To say that I am a fan of reggae would be an understatement. I LOVE LOVE LOVE – ONE LOVE – reggae music, and all variations thereof. If you open my iTunes and type in ‘reggae’ it shows seven days worth of non-stop listening. And that doesn’t even count the extensive collection I have of rocksteady and lover’s rock. Indeed, I also sing with a reggae band in Brooklyn, New York – The Sanghatones.
My roots are in California and from the early 1970s, reggae was already a major influence on the music I listened to. In my teens, I was even in the same place as one of the most famous reggae artists ever, although I didn’t know it at the time. My family and I were at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz and the owners apologetically told us we’d have to leave because they were hosting a dinner for a famous musician, and his entourage, who would be performing later that night at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. That artist was no less than Bob Marley, himself. Coincidentally, the date of that show in 1979 was the 2nd of December – 02-12. Same numbers, in nearly the same order, as 2012!
To say that I am the ultimate fan of reggae, however, is, well, actually true. At least it was for a few days in January of 2012.
Like so many of us, I spend way too much time on Facebook and on the internet, reading regular updates from favorite sites like this one, http://www.jamaicans.com/, but in this case, it really paid off. I had been planning my trip to Jamaica for Rebel Salute 2012 for some time but then, in early January, I noticed that on their fanpage, the organizers of Rebel Salute announced a competition to be the Ultimate Fan and so I entered. And, I won! (Thanks to all my friends, and their friends, who voted for me!).
I’d checked Facebook, periodically, that week to see who’d won the contest, nearly giving up hope that it could be me, and then, around 12:30am on January 13th – the day before the show – as I was packing for my trip I got a message from my friend saying “yippee, you won!” I immediately checked Facebook again and found the post from Rebel Salute reading,
“Congratulations to Martina Clark, our Ultimate Fan, for winning our contest!”
And thus my adventure began. I’d already paid for my flight to Jamaica and would have gone to the show anyway, but winning these two tickets was an amazing start to what is turning out to be an amazing year.
Once I arrived in Kingston, my friend took me over to the Flames Productions office so I could collect my VIP package. What I didn’t anticipate was having people yell out my name when I came into their office.
“Oh my god, it’s Martina Clark! The Ultimate Fan” yelled one organizer, much to my surprise.
And then I was introduced to the amazing Queen Ifrica who immediately said,
“Wow, our Ultimate Fan! I think we need a photo together!” And so she had some one take one, on her phone, I might add!
Normally the only people that scream out my name when I show up are related and, even then, they stopped doing so at around nine years old, so I’m not accustomed to being fawned over, but I definitely took to it quickly.
Because my friend happens to know Tony Rebel, I was also able to meet and have a photo with him, as well. I was smiling from ear to ear as I collected my two Ultra VIP Tickets – which gave me backstage access – a VIP parking permit and signed CDs from both Queen Ifrica and Tony Rebel.
By 3pm on Saturday I was dressed and ready for my exploration of the largest reggae festival currently on offer in Jamaica. We loaded up our snacks and carried sweaters and blankets and headed to our meeting point where our 15-seater bus would take us down to the parish of St Elizabeth to the Port Kaiser Sports Complex.
In total, we were eight women – eight extraordinary women – who were giddy like schoolgirls to get to spend a night listening to the best show on the island. Another dear friend from Brooklyn, an amazing young Jamaican bassist, who happened to be home in Jamaica at the time, joined us and got to be the other Ultimate Fan. Once there, our VIP Parking pass got us quickly beyond the various traffic minders and into a lot directly across from the entrance to the show. We were a little bit late but the place was still relatively quiet and lots of space was available for arriving rebels and revelers alike.
We made our way to the VIP section and picked out a selection of seats – yes, actual seats! – and made our camp for the night. Once settled in, I sat and took in the moment and let the music simply wash over and soak into me. It was like a mineral bath of heaven’s music.
During the first half of the show, there was one set of musicians who played for about six hours (God bless them and their stamina!), backing a seemingly endless stream of vocalists, some of whom also played an instrument and/or brought their own backing vocalists.
