1991. The meeting of four people gives birth to the Rototom collective. Much water has passed since then. Hundreds of concerts and actions in favour of culture, social commitment, peace protests and a dream made reality: to create the biggest reggae festival in the world, the Rototom Sunplash. An event that grows with pride as year after year it unites a community that recognises itself in the music as well as in a philosophy and that in 2018 celebrated its 25th anniversary.
A story of friendship
Gaio di Spilimbergo, Pordenone province, in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. This small town in Northern Italy between Venice and Udine is the starting point for an adventure called Rototom Sunsplash. On 13 December 1991 the Rototom Cultural Association was born and out of it the nightclub of the same name was created, the place where everything happened. An alternative music scene, an authentic sound lab, and a stop off point for some of the greatest exponents of the world music scene: from punk to rock, reggae, indie and electronic music. A fusion that is explained by the instrument that gave it its name: Rototom, able to create different sounds, just like the atmospheres that were created in this venue. On moving in 1997 to what would be its second headquarters in Zoppola, the Rototom Club fit all of these genres in three different rooms, interconnected to create a “city of music”. One dedicated to rock, pop and rap; a second to reggae and African music where the typical sounds of the Sunsplash were and another dedicated to electronic music. Over the next nine years, it hosted shows by the Ramones (1993), Massive Attack (1998), Bad Religion, NOFX, Suede or Soul Fly; legends like the father of Afro beat Fela Kuti and reggae greats such as Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Inner Circle, U-Roy, Yellowman, Itals, Meditations, Junior Reid, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Misty in Roots, Gladiators, Pablo Moses, Shaggy, Buju Banton among many others.
The Rototom Association was characterized by moving from words to deeds under the repressive context in which the region of Friuli was culturally submerged, where the musical and cultural network had been dismantled to prejudice mainly the young people. The collective counterbalanced this suppression of culture by organizing hundreds of concerts, occupying an abandoned factory (Cerit)to create an exhibition, music, debates and film, by organizing peace rallies, parties in defence LGBT rights and creating the world’s largest reggae festival, the Rototom Sunsplash.
The Rototom Sunsplash festival was born as a self-financed project (formula that it maintains today) in Gaio di Spilimbergo, in the Rototom club in 1994. It does so as the I National Reggae Meeting, endorsed by the name Rototom and the name that accompanies it to today: Sunsplash, which was taken from the world’s biggest reggae event, centered on the island of Jamaica and that stopped being held in 1998.
It lasted a weekend (2 and 3 July 1994), without interruption, with an artisanal and modest line-up made up of 14 names (including Africa Unite, Almamegretta and Buju Banton) and concerts that straddled the stage installed inside the nightclub and another outside in the garden, where there was free camping. The shows were complemented by talks during the day about the reggae scene, given the highly technical profile that gave birth to the meeting. The first edition attracted a thousand people, mostly musicians and producers. Also Radio Rototom was born in 1994 and from that moment on the process begins to set up the structure of self-managed media that has accompanied the festival throughout its career to take and project its music and its atmosphere beyond the music venue itself.
The second year the event totaled 3,000 festival goers in two days and the third and fourth editions (1996 and 1997) the numbers continued to increase: 6,000 and 8,000, respectively, over in the three days. Rototom Sunsplash began to consolidate itself, from a small reggae meeting one of a kind in Italy, as an indispensable event for those who make music their way of life. The event remained the same structure until its change of venue in 1998 to Lignano, driven by the exponential growth of its audience.
The second phase of Rototom Sunsplash has but one name: the camping Girasole. Summer 1998. Unable to absorb the capacity, the festival moves to Latisana Maritima near Lignano, near the tourist resort town of Venice.
Sunsplash already had the structure that it evokes today: here it transforms into a real reggae town with three stages and complementary cultural areas capable of housing thousands of residents: in this new headquarters the 8,000 festivalgoers from the last year in Gaio become 20,000.. The event goes from three to four days and with more scheduled timetable. In Lignano the Rototom Sunsplash becomes a mass phenomenon, a pole of attraction for those beyond that of the music or to simply watch the live show of a certain artist, it married with a philosophy that is intrinsic to reggae: peace, love and respect.
The level that the festival reached is reflected in several anecdotes, like for instance that in its premiere in Lignano, the restaurants’ stocks ran out the first day of the four day event. Or that the beer went from being measured in barrels, like in Gaio, to being measured in tanks. Also as a part of this explosive growth the festival include the first international broadcast of its concerts via streaming (1999 through Arcoiris TV), the launch of Reggae Train, departing from Rome and with stops in Florence, Bologna, Padua and Venice, along with a free 24 hour coach service from Lignano and a nursery for young audiences.
It is also here that the ‘Italian Reggae Award‘ is first organised. The director of the Jamaican Reggae Sunsplash, Mr. Rae Barret, was invited to choose from the best Italian bands at the festival, to become the first group to represent Italy at the festival in Jamaica. Reggae National Ticket took the honours, and that marked the launching of the musical career on the Caribbean island of the singer, Alborosie, whose career is directly linked to the Rototom Sunsplash.
