Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash, the groundbreaking music festival that established the blueprint for reggae festivals around the world, will return in November 2020, following a 14-year absence. The revived Reggae Sunsplash will be held at Grizzly’s Plantation Cove, Priory, St. Ann, a spacious outdoor venue located near Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast.
Founded by Synergy Productions, the inaugural Reggae Sunsplash took place June 23-28, 1978 in the island’s resort capital of Montego Bay and featured six nights of dusk-til-dawn concerts showcasing several of Jamaica’s finest reggae acts, including Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Jacob Miller and Inner Circle, Third World and Toots and the Maytals. Sunsplash was held each summer between 1978 and 1992 in Montego Bay — except for 1980, when it was held in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston — utilizing football field Jarrett Park and the Bob Marley Entertainment Center as its venues. The festival moved around the island between 1993 and 1996, with one-offs in 1998 and 2006.
But now, the festival is returning under new ownership. Guardsman Group Ltd., one of Jamaica’s largest security companies, purchased the event and licensed the rights to Kingston-based holding company eMedia Interactive Group Ltd., in which Guardsman owns a 35% interest. Reggae Sunsplash will be produced through eMedia subsidiary Vertical Creative Ltd.
“Reggae Sunsplash is the father of all [reggae] festivals,” says Tyrone Wilson, founder/CEO of eMedia and executive producer of the revived event. “It has represented reggae music in its most authentic form, has launched so many Jamaican artists’ careers, allowing them to perform for diverse audiences, and it’s coming back to reclaim that space.”
Wilson, along with festival managers Debbie Bissoon and Randy Mattis, did not confirm a lineup nor event sponsors, but outlined a schedule for the festival: night one will feature acts that came to prominence before 2000; night two will present artists that emerged after 2000; the finale will be a party at Puerto Seco Beach, Discovery Bay, about 25 minutes from the festival grounds, featuring various reggae selectors and sound systems. Robert “Chuckles” Stewart, who worked on the original Sunsplash and has produced tours for Sean Paul and Buju Banton’s triumphant return to the stage following his release from prison this March, will produce the revived festival. Jerome Hamilton, co-founder of Kingston’s Headline Entertainment, is booking acts.
The original Reggae Sunsplash boasted appearances by every major reggae artist who was active during the years of its existence, including rocksteady godfather Alton Ellis; reggae’s cool ruler Gregory Isaacs; Joseph Hill, lead vocalist/founder of roots harmony group Culture; influential dancehall singers Tenor Saw and Sugar Minott; South Africa’s Lucky Dube; beloved singer Garnet Silk, who died four months after his only Sunsplash appearance in 1994; and legendary vocalist Dennis Brown, whose much-anticipated closing performances in the morning hours were a Sunsplash staple. Reggae icons Bob Marley and Peter Tosh appeared at Sunsplash in 1979 and 1980, respectively. Footage of these and other historic performances will be curated within a digital Reggae Sunsplash Museum and incorporated into the festival’s 2020 return.
“Just like the Grammy Awards ceremony pays tribute to artists who’ve passed away, we will honor the departed artists that performed at Sunsplash,” Mattis says. “We want the revitalized festival to have that authenticity.”
Reggae Sunsplash was founded in 1978 by five Kingston-based colleagues who called themselves Synergy Productions: director of sales Ronnie Burke; director of operations Don Green; managing director Tony Johnson; production and promotions director John Wakeling; and publicist Maxine Walters, who left Synergy shortly before Sunsplash’s first iteration.
That year, Green and Johnson heard about the Jamaica Tourist Board’s (JTB) plans for a Singles Week event, which targeted American college students, hoping they would want to visit Jamaica and see the island’s attractions. Green and Johnson thought a reggae festival would provide the ideal nighttime entertainment; the duo recruited Burke and Wakeling, who had greater familiarity with the local reggae scene, to help make it happen.
The JTB was not impressed. “They laughingly asked us, ‘Do you seriously think tourists would pay to come to a reggae event?’” Green recalls. “They didn’t want reggae, Rastas and ganja to represent Jamaica. But when we showed them a recent issue of Melody Maker magazine with Bob Marley on the cover, their laughter stopped.”
“Reggae was just 10 years old in 1978 and exploding internationally, but in it’s birthplace, the music’s ambassadors were unwelcome among so-called ‘decent people,’” says Kingston-based Andrea Davis, founder of International Reggae Day (IRD), observed annually on July 1. “Despite the very real fight they got, Synergy’s Reggae Sunsplash brand produced 19 festivals, 14 albums, 12 concert videos and several international tours that took reggae around the world.”
Green says at least 70% of the audience at the inaugural Sunsplash didn’t pay for their tickets; some scaled walls and others broke down fences to gain free entry, which resulted in a devastating financial loss. Uncertain if they could afford to stage the 1979 festival, Synergy’s fortunes quickly turned around when Marley agreed to join that year’s lineup, which would turn out to be his final performance in Jamaica. “When Bob Marley was advertised, we sold so many tickets, every hotel room in Montego Bay was booked out, also in Negril and Falmouth and beyond,” Burke recalls. “People even slept in the Miami airport trying to get flights into Jamaica.”
Following Marley’s death on May 11, 1981, the Jamaican government asked Synergy to stage that year’s Sunsplash as a Bob Marley tribute. Green says that was the only year the festival received government sponsorship.
In December 1992, the Synergy directors were informed by the Jamaican government that the Bob Marley Center, where Sunsplash had been held since 1987, was unavailable: the land had been sold and work would soon begin on a housing development at the site. Synergy was offered another outdoor space in Montego Bay called Catherine Hall, which Green described as “a swamp.” The festival relocated to Portmore, a Kingston suburb, in 1993, which due to its lack of tourism infrastructure was labeled “the beginning of the end” by Burke and Green. Meanwhile, a consortium of Montego Bay based investors called Summerfest Productions adopted the festival’s template and created their own event, Reggae Sumfest, held at Catherine Hall just days after Reggae Sunsplash in Portmore.
“We put everything we had into Reggae Sunsplash, including our personal assets, and we were shocked that the government chose a housing development over an annual festival that filled hotel rooms in Montego Bay and beyond,” Burke says. “We stood up for Jamaican culture, but the production costs were beyond what any Jamaican could afford, and nobody offered to help us keep the event alive.”
Now, Sunsplash’s return represents the reinstatement of a legacy that provided an elevated platform for reggae in Jamaica and around the world, and became a catalyst for a fundamental societal shift.
The rebooted Sunsplash is now the third major reggae festival that will be held in Jamaica next year, joining Rebel Salute (Jan. 17 and 18, 2020), also held at Grizzly’s Plantation Cove, and Reggae Sumfest. “The truth is, Jamaica doesn’t have enough festivals for artists to earn from,” notes Wilson. “The appetite for reggae is at an all-time high now, so it’s a great time for Reggae Sunsplash’s return.”