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‘Reggae Sumfest only gets better’–Ruff Kutt - Band dedicated to festival for over two decades

Published:Tuesday | July 9, 2019 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
Ruff Kutt band leader, Donovan ‘Benji’ Belnavis.
Drummer, Ricardo 'Drummie' Davis.
Ruff Kutt guitarist Paul 'Titus' Green remains focused on the task at hand, during rehearsals at Downsound Records studio recently.
Ruff Kutt keyboardist, Nigel Staff.

Band leader of Ruff Kutt, Donovan ‘Benji’ Belnavis, says that providing the musical support to a huge festival like Reggae Sumfest comes with a lot of weight, but it’s a journey that he and the other band members thoroughly enjoy.

“It’s a matter of meeting specific targets, beginning with the scheduling of rehearsal time, to the preparation for the actual show. It just means time management is essential. It can be tricky at times to get everyone in one location for a particular time, and artistes coming from different parishes is also a huge variable,” Belnavis said.

He added, “We don’t really balance, but try our best to, between all the drama that comes with entertainment and managing of hours. This is what we do 24/7, three hundred sixty-five days of the year! It is our nine to five , and then some.”

For 30 years, the Ruff Kutt Band has been a key musical support to the reggae and dancehall community, starting with Shabba Ranks and then later, branching out to work with some of the biggest performing acts of Jamaica’s music industry. Within the three decades, at least 25 years have been spent backing a host of recording artistes on the Reggae Sumfest stages.

“If I recall, some years ago, we were awarded for our service in excess of 10 years, and we have been serving as a backing band for the various artistes since the festival’s inception,” he said.

Along with Belnavis, the band, which currently comprises guitarist Paul ‘Titus’ Green, Nigel Staff on keyboards, and drummer Ricardo Davis, has watched the festival evolve into the premiere summer reggae event for locals and tourists alike. The veteran musicians have consistently added their unique flavours to the genres, and as a collective, have coached various entertainers into developing their sounds on stage. The journey of a musician is never an easy one, they say, but it’s always worth the drive even though most drives to Reggae Sumfest, drummer Nigel Staff jokes, “catch us sleeping to sort of save on energy for the several hours of activities”.

Artistes who never go away

Reggae and dancehall have seen an evolution of artistes’ styles and sounds and continue to see new interpretations of the genres surfacing.

“There are differences in the music, in the phases of dancehall and reggae, not to mention the new crop versus hot crop,versus the crop of artistes who never go away – the icons, so to speak.

The festival has never been short of talent,” explains Staff, who also assumes the role of musical director in Ruff Kutt.

He says that with the new crop of entertainers such as the 6ix, Jahvillani, and Squash, there will be a lot of tricks and little nuances they have yet to learn, but as a backing band, Ruff Kutt is instrumental in teaching these upcoming acts.

“There are a lot of things they don’t necessarily know. Truth be told, many of them are just getting used to working with bands. We have done it before, and continue to do it, so it’s just another chapter in the maturation of the band,” he said.

“It has been challenging and pleasing to watch, and I am sure I speak for the band when I say we are happy to be part of it for 30 years because we know they will learn, and the performances will improve.”

The band members agreed that the quality of performances, as well as the production, has continued to soar. The band’s guitarist says he is already looking forward to the 2020 staging of Reggae Sumfest.

“Every year, it is an entirely new experience because something new is added, and we never had a year that stood out more than another. It is good to know, after so long in this economic and social climate, that the festival is still strong, unwavering,” Green said.

Davis shared similar sentiments as he noted: “As usual, we are looking out for the new acts, what they will bring to the table, and we know what to expect from the seasoned entertainers like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, but we expect all great performances. Based on rehearsals, I am seeing some signs that it will be two wonderful festival nights.”

Reggae Sumfest takes place July 14-20, in Montego Bay, St James.