Reggae Sumffest (1)
Where? Montego Bay, Jamaica
When? Mid- to late July
How long? 3 days, plus several warm-up events in the preceding week
As you might expect from what has become Jamaica’s flagship music festival, Sumfest is one of the best reggae shows in the world. If you’re expecting a bacchanalian free-for- all of campfires on the sand, you’ll be sorely disappointed – it’s a series of concerts preceded by sound-system jams and beach parties – but if you’re interested in seeing the hottest names in Jamaican music part and present, with a few international R&B or hip hop acts thrown in for good measure, then you’re in for a serious treat. The island’s stage shows start late, carry on until dawn and involve some serious audience participation – or lack of it, if a performer fails to please the famously fickle local crowd. And it’s doubtful you’ll find a better high than standing under the stars in a grassy bowl by the Caribbean with the music echoing out over the bay. It’s best to arrive in Montego Bay a week or so before the event and head for the beach (there are several ,ne strips of sand in town) in order to rid yourself of that fresh-off-the-plane pallor, and to attend prefestival events. These tend to change annually (check the Sumfest website – see p.238 – for details of what’s on), but there’s usually a “Blast Off Beach Party” on the Sunday before the festival starts, with music supplied by some of the best sound systems and DJs in the business (the 2006 event had Black Chiney, Renaissance, Coppershot and Tony Matterhorn), as well as fashion shows, food stalls, and unlimited Red Stripe included in the admission. The next day sees the free “Mad Monday” street party, a take on the outdoor jams that have become the liveliest thing in the Kingston nightlife scene in recent years – music is supplied by DJs from the best of the Kingston parties: Fire Links from Hot Mondays, Stone Love from Weddy Weddy Wednesdays, and Swatch from Passa Passa. The main Sumfest shows – Top Ranking, Storm Front, Ignition and The Summit – still take place right in Montego Bay, at the Pier One club and the Catherine Hall Entertainment Centre on Howard Cooke Boulevard.
Recently reintroduced after the organizers realized the lunacy of dropping their original Vintage Night (it wasn’t seen to draw a big enough crowd to fill the main venue), Wednesday night’s Top Ranking kicks off Sumfest proper, attracting a crowd of serious reggae aficionados. Its setting at the smaller, oceanside Pier One is arguably prettier and certainly more intimate than the Catherine Hall Entertainment Centre, which hosts the other three major events – you’ll get closer to the performers and it’ll be a night to remember while singing along to the classics of the reggae canon.
On Thursday, the newly renamed Storm Front, a showcase for the current biggest names in the dancehall scene and with a more raw feel than the Friday and Saturday nights, is often the busiest night of the festival, with a mostly local crowd packed right to the edges of the circular arena. Jamaican audiences know their music and are notoriously hard to please; people waste no time demonstrating their appreciation – showering firecrackers or setting light to a stream of hairspray, some cardboard or anything else combustible – or otherwise, with some blistering heckling and, occasionally, a hail of bottles. By the time Beenie Man or Sizzla take to the stage in the early hours, the atmosphere is truly electric. Things are almost always good-natured, despite the rivalry up on stage; as well as the lyrics and the posturing, you’ll also be treated to some of the rudest dancing in the world courtesy of the “dancehall queens” who take to the stage between acts.
Ignition and The Summit
Friday and Saturday nights see a more international lineup, as well as a higher tourist presence and brisk sales at the T-shirt stands. The new generation of roots reggae artists add a cultural flavour, and grizzled old dreads advertise their wares by waving enormous sticks of ganja in the air. (Sumfest probably isn’t the place to get the deal of your life, though, and if you intend indulging in a few spliffs, you should be careful when buying and discreet when smoking.) The seaside setting, brilliant lineups and a fabulous PA that bounces all your favourite tunes into the hills surrounding the town can be a heady combination.