We left Little Ochi and arrived at the fairgrounds in Port Kaiser at around 8:00pm. We entered without incident, parking the van in what looks like should be a somewhat easy out the next morning. We set up our “camp”…tent, tarps, chairs etc. on a gentle hillside slope. We lounged about, some of us napped to prepare for the long night ahead. The stage was already active with the live music of some lesser known local artists. I took the opportunity to walk around a bit before the crowd started filling in.
Rebel Salute is, first and foremost, a Rasta event. As I walked the perimeter I perused all the vendors set up there – home made crafts and jewelry, red, green and gold flags…things like that. There is no “official” t-shirt for the concert. I browse the food offerings – all “ital” or “natural”…no meat but plenty of Roasted Fish and Bammy , Veggie Stew, Rice and Peas, Fish Tea, Peanut Porridge – all homemade. Snack offerings were fresh fruit and Jelly Coconuts. The prices were all extremely reasonable too – a far cry from the $7.00 Velveeta Nachos which is a concert staple here in the good ol’ US of A. Since it is a Rasta event, there is no alcohol officially sold, but there is plenty of Red Bull, bottled water and juice (one of the concert’s sponsors was Tru Juice). Another stark difference to the US – you don’t have to sell your first-born to buy a bottle of water – the drink prices were extremely reasonable as well. If you really wanted a beer it was there…”walk by” vendors would have a stash of Guinness along with their water and Red Bull. More “walk by” vendors came by with fistfuls of Ganga and home-grown and cured Tobacco. The police did not come into the venue. Best yet, these walk-by vendors put NO pressure on you to buy anything at all – the gently hawk their wares and if you are not interested they continue on without argument. This is a Jamaican event – we were of the few non-Jamaican in attendance, so it was way off the tourist radar and these people would never think of being intrusive.
Now it was time to go to the bathroom. I was mentally and materially prepared (TP tucked in my hand). At the beginning of the evening it really wasn’t too bad. Experienced attendees remarked how they had more porta-potties this year than in the past and for the first time, a real wash up station as well. As the night wore on however, the funk started to set in. Peggy, god bless her, returned from one of her trips and shared brilliant insight – on each visit, take 50J or 100J with you and “bribe” the attendant (there to keep things “tidy” and replenish toilet paper, another first in this concert’s history) to either find you a not-so-nasty stall or make a stall not-so-nasty for you. It worked like a charm all night long. I’ve actually gagged harder at the conditions of certain porta potties at Reggae on the River, right here in Northern California.
Our spot was perfect on many levels. It was towards the back of the venue so we were away from the major crowds at the front. The positioning on the hillside made the sound quality GREAT! We had plenty of room to dance, move around, lie down, sit…you would never know you were in and among 40,000 people. You could go up front into the “fray” if you wanted as moving about even in that “crowd” was pretty easy…but I was perfectly happy to stay at the camp.
With a show starting at 8:00pm and not ending until 9:00am the following day, the line-up is HUGE. This year’s line-up was not as good as previous years but did include a veritable who’s who in Roots Reggae Music…The Abyssinians, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor, Buju Banton and Richie Spice among others. The set changes were fast and seamless. Every now and then, during a change that maybe was a bit more complicated or time-consuming, smaller/shorter “acts” would take the stage. Two in particular caught my interest. The first was a dance group that performed to a “history of Jamaican Music”, combining the dance styles with the particular genre – Mento, Calypso, Ska, Reggae, Dancehall. During this act I actually learned something! For the Ska selection the tune played was Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop”…up until then I had no idea that this was a “Ska” song recorded by a Jamaican artist. It was the first international Ska hit. Millie, while still a teenager, was discovered by the iconic Chris Blackwell at the age of 17 and was brought, along with Ernest Ranglin (who plays guitar on the song) to England to record in 1963. This song was the first to help Blackwell’s Jamaican label Island Records make millions. During the set change for Buju we were entranced by a group of Nyahbinghi drummers and chanters who did about 20-30 minute set. This was magical, I was mesmerized.
Nyahbinghi is often called the “heartbeat” of Reggae music because the slow, thumping pattern of the funde, repeater and bass drums is so similar to the human heartbeat. Typically, the only instruments used in Nyahbinghi are hand drums and vocals come in the form of “chants.” Jamaican Nyahbinghi stretches back to the 1940-50’s. The word Nyahbinghi translates into “death to black and white oppressors.” It’s no secret then that Nyahbinghi is the heaviest, and most stern style of Jamaican music. The roots of Nyahbinghi come from Africa yet it’s played by Rastafarians across the globe. Lyrics in Nyahbinghi range from extremely spiritual to intensely condemning. Songs about the divinity of Haile Selassie and repatriation to Africa are quite common, as are lyrics about the downfall of western society. Despite its serious nature, Nyahbinghi can be quite beautiful and uplifting – it all depends on how the listener interprets the message behind the heartbeat.”