In the summer of 2000 the Rototom Sunsplash changed its surrounds once again and moved its headquarters to Osoppo (Udine). If Lignano represented its ‘professionalization’ and consolidation as a cultural and musical landmark event in Italy, Osoppo is crucial to its growth from national meeting to being a European festival. Its proximity to Austria, Slovenia and Germany expanded the boundaries of the event and balanced the handicap of its geographic isolation in a small town of 3,000 inhabitants.
In the 250,000 square meters of the Rivellino Park in Osoppo the festival assumes the dimensions that have accompanied it to the present. It is reconfigured as a holiday destination to spend four to eight days (and subsequently nine and ten days) with a clear differentiation between the festival with ‘day’ activities -the concerts are more spaced out- and night, with all its musical prominence. The camping area becomes a highlight, in the natural park at the foot of the Alps, which favours moments for meeting and socializing among the thousands of festival goers from around the world -150,000 people on average for ten consecutive editions in Osoppo- and helps forge a sense of belonging to the Rototom family. And to create the atmosphere of pacifism, tolerance and multiculturalism that define the event. The number of stages increase (Showcase, Dub Room) and the line-up to continues to add even more of the greats of the reggae scene, with exclusive events in Europe, and the rising stars of the Jamaican genre.
The extra-musical areas take shape, supported by the extension of the space: the Social Forum, dedicated to conferences and debates with sociologists, politicians, religious representatives and intellectuals; African Village and Living Energy (Pachamama today) with sessions of capoeira, percussion and African dance courses; spaces for meditation and ones with seminars devoted to natural medicine and to Rastafarian philosophy; as well as areas with creative workshops for children. The Reggae University is also gestated, for the exchange of experiences between artists and audience.
Osoppo also represents a change in the organizational structure with more specialized equipment (the Media Office is developed) that include European partners and unquestionable international projection linked to an increase in foreign audiences. The web is translated into seven languages (English, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovenian and German) and bus routes are organized across several countries.
The promotion of reggae culture is reflected in initiatives such as the European Reggae Contest aimed at gathering talent emerging bands (2002-2015).
The self-management system of the Rototom Sunsplash project -based on obtaining income solely through ticket sales and the absence of effective sponsors- proves itself in this phase. In 2003, a decade after its launch, the festival zeroed debt. That same year leaves us a concert to remember, for its hypnotism and intensity, in the history of Rototom: that of Burning Spear.
The golden moment of the Rototom Sunsplash for music, public and projection refers to is darkened by the political and judicial persecution that it begins to suffer from the government in the hands of the right. The fusion and coexistence of cultures that the event promoted clashed with the policy of closing borders that formed a part of the nationalist discourse of Silvio Berlusconi and his Northern League partners. The situation became more complicated following the adoption in 2006 of the Fini-Giovanardi law, declared unconstitutional in 2014 and, which, among other things, proposed up ten years in prison for tolerating the use of drugs such as cannabis inside spaces with leisure and cultural activities. The law criminalized the event –of which it was acquitted in 2015- to the point that it was forced to move from Italy to Spain.
Rototom Sunsplash begins its exodus, and as in all exodus, there is a corresponding promised land. The festival finds it in Spain, in Benicasim (Castellón) to be specific.
On July 12, 2009 the last edition in Osoppo ends and on the 24th of that same month an Italian expedition of five head to Spain. After seven months of searching and tours of Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca and even to Galicia and the Basque Country, in February 2010 an agreement with the city of Benicasim it is reached. The extensive camping area attached to the Benicàssim concerts venue is what shifts the balance. The town in Castellon, that summer hosted the first Spanish Rototom, the 17th in its history, and is where the event continues today.
Benicasim represents the consolidation of the macrostructure formed in Italy, which continues to grow: more stages and extra-musical areas such as Rototom Circus, in a space of 500,000 square meters that doubles the reggae town created in Osoppo.
Its public also grows, with an average of 230,000 people per edition and which has also seen its familiar and child friendly profile grow.
It represents a jump from European to world event. Spain opens the doors for the Rototom Sunsplash to Latin America and it becomes even more international. Proof of this is the celebration from 2011 to 2015 of the Reggae Contest Latino and implementation of festival’s global presentation road shows.
Benicàssim adds to the festival’s lure with beaches, which reinforces its format as a holiday destination during the event’s week of celebrations. Anecdotally, it leaves the weather concerns of the pre-Alpine climate in Osoppo and the habitual wind and torrential rain of the environment in Friuli.
The new and current phase of the festival has maintained the principles and values that guide the actions of the Rototom Sunsplash, as an emblem of defending peace, environment, human rights and sustainable development. The slogan linked to the macro-event, another world is possible, is still alive in Benicàssim as is the community born around reggae and festival.