Dressed in a sky blue suit, Tony Rebel took the stage at Grizzly’s Plantation Cove in the parish of St. Ann on Jamaica’s north coast. “Love you like a fresh vegetable,” he sang on 16th January 2015, the first night of Rebel Salute. “Tell me if you love Tony Rebel.”
Although it’s been almost a quarter century since that song was released, the answer was still clear. Yes, the crowd loved the veteran dancehall entertainer who is also the promoter of the annual show that started 22 years ago as a simple birthday party, but has turned into one of the most successful music festivals in Jamaica.
Over the years Rebel Salute has distinguished itself from other shows by booking only roots reggae and ‘conscious’ dancehall acts, avoiding artists whose music traffics in sex or violence, aka “slackness”. Not that the show has suffered – in fact, quite the opposite. “We’ve had some of the greatest reggae icons you can think of,” Rebel (above) said with pride. “Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Sugar Minott, Jr. Gong, Garnett Silk, Marcia Griffiths, Steel Pulse… You name them, we’ve had them.”
As much as Rebel Salute is about music, the food plays an equally important role. In keeping with his signature song, Tony selects vendors who bring plenty of “fresh vegetables” for an event that represents the spirit of Rastafari. Not only is there no meat aside from fish, there’s also no alcohol or cigarette smoking. However, there was more than enough “brain food” available – you couldn’t miss the ganja men walking around, with fragrant bunches of trees in their hands.
Marijuana was in the air and also on the minds of the artists on stage. Many performers demanded legalisation of Jamaica’s unofficial number-one cash crop for reasons ranging from fiscal to medical to spiritual – not to mention recreational.
Highlights for day one included a great performance by Third World, the legendary reggae/soul fusion band whose lead singer, Bunny Rugs, died last year. Third World paid tribute to Rugs, running through classics like ‘96 Degrees In The Shade’ and ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’.
One of the biggest treats for the crowd was Junior Kelly, who worked the stage with great energy and charisma – despite the fact that he hasn’t appeared on a big show for many years. The crowd thoroughly enjoyed singing along to his breakout hit, ‘If Love So Nice’.
Then it was time for Tarrus Riley (above) to come through and blow everybody away. ‘Singy Singy’ has been considered a top-tier artist for several years now, but his live show keeps getting better. His sparring with saxophone master Dean ‘Cannon’ Fraser is always the icing on the cake. Dean wrapped things up with a sax version of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ that tore the place down.
The first-night energy kept building with Kabaka Pyramid – a young rootsman who’s making a big name for himself. Despite being somewhat of a newbie on the scene, he was in prominent position on the show. Kabaka dressed for the occasion, skipping his usual casual style and taking the stage dressed top to toe in a red military outfit. Opening with his song ‘No Capitalist’ was the perfect way to get the roots crowd going.
But the first night went to the veteran artist Capleton, who did his usual high-energy performance at an even higher speed, running and jumping around the stage with enough power to send anyone into hospital if they didn’t get out of his way. Even after 8am, with the Jamaican sun beating down, the Fire Man kept blazing away as the venue emptied out, just because he felt like carrying on.
On night two, things started coming together around 2am with veteran reggae band Inner Circle performing in Jamaica for the first time in years. The group premiered the video for their latest track, ‘Tenement Yard (News Carryin’ Dread)’ the previous night. Featuring Chronixx the song revisits a classic Jacob Miller track, so you can guess who the band’s special guest was.
Rebel’s partner in life and in music, Queen Ifrica turned up wearing an all-in-one leatherette outfit. Known for her outspoken beliefs, Ifrica did not hesitate to “talk her mind”. She deejayed a song about the latest outrage to affect the embattled community of Tivoli Gardens and demanded an end to government corruption. Ifrica ended her set with a special guest – UK dancehall artist Mr Williamz. The ‘We Run England’ DJ’s swag seems to remind people of the Super Cat and Nicodemus days.
Other highlights included Cocoa Tea, who hadn’t appeared on Rebel Salute for 15 years. The singer playfully teased his host with a version of Bob Marley’s ‘Soul Rebel’ touching on his past differences with the festival’s organiser. “He’s a Rebel, Tony Rebel… but he say Cocoa Tea too miserable.” Nevertheless, Cocoa’s set left the crowd joyful.
Sizzla (pictured main) closed the festival, storming onstage around 8.30am shortly after I Wayne. Performing in the scorching Jamaican sun dressed in a yellow blazer and fitted tie, Kalonji wasted no time addressing some backstage issues. “I’m warning all promoters: when I turn up you better let me in with all my gang. Don’t mess around.”
With almost 70 albums in his catalogue, Sizzla ran through his hits like a lightning bolt. If you went to the loo at the wrong time you ran the risk of missing three of your favourite songs.
Like so many artists on the festival, Sizzla made a point to sing the praises of the Rasta’s wisdom weed. “Smoke the herb and get a humble thought,” he chanted. “Babylon couldn’t stop this one a bumbaclaat.”
After the show he expanded on the question of whether marijuana would ever be legal in Jamaica. “Ganja is free down here man,” he scoffed. “But them wan’ make money offa the ganja. And enough people them prosecute for the ganja. So the Rastaman plan to slap them some judgment”. You have been warned.
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