To me the music is haunting and uplifting at the same time…trancelike and spiritual it puts me in this wonderful, calm place…very meditative.
Then of course there were the announcements from the stage. Most of the announcements addressed the pick-pocket issue. The announcer would periodically get up there and ask those who MUST pick-pocket to at least ditch the wallet containing all the identification and bank cards so they could be found and hopefully returned to the owner…light some cash but at least they’d have their paperwork. Following that announcement would be a shout-out to those whose wallets were picked up and sent forward…
“Would Tyrone Jones please come to the Tru Juice booth at the front of the stage – we have your wallet and paperwork”.
I guess there were concert personnel whose task was to comb the place in search of these ditched items..
Buju Banton came on at 3:00am and played for a bit over an hour. He was the highlight of the show…rockin’ energy, kept all of us moving and excited. After his set I lay down to take a nap. When I woke up Richie Spice was playing…and the sun was just rising over the stage. I was blown away by both the visual of the sun rising as well as finally being able to take the scene in by the early morning light. As he played people up front frantically waved the red, green and gold flags rhythmically to his music. We got some coffee and Peanut Porridge, and began to strip down the layers from the chill of the night to prepare for the heat of the day.
Bellies full we changed in the van into our “night time” clothes and headed over to the show. We parked off site and walked what appears to be some distance to the gates. The closer we got the more vendors appeared selling everything from chicken to beer – both are not allowed inside the gates – to fresh fruit and ganga and tobacco. Ron was playing camp counselor and made sure we all got in – he held all the tickets and made sure that we all stayed together as we made our way to our “spot”. Standing at the gate as we walked was our friend Ricky – he’d been waiting for us. As we are walking in the band on stage is playing “Little Cottage in Negril” – one of my favorite songs. It was a sweet tribute as well to the late Tyrone Taylor who had passed away less than one month before.
Our “spot” is somewhat at the bottom of a hillside out of the hustle and bustle in front of the sound board and securely behind the soundboard. Les, Bob and Ron jumped into action erecting both tents – Peg, Lea and I spread blankets and start hoisting people’s packs into those tents. We quickly created our “happy home” for the night and Jason just watched the procedure, wide-eyed. “Fucking hippies”, he said with a broad smile on his face. Well, yeah sort of. More like fucking deadheads – we are trained professionals; do not try this at home. Turns out we are right next to other folks from Negril – there’s Juve and David, fresh in from Vancouver and with him his son Cush.
The music from the get-go was rockin’ and I really enjoyed the “earlier” bands this time around. The sounds were fresh – I particularly enjoyed listening to Aaron Silk, he sounded just like his brother. Other early acts that were just terrific included George Nooks – who plays often at Bourbon Beach in Negril and Edi Fitzroy. It was just great danceable roots reggae music. The line-up also included Sugar Minnot, Tony Rebel, Taurus Riley and Capleton – all performed great sets. I wanted to see Queen Ifrika especially but the body won over…after Capelton’s set at 3:00am I lay down and my eyes just closed – Les woke me for sunrise to the sounds of Richie Spice.
There is so much about this show that is so wonderful and unusual to the North American music festival attendee. First would be the use of fireworks right there in the middle of the audience – people sling tubes on their shoulders and shoot off bottle rockets into the sky. When Jah Cure started his set at around 9:00am those fireworks were flying. Another favorite crowd pleaser within the crowd is the ol’ set fire to the spray can spray…this was especially popular during Capleton’s set – he is known as “Fire Man”.
The food offered by vendors at this event is starkly different from anything offered at any music event here in the states. It is all home-made, it is all not only reasonably but CHEAPLY priced and it is all vegetarian. Right there in the middle of everything you can buy fresh fruit, home-made Peanut Porridge, freshly roasted peanuts and cashews…tons of stuff to satisfy the munchies. It is a no-alcohol show and the crowd reflects this – it is a gentle and mature crowd, sure there are pick-pockets, gangs of them in fact but the good people far outweigh the bad. You just KNOW that if you are walking into the crowd or going to the restroom you carry NOTHING on you…everything you own stays securely back at the “camp” in the tents. Vendors do walk around selling the red, green and gold flags that look so awesome being waved about at sunrise; they also are selling various juices, Red Bull and the occasional Guinness that has been “smuggled” in. My favorite vendors are the ganga vendors – in one fist they carry stalks of bud, in the other stalks of tobacco – and in their hushed tones hawk their wares: “High Grade, High Grade.”
