17 August 2018
A meeting of Jamaican and American folk traditions opened a well-attended first night of the 25th Rototom Sunsplash. Main Stage headliner Ben Harper seamlessly followed established reggae legends, Julian Marley and Cocoa Tea, as well as teenage sensation Koffee.
Bob Marley’s children all carry traces of their father in their vocals. But British-born Julian’s music has remained the most consistently rootsy through his career. Dressed simply in an untucked red shirt and blue jeans, the lanky Rastafarian sang a mix of his own and his dad’s material (backed by a band featuring the heavy basslines of Stone from Dubtonic Kru). The crowd seemed equally happy singing along to Natural Mystic, Exodus, and One Love as skanking to Julian’s Sharp As A Razor, Boom Draw and new tracks Broken Sails and Coolin’ in Jamaica (from forthcoming album Just As I Am). It was the ideal way to set the mood for this historic event.
The Bob tributes were continued by “the short man from Clarendon”, Cocoa Tea. Opening with Rastaman Chant, he sustained the theme through a series of his own cultural recordings, Feel The Power, Rastaman and Poverty Line. His sound system schooling helped him to turn his Informer into an audience-engaging improvisation for Rototom’s 25th birthday, calling it “the best festival deh bout yah”.
Having paid respects to his predecessor, he then hailed the future. He debuted new single Medical Marijuana. He invited Spanish dancehall artist Inés Pardo to join him for Fire, over the Murder She Wrote riddim, produced by Friday’s headliners Sly and Robbie. Finally, he announced “the next female sensation out of Jamaica” the fittingly named Koffee, who at only 18, solicited a gigantic forward for her extraordinary flow and singing voice on hits Raggamuffin and Burning.
Closing performer Ben Harper’s music spans blues, folk, gospel, rock and soul. And all these elements are reflected in reggae, a form he clearly loves just as much. Switching between acoustic, electric and slide lap guitars at will, his set lent heavily on 1995’s critically acclaimed second album Fight For Your Mind, with a few choices from the rest of his catalogue.
Oppression, Excuse Me Mr and When The People Lead, pairing Leon Mobley’s clattering percussion and Ben’s simple picking, felt incredibly relevant in today’s political climate. Jah Work and My Own Two Hands showed his debt to Jamaica – as did herb tune Burn One Down, with its structural similarity to Redemption Song.
Harper talked of his late father Leonard’s love of reggae and how he wished he could have been in attendance. There were no reggae covers – but after so many from Julian and Cocoa Tea there was no need. Ben’s politically conscious, God fearing music, fusing social awareness and divine judgment, sat perfectly with what came before.
Text from Angus Taylor traduced by María Paz Marcos Silvestre