The curtain fell on the 22nd edition of France’s Reggae Sun Ska festival on Aug. 4, with a tight set led by Ziggy Marley who delighted the indefatigable audience. Some 27,500 fans attended this year’s festival on the Domaine de Nodris, in Vertheuil, about 70 kilometres from Bordeaux.
Prior to the closing act, the festival throbbed to the sounds of an array of musicians from around the world. In addition to Jamaican artists such as headliners Buju, Ziggy, the Skatalites, U Brown, Don Carlos and Mad Professor, the lineup included other influential global artists including Dub Inc. of France, Tiken Jah Fakoly and Alpha Blondy from Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Calypso Rose from Trinidad and Flavia Coelho of Brazil.
Buju Banton in performance at Reggae
Sun Ska. (Photo: S. Durand)
Buju Banton’s set began with an aura brought on in equal parts by pregnant impatience and the mystic vibes of the set up and introduction. The controversial man himself came onstage to “Destiny” and was as much in a trance as his hyped-up, amped-up audience.
Then came “Not an easy road" - and clearly the poignant lyrics echo Buju’s coming in from the cold after 8 years, 6 months, 27 days, 13 hours, 5 minutes and 26 seconds of incarceration in the United States. His set ended with a medley of old dancehall crowd pleasers, and the crowd went wild. He preached, he taught, he counselled and entertained. By the end of his set he was dripping wet, as was the mesmerized audience.
For Alpha Blondy, in comparison, the music was about political engagement. During his post-performance interview session, in response to a question on the migrant “crisis”, the singer quoted from the book “Le Ventre de l’Atlantique” (The Belly of the Atlantic) by Senegalese writer Fatou Diome, where she noted that if 10 French nationals had drowned in the Mediterranean, then the European Union would have emptied the sea. Blondy highlighted the double standards inherent in this reality while admitting that the incompetence and dishonesty of many African leaders have led to the current state of affairs.
Musically, selections from his latest album “Human Race” were well received. His “Whole Lotta Love”, Led Zeppelin-cover, harks back to his roots-rock-reggae desire to “spread” the music and move it from “coconut trees to the Rocky Mountains.” Blondy has a particularly positive outlook on emerging styles and artistic adventures. He said he believes that Afrobeat truly reflects the desire to infuse the music with new life and energy while attracting hitherto unreached audiences.
His compatriot Tiken Jah Fakoly took the stage by storm on the opening night of Reggae Sun Ska, as the penultimate act before the much anticipated Buju Banton. Fakoly’s latest album, “Le Monde est Chaude”, was released May 17. The title track - which features French rapper Soprano - grabs listeners immediately and forces one to sing along while reflecting on the excesses of modern life and the havoc wreaked on the ecosystem.
Reggae Sun Ska showcased global artists, attracting
thousands of fans. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)
Fakoly - who uses his art to raise awareness - has started an initiative entitled “one concert, one school”. The objective is to fund the creation of a school from the proceeds of each of his concerts. During his press conference at the festival, he revealed that he had visited Jamaica several times and believes in the potential of building reggae culture in Cote D’Ivoire.
He has also shone light on the incompetence and egregious misuse of power of many leaders who have in turn proclaimed him persona non grata. He has also provoked the ire of his compatriot Alpha Blondy, who prefers a less bombastic mode of protest.
Reggae Sun Ska founder and director Fred Lachaize describes the artist as an ambassador for the festival, for the music and for the culture. Lachaize said he was in awe of the message and the mindset portrayed by Fakoly and was proud to provide a platform for the Ivorian artist.
Onstage, outraged and engaged at Reggae Sun Ska, Fakoly’s set started off energetically. “Mama Africa”, the second song he performed, is infused with spiritual texts invoking Jah’s blessing and guidance on the path to economic and social freedom on the African continent. Like Alpha Blondy, Fakoly is also enthusiastic about Afrobeat, a form of music that contributes to wider information about a continent whose history many believe started with slavery and colonization.
Performer Calypso Rose at Reggae Sun Ska: age is just
a number. (Photo courtesy of the festival.)
On the opening night as well, Trinidad’s Calypso Rose began her set with a hilarious number entitled “Leave me alone… I ain’t going home”, where she claimed her rightful place in the line-up in spite of her age (75). Similar to the festival itself, Calypso Rose’s range was eclectic. She went from celebrating her African ancestry to pining for a “young boy.” This song amuses, raises eyebrows even, but is in keeping with her fight for female empowerment even within the fraught areas of sexuality.
Beyond the music, and always present in the background, is the fact that the Bordeaux region has maintained a love-hate relationship with the festival. The story of Reggae Sun Ska reads like a novel with the villains often identified as the festival-goers themselves - stigmatized as zoned-out marijuana smokers camping out in bourgeois territory and giving the Médoc wine region a bad rap. Lachaize, a native of the region, refutes the label categorizing the festival as “marginal”. Sun Ska, according to its founder, is based on a special mindset.
Inspired by Reggae Sunsplash – the popular festival in Jamaica - Lachaize succeeded in marrying his love of the island and its music with his desire to promote and culturally enrich the Médoc area. Reggae Sun Ska has grown into the biggest reggae festival in France, and its objectives include pedagogical concerns such as matters linked to ecology and peaceful sharing of the planet and its resources.
|A look back at the eclectic line-up.|
As Lachaize maintains, the festival is “a family, a way of life, a philosophy” that has nothing to do with utopia. For him Reggae Sun Ska is a vibrant socio-economic model that includes its reliance on a contingent of dynamic, dedicated local volunteers, mostly from the Gironde region. This message and its model are particularly welcomed at a time when the far right Rassemblement National has made huge inroads in the region.
However, the lack of coherent, sustained support for Reggae Sun Ska has meant that the festival has had to relocate several times. Now after 22 years, the team has come of age and has perhaps finally found a home at its current location in Nordis. In fact, the lack of a permanent site has weakened the festival - one year they lost 50% of their audience - and the organizers are seeking reassurance, partners and investments.
In July, the festival lost its president Jean Guillaume Bouyssy, who died at age 67 in a car accident. According to Lachaize, this tragedy sent an electroshock through the team as they lost their “guardian angel”. (The new president is Stephanie Rolland, who has been involved with the festival for some time.)
Despite its ups and downs, the thousands of fans who remain loyal to the festival show that Reggae Sun Ska is greatly appreciated, with its message of inclusion and its showcasing of reggae talent from the world over. - SWAN