The only logistical problem I could find with this year’s event was the bathroom situation – they had far fewer porta-potties than the year before and unlike the year before there were no attendants to bribe to find you a “nice” one. It wasn’t off the charts terrible though – the men tend to just pee off in the bushes and all in all I didn’t find them to be anymore offensive than the ones at Reggae on the River. The best part about going to the bathroom though was the view – the porta potties sat perched at the top of the hill facing the bowl of the fairgrounds so you had an unobstructed birds-eye view of the entire show. It made going to the bathroom an experience.
I did notice a few more “white” faces in the crowd this year but still and all this is a Jamaican event – for a Jamaican audience and the ticket price reflects that – 1300JMD (just under $20USD) for basically a twelve-hour show featuring over forty artists – ten or more of which are internationally known and famous.
When Jah Cure took the stage at 9:00am it started to dawn on us that Luciano might be a no-show.. Generally he does the sunrise set, which of course, did not happen.
We parked and entered the show without incident – the walk always seems far but its downhill – Les reminded us that what goes down must come up so we can look forward to an uphill hike in the morning on little to no rest. Well, for now, we were going down. It’s hard but the group stuck together – we entered the gates, some being searched – Brenda’s bottle of vodka was confiscated. We moved on to find our “spot” – it took a few minutes but we parked ourselves on the hillside – great spot for viewing the show from the screens, near the soundboard so the sound is good…two tents, tarps, blankets and chairs were erected – our little village was set.
No sooner than we were done building our village Ricky, Suzanne and Jessie appeared as if out of thin air. Excitement! These guys had been on the fence all week about coming…I was especially excited to see Suzanne there – she’d never been to Rebel Salute and I just knew she’d love it. Suzanne spends a lot of time in the summer and early fall at music festivals in the Midwest – she was in for a real treat…here was a music festival all wrapped up into fourteen hours of non-stop roots reggae music. Yay! The gang’s all here.
Every year Rebel Salute is a little different. This year, the event was dedicated to Barack Obama…not a moment is lost in this dedication – we see many Rastas running around in Obama t-shirts – the screen in between sets is running a slide show of black heroes – Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King – President Elect of the United States Barack Obama. The people of this country cannot be happier with this man’s accomplishment and hope that it is inspirational for Jamaicans to see what can be achieved by going down the straight and narrow. It is a hope for the entire world and that hope has permeated the Jamaican culture.
It is so rare to see non-West Indian anything at this show – music, speakers – and now the entire show was dedicated to an American. Wow.
The other difference that I noticed is the lack of previous sponsors. Rumors had spread in the weeks before Rebel Salute that the event had been cancelled due to sponsorship pulling out. Economic hard times had hit the US with a blow – in Jamaica it was more of an explosion. TruJuice was not there – neither was BMobile. However, the Jamaican Tourist Board was there in full force. One has to wonder if they jumped in at the last-minute and bailed the event out.
The presence of the JTB is not a complete surprise when scanning the crowd – there were far more white faces out there than ever before. The internet boards in the past year touted the event…folks who would normally not leave their comfort zones of their hotels and resorts in Montego Bay and Negril ventured out to experience the “real” Jamaica.
Back at the village some folks were settling down for a “nap”. I was watching Ricky argue with beer vendor after beer vendor. The hour drew later…and the peanut man was ever-present. The peanut man rolled his rickety peanut roasting cart around the crowd selling delicious freshly roasted peanuts for a pittance. He has to schlep this thing all over uneven terrain and for some reason kept moving by our village. This would not have been a problem if he did not have a shrieking whistle going all the time on the thing. Folks were getting down right pissed off at the peanut man. It got to a point where I was covering my head with a pillow each time he approached. Finally Les had a discussion with peanut man – who cannot hear him due to the music and the whistle. Les puts his hand over the peanut man’s steam pipe, silencing the whistle but greatly aggravating the peanut man. The bottom line was this – don’t come by here anymore. If we want peanuts we’ll seek you out – you are really not that hard to find.
Did he come by again? Not really. But my ears were now sensitized to the noise and he could be yards away and I’d hear the shrill of freshly roasted peanuts. Oh well, what can you do.
All through the night people come by selling all kinds of things – banners/flags, ganga and tobacco, beer, water, peanuts…and cardboard. Yes, cardboard. Actually, it was unclear if they were SELLING the cardboard but they were advertising it as “Reggae Sealy Posturpedics”.
