the five music stages, and presently they move towards the final corner of the complex. By a solitary tree, a lanky man with a ragged beard lays sleeping, or in a trance. Not far from him, a couple seek shelter from the morning dew in a warm embrace, his long dreads covering large portions of her bare skin. In the distance, the drubbing of the Dub Station continues to pierce the air, and a small but enthusiastic crowd jump up in the air, roughly to the tune set by the selector. It is the morning after day nine of Rototom Sunsplash, Europe’s largest reggae festival, and some wild (party) animals still haven’t had enough.

This, the 17th edition of the festival, is the first one ever to take place outside Italian soil. Benicassim is a typical resort town, plagued with a row of relatively high buildings along the shoreline, behind which there is little by way of infrastructure, other than a main road that leads to a square, a church, a post office. The beach is hardly a Caribbean dream, and yet it offers the exhausted revellers of the Rototom nights a welcome middle ground where to relax and recover from previous excesses. Most conveniently, the festival village, located on a large plot of land by the roadside just outside town, is only a few hundred yards away, along the main road, from the beach and the square, and all the amenities Benicassim has to offer. Thus, although Rototom is practically self-sufficient, there is a feeling during the event that the whole town is at a party, a sense of inclusion, of belonging, that adds to the good vibe prevalent at the festival.

The beginnings of Rototom go back to the early nineties, to an old-school disco in a small town in Italy, between Udine and the Austrian border, where, improbably, some of the most important names of the dub and reggae scenes, from Linton Kwesi Johnson to Inner Circle and Black Uhuru, found a welcoming stage to perform their work. By 1994 a full-blown, three-day festival was being organized at the nightclub and the adjoining garden, but soon enough the popularity of the event outgrew its original location and the festival had to be moved to a remote seaside town near Venice. Between 2000 and 2009, Rototom grew steadily, finding a stable venue at the footstep of the Italian Alps in the recondite town of Osoppo, where the festival acquired its present shape as a nine-day bonanza, offering a wide spectrum of activities and combining its musical focus with other forms of entertainment and cultural projects.

While the musical component is its most prominent, its most high profile, aspect, Rototom Sunsplash is above all an initiative to practice and disseminate a culture of tolerance and responsible freedom. In this sense, activism is an important element of the festival, close to its core, which might not make the headlines but which, to its organizers, quite obviously makes a difference. Thus, the village is crowded with environmental elements and cultural tents that explore the roots of different African traditions, that examine the details of Rastafarian faith and that showcase various artistic productions, from sculptures to paintings to films, related to reggae, to the festival itself and to the issues it wishes to highlight. However, the most surprising feature of the non-musical agenda addressed at Rototom is an extensive programme of seminars, interviews and debates in what has come to be known as the Reggae University, concerning a broad range of issues, spanning from questions of diversity and alternative social structures, to political violence, drugs, sound system and Bob Marley.

Main stage, 2010.

Nevertheless, music remains Rototom’s trademark and its most engaging aspect. Five stages provided a great variety of styles, from dub to dancehall and, for the first time, also ska. The Lion Stage hosted the semi-finals of the European Reggae Contest on Wednesday night and remained a venue for lower profile performers and local bands to perform their material. On the main stage big names were featured on a daily basis, including the likes of Bob Andy (Sunday), Morcheeba (Monday) and Marcia Griffiths (Saturday, August 28). For me, however, the highlight came on the final night of the festival, when Etana, the rising Jamaican star, came on stage. She had engaged earlier on in one of the conferences addressing the issue of political violence, and she was clearly in tune with the audience of the festival. Despite only communicating in English, the predominantly Spanish and Italian crowd responded enthusiastically to her interaction and slowly the arena began to feel small, real small. Her rendition was both touching and conscious, not only of the social issues that characterize her lyrics but also of the musical tradition that had been celebrated over the previous eight days. She combined her original work, clearly relatively alien to the crowd, with emblematic songs by Jimmy Cliff, The Beatles (Don’t Let Me Down) and, of course, Bob Marley. Indeed, it was almost a shame that she burdened her performance with the distant echo of so many iconic tunes, against which she inevitably cut a less prominent figure than she might have done otherwise.

And yet, her boldness, her vigour and also her talent made for a thoroughly enjoyable hour-and-change that, in my view, crowned a thoroughly enjoyable Rototom festival. There was still more to come, with Marcia Griffiths, with The Abyssinians, with music blaring into the night from the other stages and still continuing after sunrise out of the Dub Station and a nightclub of sorts called the Juanita Club. But the climax had been reached, and what remained was just the ripples, the after shock, of an extraordinary party in which over 125,000 people had cavorted peacefully and responsibly for nine days. No mean feat. It has already been confirmed that Benicassim will host the next edition of Rototom Sunsplash in August 2011 and, even at this embryonic stage, I can tell you, if you can make it, it’ll be a trip to remember.



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