Every year, Jamaica’s best-loved art form overwhelms Montego Bay as Reggae Sumfest takes to the stage. The build-up is frenetic: flights are overbooked, beaches throng with fans and the line-up – which reads like a reggae hall of fame – is worried over on radio talk shows. By the time sound and light equipment arrives, the city’s hotel rooms are booked out and every scrap of cardboard is appropriated by entrepreneurs to be sold as “reggae beds” – an essential piece of equipment for tired legs.
Sumfest’s origins date back to 1978 when revellers enjoyed five nights of roots reggae at Jarrett Park. This “Reggae Sunsplash” captured international attention and a year later organizers announced a killer line-up with Bob Marley at the helm. The quintessential 1980s shows drew huge crowds in a heady combination of rum and ganja, and “good musical vibes” were the order of the day with none of the posturing that some of today’s artists indulge in. By the mid-1990s, legal wrangles left Sunsplash outshone by its new Montego Bay competitor Reggae Sumfest, which today remains Jamaica’s most popular festival. The party was marred slightly in 2005 when obscenities and homophobic lyrics led to a (temporary) ban on Beenie Man and other locally popular artists – in the eyes of some this was evidence of sanitization in the quest to appeal to foreigners – but its draw for tourism dollars, especially from Jamaicans overseas, is simply immense. It continues to attract some brilliant line-ups, with sets in recent years from Tessane Chin, Shaggy, Mr Vegas, Beres Hammond, Damian Marley, Tarrus Riley and the late John Holt, plus huge international stars like Ne-Yo, Alicia Keys and Nas. And with 60,000 tickets sold, it remains unmissable.
Sumfest usually takes place between mid-July and early August, kicking off with a beach party on the Sunday featuring top sound systems, fashion shows and food stalls. A “Mad Monday” street jam often follows, with Tuesday’s All White Party staged at Pier One a slightly smarter affair.
Sumfest proper takes place just along the road from Pier One at the Catherine Hall Entertainment Centre Thursday’s show is a showcase for raw dancehall – the mostly local crowd is packed to the rafters to see the current biggest names in the industry. Jamaican audiences know their music and are notoriously hard to please; people waste no time demonstrating their appreciation with firecrackers or setting a lighter to a stream of hairspray – or not, with some blistering heckling and, occasionally, bottle-throwing. By the time Konshens or Mavado take to the stage in the early hours, the atmosphere is truly electric. Shows usually good-natured despite on-stage rivalries, and aside from lyrics and posturing you’ll be treated to some truly rude dancing courtesy of “dancehall queens”. Friday and Saturday nights have a more international feel. The new generation of roots artists add a cultural flavour, and grizzled old dreads wave enormous sticks of ganja in the air. A fabulous PA bounces all your favourite tunes around the hills surrounding the town.
Tickets and information
Specialist travel agents offer festival packages that include accommodation and entrance fees, and ticket outlets (including JTB offices) are found in all the resorts. Entry to the Sumfest beach party costs around US$20, the White Party US$25, while the Monday street party is free. Dancehall night is US$40 and the international nights US$70 each. A season ticket (around US$160) covers entry to all the main nights, and a VIP version (around US$230), gives access to the backstage and front of stage areas. Combined Fri & Sat passes cost around US$130. For information, check out reggaesumfest.com, call t953 2933, or contact the JTB.