The hour grew later – Ron, Peg and Les were stretched out and sleeping…I felt I should probably catch some z’s before the headlining acts came on. I asked Ricky to wake me once they start – he agreed, I lay down…then they announced the Wailing Souls. I was up on her feet and would be up for the rest of the night. The music never stopped…and neither did I. For the first time I stayed awake throughout the entire event and caught all the music from start to just about finish.
Here are some of the better known artists that played through the night – not necessarily in the order that they played:
The word bellowed from the stage – the crowd went crazy…the Messenger, LUCIANO!!!
By this time everyone in the group was up from their naps and on their feet – everyone but Peg. I ran over to her and shook her – “Honey, Luciano is on!” Luciano is Peg’s favorite Reggae artist and I knew she did not want to sleep through his set.
Peggy woke up, her eyes half-closed, half rolling in her head. She sat up, wiggled a bit, waved her arm in the air, then bam…went back down.
Ron attempted to wake her again for Morgan Heritage…no luck.
By far the most special time at Rebel Salute is sunrise/daybreak. The sky fills with gentle pinks and purples and glows just enough to illuminate the crowd. This is the first opportunity to see the crowd as a crowd…dimly lit, banners waving, gently swaying to the music playing. Its magical really…you look around and see that with even the subtle changes the attendance remains steady – anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 strong. Many would find this intimidating and there have been instances of stampedes and general crowd control issues but in the three years Les and I have attended this event the crowd is Rasta – gentle, easy, friendly. Sure, a few bad boys from Kingston sat directly in front of the village – shot over a few hostile vibes but that was chilled out pretty quickly with the first spliff shared. Everyone was there for the music and the good time and no one wanted trouble. Even the pickpockets will take your wallet, run with money and drop said wallet – announcements are made from the stage fairly regularly to notify the wallet’s owner. It’s all cool at Rebel Salute and sunrise brings out the love in everyone.
As day breaks Capleton takes the stage. Wake up!!! This is Fire Man…he’s up there dressed head to toe in white, singing words I could not understand but prompting the crowd to go nuts! Everywhere we looked there is spray can torches, fireworks…and as the day grew brighter and the song prompted everyone up on their feet jumping and frantically waving those banners. Les took a walk during the set through the crowd and came upon a couple of bonfires…this is how the Reggae Sealy Posturpedics got recycled apparently.
Well into the morning the music went on – Taurus Riley (She’s royal! So royal! And I want her in my life…), Queen Ifrika (Daddy don’t touch me there…I’m gonna tell one day I swear…), Gregory Isaacs…the village was dismantled, a bit early as the music keeps coming and coming…the group took stock of who’s left to play – Ras Moses is the last act. Ras Moses is Beenie Man and the consensus is that it is OK to miss him as not many in the group are big fans. So…twelve hours after they have arrived the stuff was gathered and they left just as Ras Moses took the stage at 9:30am.
Leaving wasn’t as easy as entering. Now you had 40,000 people all trying to exit through two tiny turnstiles. It was tight and tense and everyone was tired and spent from the long night. It was starting to get hot. We got out without incident and in not that much time. As we walked towards the car we took note of the traffic jam of cars leaving, or rather, TRYING to leave the venue and we prepared ourselves for a long hot wait in the van. Finding the van was not easy either…we got lost a few times. Grumpiness was starting to set in. When we found the van we piled in as quickly as possible and it was only then that we realized exactly what a great parking spot we had…positioned as we were in the lot that we were in we zipped right out of the venue and hit the road.
We made another brief stop at Auntie’s for more Pepper Shrimp and another at a gas station in Sav so Peg could get a turkey (don’t ask). We were back in the yard by 1:00pm on Sunday…just about 24 hours after we’d left.
We started to break camp as the morning grew and it started to get hot – we are also working against time as Nicole had a plane to catch in Montego Bay at 5:00pm but she still needed to gather her belongings back at our yard in Negril. We stayed for most of the Jah Cure’s set then headed off, the long walk back to the van. We were sufficiently tired but not falling down – we all look like we’ve been driven hard and put away wet. The walk back was a little tougher – we are in a more weakened state and it turns out to be somewhat uphill. We gather back at the vans, changed back into warm weather clothing and started off.
We decided to make another quick pass at Auntie’s and since Van B knew the way, they lead. We pleaded with them not to lose us. We headed on up the road a short distance then bam! Flat tire.
