Sat | Jul 20, 2019

Sunsplash book's beauty in detail

Published:Sunday | July 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer


Java Immanuel-I states his intention clearly at the very outset of Reggae Sunsplash 1978-1998.

In the preface, he writes: "The most exciting, pulsating and outstanding reggae festival to have ever occurred on planet Earth was Reggae Sunsplash, produced by Synergy Limited, a Jamaican company founded by four talented individuals. They were Tony Johnson, managing director of Synergy; Ronnie Burke, a former million-dollar insurance salesman; Don Green, a former IBM salesman; and John Wakeling, a broadcaster educated in England ... The cadre of artistes and musicians which appeared on the festival made Reggae Sunsplash a phenomenon. Hence, the phenomenal history of this festival must be documented and made available for both present and future generations."

And that is exactly what he sets out to do, year by year, accompanied by his own predominantly colour photographs of mostly acceptable quality.

First-hand perspective

Immanuel-I does not go for flair in writing his narrative, much of it from a first-hand perspective and also with extensive research (he pays respects to the National Library of Jamaica, where he did most of his research). He simply states the facts in a well-organised book, beginning with a 'Splashback on Sunsplash' synopsis of each year, then a more detailed year-by-year review, and lastly, a number of tables which show admission fees, as well as appearances by individual sound systems, musicians and performers by gender (the guests from outside Jamaica are listed separately - Gill Scott-Heron did perform in 1983), making for a comprehensive, easily read and digested publication.

Going a step further, the groups of participants are analysed, with The Mighty Diamonds, for example, top of the groups with 14 showings.

Added to that, though, are a few key interviews and the text of Peter Tosh's speech at the 1980 edition of the festival (many would be more familiar with his between song address at the One Love Peace Concert, released on CD by JAD Records). So speaking about the start of the festival Burke says, "We talked our way into doing Sunsplash. We really went into it with the understanding that the Tourist Board was bringing a couple thousand people down. We would have the benefit of a prepaid situation. So we budgeted on that and, of course, that didn't happen."

The 'Yes indeed!' - and now 'Bless indeed!' - man, Tommy Cowan, as much a face of Sunsplash as any performer in his MC role, looks back at the famous daylight hours of the concert (which did not get its name because the sun was expected to rise on the event). Cowan says, "Yes, in my opinion, the shows had too many artistes. I think it was just trying to accommodate too many people. There is no way a show should be going into 9, 10 in the morning; you have a handful of people who were drained."

Barry G

Barry G explains his absence from the 1984 and 1985 editions, saying that he removed himself from Dancehall Night ("... my night was the biggest crowd. But it wasn't necessarily the biggest in terms of breadth of music".) and "neat re-entry" on Singers Night.

Then there are the pictures, Gregory Isaacs with hand akimbo in 1984, Cat Coore with a red, green and gold bowtie playing the cello in 1987, Shaggy in 1995, Dean Fraser in full red, watching Isaacs in 1986, Roy Shirley taking a draw backstage in 1982 (without the headboard), and a little twist on Buju Banton in 1993.

The foreword is written by Mutabaruka, the dub poet with the most Sunsplash appearances (12), who concludes "Java, with his camera and pen, has truly captured one of, if not, the greatest event in Jamaica's musical history, Reggae Sunsplash."

And Immanuel-I has, from "the start of something big" in 1978, where one person says he and most of his friends got in free as "the fences were frail that we climbed over or crawled underneath". Eventually, the fence fell apart and "everyone simply walked through". Then, 18 renewals later (there was none in 1997, and Immanuel-I writes "... the struggle to keep Sunsplash alive started even before the new owners took over the festival in 1995"), Sunsplash "had lost the strong loyal fan base it once had. Sunsplash '98 was a dismal failure. Consequently, Sunsplash '98 was the end of the world's greatest reggae festival."