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Sumfest bosses tell all - Defends inclusion of non-reggae genres - Speaks about struggles along the way

Published:Thursday | February 21, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Nathan Robb
Johnny Gourzong

 Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

As the Reggae Sumfest festival looks towards its 21st anniversary event in Montego Bay, St James, from July 21-27, on Saturday afternoon, organisers Summerfest Productions detailed their struggles at the start and vision for the future.

Nathan Robb and Johnny Gourzong did the talking as a tag team, with Hugh Thompson, Joe Hylton and Tina Davis from the festival's team participating in the 2013 International Reggae Conference panel at the Assembly Hall, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus.

Robb tackled criticisms of the festival for including overseas performers who do not do reggae - such as Chris Brown and Usher - head-on.

"We have been taken to task for having overseas artistes, but the motto is 'promoting music, the universal force'," Robb said.

So, Gourzong said, "from day one we took the decision our festival would not be exclusive to one genre".

Therefore, Ben E. King and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes were on the first Sumfest stage in 1993, The Mighty Sparrow, the Temptations and Billy Paul making the show the following year.

In 1995, in signing Diana King, they were offered Brownstone as well and took up the offer. That year the festival's financial bleeding stopped, but in 1996 Sumfest went back to vintage acts and lost money.

Tough decisions

Gourzong said at the end of 1997 they "had to take tough decisions". Part of that was deciding to reposition the festival, so it was committed to "presenting the best reggae acts across the globe and the top-charting hip-hop and R&B acts".

This new course was started in 1998 with Boyz II Men (their Saturday night rated one of the biggest in Sumfest's history) and K-Ci and JoJo and has been maintained to this day, "notwithstanding it is a reggae festival".

Gourzong used subsequent musical trends to justify the decision, saying "now I can look around and say the genres are fusing into each other".

Robb dubbed the Summerfest crew the 'Crazy Baldheads' - baldheads as none were Rastafarian and crazy because of the risk they took. If they had, looking at the costs and risks involved, "we would have probably kept our money in our pockets".

"Had we known what we were doing we would not have gone into it," Robb said, although they knew "from day one we saw taking reggae to a higher level". It was a lofty ambition for an outfit with some members who knew absolutely nothing about the business of music - including one person who referred to Beenie Man as Little Man and another who stripped an armband off David Hinds of Steel Pulse.

"We were all independent businessmen and Sumfest was not what we relied on to make a living. We took what we earned from other sources and put it into Sumfest," Robb said.

However, they did not factor in their status as outsiders and, Robb said, "we did not realise the pressure we would be put under - not just by our bankers, but by the institution that is called the reggae industry".

"Because we dared to put on a festival without the blessing of the reggae industry we were vilified in ways you would not understand," Robb told the audience. There was more than a hint of triumph when he said with all the naysayers and opposers, "we are the last man standing".

Legal issues

Among the pressure Sumfest came under, Robb said, was legal action to prevent it from being staged in 1994, as it was being held at a venue named the Bob Marley Entertainment Centre.

"All we did was rent it," Robb said, pointing out that all the posters had the venue's name on it. Plus, he said , "if it had cost $10 for an advertisement, the crazy baldheads from Montego Bay had to pay $25".

At one point there was an armoured truck outside the cashier's booth, waiting to collect the cash as it rolled in - and it was not for Summerfest.

The directors took their passion far, as Robb said, "several of us actually put up our houses. How do you tell your wife you have mortgaged your house for Reggae Sumfest?" There was laughter all around the room.

Addressing sponsorship, Gourzong said in the beginning it was very difficult, but despite the support being minimal "we were committed to staging an excellent festival. With the quality we gained recognition and an increase in sponsorship year after year. Among the early sponsors were Desnoes and Geddes, J Wray and Nephew, Air Jamaica and the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), with Red Stripe the title sponsor from 2007 - 2008.

"It cannot be held without sponsorship. We cannot charge a ticket price commensurate with the cost of production. To keep it at that level, to allow Jamaicans to come, sponsorship has to play an integral part," Gourzong said.

Code of Conduct

Stating that "from day one, no one could fault the Sumfest product; it was excellent", Robb positioned the Code of Conduct for performers, instituted after a bottle-throwing incident in 2001, as preceding subsequent regulation by sponsors. And Gourzong presided over an audio-visual presentation of outstanding Sumfest moment, including Tiger and Lady Saw in 1993, Shabba Ranks in 1994 and 2012, Steel Pulse and Ini Kamoze in 1995, a fiery year with Capleton and Elephant Man teaching Chris Brown and Usher dance moves last year.

Looking to the future, Robb said Summerfest Productions would maintain its relationship with UWI, the Western campus in particular.

"Sumfest has recognised that reggae is an art from that requires serious study," he said. To this end Sumfest will be offering internships to UWI students.

There is also the possibility of public share offerings, knowing that as individuals the directors will not always be around but reggae will be.

And Robb was not shy about saying how he sees the festival. "Reggae Sumfest owns the block as far as live events in Jamaica are concerned," he said.

"We dared to challenge and put forward to the institutions, a position of independence and a demand for respect and respectability.

"Reggae does not belong to any particular group in Jamaica. It is not an old boys club."