“Watch,” Les said, “it’s remarkable how fast a tire can get changed in Jamaica.” Most of the time true – but not in this case. As you may remember, the back door didn’t open and our driver was now struggling to find, then remove the spare from its compartment. We were standing along the side of the road and I was being eaten alive with fire ants. Word made it over to us that the driver needed to go somewhere to buy a new tire, return and put it on the van. This put me over the edge – I now needed to call Van B and tell them they must mush on as they have Nicole and she has a timing issue. I walked across the street to a little bar – the woman behind the bar sweet as can be. I sat down on one of the two stools in the place and called Jason.
“The bumbaclot van had a bumbaclot flat and the bumbaclot driver can’t get at the spare so he has to go into some bumbaclot town to buy another bumbaclot tire –“
“Do you need help?” Jason was laughing, no, howling – he had me on speaker phone and apparently Jerry is equally amused.
“YES!!” Van B turned around to come to our aid.
Our whole van invaded the little bar and slowly but surely so has other Rebel Salute attendees. Van B’s driver goes over to help ours – both our vans and bunches of folks from the show were now in the bar. The sweet woman had put out heaping bowls of Ackee and Callalloo accompanied by plates of hard dough bread – for all to enjoy, at no cost. Apparently this is tradition – this bar does this every year for the weary and hungry Rebel Salute audience on its way back home.
The bar started to rock. They were playing awesome Ska and Mento music – we were dancing and laughing again, knocking back beers at 11:00am on a Sunday. The boys started a game of coin-pitch and soon the Jamaicans were eager to know wha gawan – it is a gambling game after all. The rules were explained and a large group including our boys are now playing up against the wall of the bar. Soon enough the tire was fixed and we left the bar and the Jamaican men playing this new game – new to them – as enthusiastically as they would be playing dominoes. It will be interesting to see them playing this again next year – and what new rules they might have come up with in the passed time.
Before taking off we discussed the stop at Auntie’s – can we do it and still get Nicole back to Negril by 2:00 or 2:30pm? We decided, yes. We descended upon Auntie’s like vultures – none of us felt very comfortable taking part in the free breakfast in the bar even though we were welcome to – and we started ordering. In addition to the Pepper Shrimp Auntie had also prepared a fantastic Fish Soup (not fish tea, more like a bisque) and was also selling gunga peas, fresh ackee, fresh fruit and Bammy.. Les and I split a pound of Pepper Shrimp and we all shared soup and the package of Bammy – that was breakfast.
We crawled back into the van – Jeanie had endured the back of the van far too long so she slid up to the second row of seats between Les and I. She and I fell asleep in a “pile” not waking up until we reached the yard. I drooled on her and felt terrible about that – she was not all that bothered by it.
We dragged ourselves into the gate and had coffee – it was Brenda and Bob’s last night. We took a dip and sat by the pool when Bill rolled home.
“I have all this shrimp I need to cook – and I don’t really know what to do with it.” The conversation turned culinary with ideas flashing back and forth – mostly from Brenda who is a professional chef back home in Northern California. She decides for her last night wanted to cook us all dinner – making great use of the shrimp. Bill opened his kitchen up to us and allowed us to help ourselves to good white wine, fresh parmesan, capers, pesto and the elusive and very expensive olive oil. Brenda prepared a feast – a shrimp pasta that turned out to be one of the best meals I’d eaten that year in Jamaica. We dined al fresco on our back porch and talked the night away – until we could no longer hold our heads up.
We fell fast asleep – long and hard – another Rebel Salute well spent and under our belts.
Now the sun was high and it was hot, hot, hot. We trudged up the hill (what goes down must come up) and made it to the van. We parted company with Ricky, Suzanne and Jessie on the road – we would see them tomorrow in Negril. The van was parked next door to a bar – the bar had a full on bathroom with running water and everything – Peg, Brenda and I bought our bottles of water and took advantage of this luxury – I took a quick sponge bath as I could not stand myself any longer. Even with the sponge bath after 12 hours of dancing barefoot on a field I was covered head to toe in dust and dirt but this is the way of Rebel Salute and I was feeling great in my slovenliness.
The ride back was as uneventful and pleasant as the ride there…a very quick stop for more shrimp for breakfast and before we knew it they are back at the yard.
First order of business – me in the shower. All the dust and dirt ran off me like a stream – I scrubbed my feet within an inch of their life. Then off to Ron and Peg’s porch for coffee and fresh squeezed juice. I could no longer fend off sleep – my eyes my eyes were burning and my body limp….back to the house, I swung the doors open to the bedroom, dropped on the bed and drifted off to the gentle churning of the sea below me…the music never stopped….