On Sunday September 4th the much touted Reggae Rhythm & Blues Festival got under way at Roy Wilkins Park in Queens. Organized by the Irie Jam Media Group together with main sponsors The Door Restaurant, WBLS, The Smokehouse, Western Union, Lime and Digicel.
Quite a few patrons heeded the advice of the promoters and made it to the park early – not wanting to miss any of the artists in an impressive line-up reflecting performers from the genres of Reggae, Rhythm and Blues. Early entertainment was provided by Amira Nirah – the 10 year old who bravely performed while playing her acoustic guitar. Mr. Ernie Smith gave a very strong performance, singing along to tracks. Culture Wise jumped onto the stage and raised the performance bar to another level. Displaying his prowess with some nifty footwork, his vocal dexterity and topical lyrics with his popular “Move Dawg” got the audience showing their approval and asking for more. It’s a shame that the next artist Serious did not live up to his name. When billed for future ‘family’ events, he would do well to tailor his lyrics accordingly. Showtime and Lady Keyz from Young Lion Records looked the part, it’s always nice to see artists make an effort in their stage apparel and their offering on the day was quite promising. Next up Alan Curfew confidently stepped out in his white three piece suit but seemed to be struggling with poor acoustics.
Qushan Deya owned the stage, from the minute he was announced by MC – Chris The Dubb Master, this artist stamped his personality all over his performance. Engaging the audience, working the stage and singing lyrically uplifting songs, it’s no wonder that this Vincentian ,now living in Jamaica won second place in the recent Jamaican Festival song competition. The temperature certainly seemed to rise as the crowd showed their appreciation and participated in his call and response “Everything Tun up” as he became the first artists of the night to receive a well-deserved encore.
The singer by the name of Nefatari was up next, with her rendition of what it is to be a ‘hot gyal’, Nefatari who calls herself the Pop Rock Star, shows potential and after a shaky start her performance improved with each choice of song. One hopes she finds the musical niche best suited to her regal name.
I was surprised at the next announcement – Leroy Sibbles. Now I’m a fan of this artist and was disappointed that he was performing to tracks, however, Leroy certainly represented for those lovers of vintage music as it seemed to be the patrons of a certain age who were rocking and singing along line for line to songs like Garden Of Life and Full Up.
The energy in the venue was about to get turned up several notches as it was announced the next performer would be Machal Montana. You didn’t need to be a soca lover to get drawn in by the energy generated by Machal and his band. Everything about this performance screamed high energy, polish and entertainment, the dancers, the band, the backup singers and the front man himself all came together to provide an unforgettable experience. I found myself jumping up and gyrating in time to Montana’s pumping pelvis as I looked in awe at the lithe dancers and their amazing flexibility. When the sound abruptly stopped, in true showmanship form, after a short break, Machal and his troupe improvised, dancing and gyrating as the drummer put down an impressive solo set. Balloons and confetti thrown out into the audience helped to create a carnival setting. Respect to Machal Montana for bringing his essentially soca act to a traditionally reggae crowd, in a nod to his international appeal, he performed a classToots & The Maytals song in “Bam Bam” and a soulful reggae version of Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain with a really nice rhythm guitar lead. ‘Father Nappy’ the small-bodied extremely agile performer on stage with Machal, also did a nice calypso medley.
A somber mood prevailed as Ire Jam presented its tribute to Joel Chin, A&R Director and Grandson of VP Records founder, recently murdered in Jamaica. Joel impacted the careers of artists like Taurus Riley and Wayne Wonder , and was responsible for signing Beenie Man and Beres Hammond (among others) to VP records.
The tribute segued into the Taurus Riley performance after a longer than normal band change. This performance was beset by poor sound quality and one could emphathize with Dean Fraser’s frustration as he exhorted the engineers to produce a clearer crisper sound. Taurus’ lackluster rushed performance seemed to reflect his disappointment with the technical difficulties. The brightest spark of course came when he sang “She’s Royal”.
Monica’s performance was a stop-start affair, when she sang the songs that resonated with the audience, she warmed to the crowd, but then she seemed to run out of steam when she sang songs that were less popular, performing to tracks, it was almost like watching a seasoned artist at the beginning of their career. I made my way backstage with hopes of interviewing some of the performers after their sets – so imagine my surprise and disgust as a window-blackened Escalade whizzed through the exit carrying Monica who had hurriedly exited the stage and the venue.
I remained backstage and witnessed a very diminutive Kenny “BabyFace”Edmonds dwarfed by burly body guards who escorted him on stage. Dressed in what looked like a creaseless white silk suit, Baby Face crooned his way through a set that had the audience eating out of his hands. Many were in awe at the songs he performed, not realizing that he may not have made the song popular, but he certainly was responsible for writing it. The piece de resistance was when he left the stage and made his way into the crowd, connecting in a personal way with the fans who showed him much love in return. As darkness descended and Baby Face left the patrons feeling satisfied, Mavoda and his mantourage took the stage at 8:17 pm. I tried to make my way from backstage to witness this artiste making his first appearance in the US after having his Visa restored, but was hampered by the huge press of the crowd who were anxiously awaiting the performance too.
Dancehall artists should realize that patrons don’t want to hear interminable ‘pull-ups’ unless they are the ones calling for it. As the crowd start dispersing, my ride was calling and I had to leave the venue too.
When the announcement came that Mavado would be the last artist to perform, there was a palpable sigh of disappointment from those fans who were waiting to see John Holt.
I applaud the Irie Jam team for their innovation in coming up with this concept of mixing reggae, soca, and R an’ B, but hope that if they repeat this theme – they pay heed to the backstage events as much as they do to front of house. It makes no sense to me to invite press and photographers to an event and then bar them from having access to the artists. Certain members of the security detail on duty Sunday night could certainly do with lessons in diplomacy and communicative skills, as the press was shunted from one place to another, held in pen-like enclosures and treated like pariahs I spoke with several other disgruntled members of the press corp who were not happy with their shabby treatment.