The evening started with an alternating list of older artistes and young artistes. I loved this mix as it reminded the crowd of the extraordinary history of reggae music and that the legacy goes back decades, not just to the latest hit on the current charts. Among my favorites were Leroy Gibbons, Errol Dunkly, Max Romeo and Johnny Clarke. I’d also once heard Johnny Osbourne rehearsing in Brooklyn – a few feet away from me – and was delighted to see him take the Rebel Salute stage and share his still amazing voice with us. They blew the roof off the stage – they’ve all still got it, and then some!
Among the newer artists in the first half of the show, that really impressed me, were Iba MaHr, Jah 9 and Cen’C Love – daughter of music legend Bunny Wailer – who I particularly enjoyed when joined by her brother. The young artists are doing right by their ancestors, it must be said.
Periodically, throughout the night, my friend and I ventured back stage to soak up the vibe of the musicians themselves. It was an added bonus to be with him because he’s actually played Rebel Salute, among many other festivals around the world, and so he knew many of the musicians personally and was able to make introductions. That was a treat even beyond the VIP access and was just the luck of good timing that he was in town that weekend.
Around midnight, organizer Tony Rebel took the stage and gave a dynamic performance, and as Saturday turned into Sunday, fifty crepe lanterns with tea candles were released and floated up over the warm St Elizabeth sky making the scene, for a moment, a magic wonderland. This year, in particular, was that much more special because on the occasion of Tony Rebel’s birthday – the reason the festival is held when it is – both he and the island nation of Jamaica welcomed their 50th year.
For the second half of the night, the ‘house band’ finally got to sit down and rest and the ‘big guns’ started to take the stage, each with their own respective bands. The headliner was the sultry Stephen Marley. I love his music and admire his talent as a musician and producer, immensely, and so I was thrilled to hear him perform. But about fifteen minutes into his set, the evening got that much better when his brother, Damian “Jr Gong” Marley joined the stage. The two together put on an extraordinary show that had the crowd going wild.
The performer that surprised me the most, with his stellar performance, was Tarrus Riley. I’ve loved his music for a long time, but I had no idea he would be such a great entertainer. Luciano was brilliant, but I’d expected that. Even if he did more flips on stage than one could imagine!
Although the night was long and the list of extraordinary artists was extensive, rich and diverse, I’d have to say that the two bands that really stood out the most for me – of the whole night – were Raging Fyah and C-Sharp.
Raging Fyah took the stage in firemen suits and really were on fire (musically, not literally!) and left the crowd steaming with delight. They are one of the tightest young bands I’ve heard in years – reggae or otherwise – and to hear them perform so brilliantly live was just further confirmation of their boundless talent.
Similarly, C-Sharp – whom I’d seen the year before at Redbones in Kingston – were simply amazing. What I love most about them is their versatility in that they all seem to be able to do just about anything. The bass player sings. The singer plays congas. They mix it up and the result is bliss. I love so many of their tunes but “Reggae My Song” is among my favorites as it reminds me of why I love this music so much. It’s every woman’s music. We can all enjoy it and listening to it genuinely makes you feel better. For me, it’s the heavy bass line that resonates like a heartbeat. Truly, it comforts my soul.
By the time we left, around 9 am, the show was finally getting down to the last performers and the sun was well up in the sky. Remarkably, I hadn’t felt tired all night and left even more energized than when I’d arrived.
To go to Rebel Salute as the Ultimate Fan was an honor, and I thank the festival organizers for having afforded me this unforgettable experience. But to listen as any attendee would be well worth the trip, and I’d gladly do it again, fully at my own expense. If you’ve never been to Rebel Salute and you like reggae, be sure to put it on your calendar for next year. It’s an extraordinary event, not just for the music, but also for the peaceful vibe and excellent food and souvenir vendors. It’s an event that truly feels communal and embraces the notion of One Love. I look forward to going back in 2013. But, before that, my next trip to Jamaica is in May to feed my other passion, writing. Calabash, here I come!
About the Author:
Martina Clark is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. During a twenty-year break from travel writing, Martina enjoyed a fascinating series of positions with the United Nations doing HIV prevention and education around the globe. Her piece My Vagine – about her HIV work – was recently included in the Lowestoft Chronicle 2012 Anthology – Far-flung and Foreign, and her piece Turning ‘four zero’ on Zanzibar appears in the April 2012 issue of Travelati Magazine. She also makes lamps and sings in a reggae band.