Reggae Sunsplash @ 40

By: Richard Johnson

Sunday, May 20, 2018

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During the summer of 1978, four Jamaicans with a love for reggae staged a historic event which changed the way their country's music was presented.

They were known as Synergy; the principals were Ronnie Burke, John Wakeling, Don Greene and Tony Johnson, and the event was Reggae Sunsplash.

Burke recalled that the event came out of their discussions to promote reggae in a professional fashion to Jamaicans. Due to the international success of Bob Marley, the sound was in heavy demand overseas, yet at home Jamaicans did have an appreciation of its potency because of cultural and class prejudice.

At the same time the Jamaica Tourist Board, was trying to diversify it's product and move Jamaica away from being just a winter destination,. Administrators wanted to keep hotels open and occupancy up during the summer.

"Tony (Johnson) had just moved back to Jamaica after living in the United States and kept saying that we were wasting this serious asset that we had. He had witnessed the power of the music and always noted that there was nowhere in Jamaica to catch a live reggae show on a Friday night, compared to the myriad of choices he had in the US,” Burke told the Jamaica Observer recently.

"At the same time (public relations consultant) Berl Francis told us of the efforts to keep hotels open during the summer. The big question was, 'What was the attraction'? A music festival was suggested to kickstart the promotion to fill the hotel rooms. However, some of the best known event promoters turned it down when the found out they had to fund the project,” he continued.

The idea was pitched to Burke and Johnson who brought in Wakeling and Greene. They put together the festival programme — an eight-day event which, in hindsight, Burke described as being overly ambitious.

"The festival had four outdoor concerts, two beach parties, a jazz night and a family night. For the jazz show we had Monty Alexander, while Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires was booked for the family event. At the time, disco music was hot so we also included a nightly disco after-party as we foolishly thought the concerts would end by midnight and patrons would leave and go to these parties.”

The real challenge would be funding.

Burke recalled potential sponsors including the JTB were fiercely resistant to the show as they felt it would not work. Each member of Synergy was charged to raise J$2000, but not even that they could deliver. They managed to pull together J$9,000 after film producer Maxine Walters joined the consortium.

The task was to sell the project to the powers that be in Montego Bay — Jamaica's tourism capital.

"We convened a massive meeting with all concerned and they responded with an 18-point plan of how the profits would be disbursed including creating a park and repairing schools, but nothing for us... so we were not having it," Burke recalled. "What we had on our side was the backing of the artistes with whom I had a great working relationship, so we decided to go ahead.”

The inaugural Reggae Sunsplash was held June 23-30 at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay and headlined by Jimmy Cliff. It also featured John Holt, Inner Circle with Jacob Miller and The Heptones. Burke explained that Bunny Wailer declined to be on the show, while Marley's manager Don Taylor refused to book his artiste.

"We had worked with Bob (Marley) on the One Love Peace Concert (in February) and noticed how he was able to bring in all the equipment he needed from overseas and we didn't have that at our disposal. We did as much as we could with Jarrett Park.

The venue had a total of six toilets and six-foot-high perimeter walls. We had to borrow a stage from the JDF (Jamaica Defence Force) and JCDC (Jamaica Cultural Development Commission); we had no outdoor PA system, but local company Audiophon was willing to take up the challenge; and we had no stage lights, but we were able to borrow lights from the Ward Theatre,” Burke said.

While they made headway on the production side of things, an even greater challenge was to come. "The first blow came when the tourist board told us that the 2000 visitors they had projected to come in would be reduced by half.

At this time we had done all our budgeting based on this figure. We were already in overdraft at the bank; they called later to reduce the figure to 500. We went through nevertheless and at the end of the festival we were wiped out financially.”

Reggae Sunsplash returned the following year with Marley as the headliner and this turned around the fledgling festival's financial fortunes. It continued with mixed results for another 20 years before Synergy called it a day in the 1990s.

Johnson died of a heart attack in 1997.

Wakeling succumbed to cancer one year later, while Greene lives in New York.

"Over the years there have been incredible highs. We took the event overseas to the UK, Europe, Japan, Mexico and kept the music's flag flying after Bob died," said Burke, who received the Order of Distinction from the Jamaica government in 2015.

"There were great performances by acts such as Third World, Shinehead, South Africa's Lucky Dube, Steel Pulse and Papa San. We saw huge crowds numbering as much as 24,000 for Dancehall Night.

But the biggest lesson was what we can do to showcase our music, even when we have no money but the will."

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