With Jamaican Festival Bright Side, California Band Rebelution Aims To Bridge the Reggae Culture Gap

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Sam Medina
Eric Rachmany of Rebelution performing at Bright Side Festival.

“We’ve been wanting to do our own festival for years and there’s no better place to do it than in Jamaica," Eric Rachmany, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist of the California band Rebelution, told the audience at the group’s inaugural Bright Side Festival. "We started out as a reggae cover band and some of our biggest influences were from Jamaica. It is an honor to be here and we look forward to hanging out with you.”

Held Jan. 4-8 at the Jewel Paradise Cove, Runaway Bay, tickets for the festival, beginning at $1,500 apiece, had sold out within a day, almost a year in advance. Presented by U.S.-based Island Gigs, which specializes in hotel takeover events, the concert tickets were part of a package that included a four-night stay at the venue, Jewel Paradise Cove, a luxurious, 230-room seaside resort; unlimited food, snacks and drinks, including top-shelf liquor; water sports; round trip airport transfers; and all gratuities. Also included were three different shows each by Rebelution and the festival’s supporting acts: Hawaiian reggae band The Green, Jamaican group Raging Fyah and California’s DJ Mackle, plus an acoustic set by Rachmany.  

That Rebelution and The Green’s debut performances in Jamaica took place in front of their loyal fan base -- an American audience that flew in specifically for The Bright Side Festival -- underscores the curious relationship between American reggae and its island progenitor. Stateside, there’s little overlap between the audiences supporting American bands and those following touring Jamaican acts. While American artists dominate Billboard’s Reggae Albums chart, their music receives scant airplay on Jamaican radio stations. To date, no American reggae band has performed at either of the island’s two major reggae festivals, Rebel Salute and Reggae Sumfest. (The only exceptions: Matisyahu and popular D.C./Virginia-based band SOJA performed at the now-defunct Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival in 2009 and 2015, respectively; Harrison Stafford of California band Groundation delivered an abbreviated acoustic set at Rebel Salute in 2017.)

“Many of today’s American reggae bands pay no attention to developing their brand awareness in Jamaica so they have little traction here without airplay or marketing, and there’s isn’t any measurable benefit for Jamaican promoters in booking them,” says Jamaican music industry veteran Andrea Davis, founder of International Reggae Day, which celebrates its 26th anniversary on July 1. “Artists who have spent time promoting their music in Jamaica have received much love here, from the late South African Lucky Dube to Germany’s Gentleman. If overseas Reggae artists want to play in Jamaica, they’ll have to make the effort to build a fan base here like they do elsewhere.”

Rebelution was formed as a reggae cover band in 2004 by Rachmany, keyboardist Rory Carey, bassist Marley D. Williams and drummer Wesley Finley when all were students at Santa Barbara City College. (A fifth member, singer/guitarist Matt Valasquez, left the band shortly after the release of their first album, Courage To Grow.) Now a seven-member outfit, Rebelution’s lineup also includes guitarist Kyle Ahern, saxophonist Eric Hirschhorn and trumpet player Zach Meyerowitz. The group has been crowned Billboard’s reggae artist of the year in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and picked up a best reggae album Grammy nomination in 2017 for Falling Into Place. Their latest studio album, Free Rein, which marked the band’s fifth entry on the Billboard 200 and seventh no. 1 on the Reggae Albums chart, was 2018’s second-best-selling reggae album. Rebelution releases music on their 87 Music label in conjunction with New York City-based Easy Star Records. (The Bright Side Festival takes its name from Rebelution’s 2009 album The Bright Side of Life.)

The two main acts at Bright Side, Rebelution and The Green, hail from the epicenters of American reggae -- that is, reggae played by Americans who are not of Jamaican ancestry, also referred to as white-reggae, reggae-rock or surf-reggae, among various hyphenations. They’ve each built scorching stage shows and loyal audiences by tirelessly gigging across the U.S.: Rebelution played 77 shows in 2018, The Green, 75. Both bands cite the drum-and-bass-drenched rhythms of Jamaican roots reggae from the 1970s-1990s as their primary inspirations, which they have tightly meshed with other influences into compelling modern sonic brands. It’s music reflective of their identities, experiences and voices, devoid of references to the struggles within Kingston shantytowns, Jamaica’s political gang wars and Rastafari’s empowering African-derived teachings, all of which shaped roots reggae’s unique lyrical foundation. “I always feel a little uncomfortable when our fans say, 'You got us into reggae,' because I’m not sure if they’ve heard the music that got us into reggae,” says Rachmany.

Dean Raise of C3 Management, who manages Rebelution and co-manages The Green with Kimo Kennedy, told Billboard that Rebelution was inspired to create a festival after they went on 311’s Caribbean Festival Cruise, put on by the rock/reggae/hip-hop band as a gathering for their large, devoted fan base.

“We wanted to curate an environment specifically for Rebelution’s audience," Raise explains. "Jamaica was an obvious choice, but we didn’t want Bright Side to be seen as, 'An American band comes to Jamaica and doesn’t pay respect to the island.' Without Jamaica and Jamaican musicians, there would be no Rebelution."

Raise says fans of American reggae typically aren’t conversant in the music’s Jamaican origins, so Rebelution strives to educate their audiences about the genre that shaped them. “Many Rebelution fans don’t know Jimmy CliffToots and the Maytals and others, but they’re discovering Jamaican legends because the band covers their songs," he says, citing specifically the song “Johnny Big Mouth” by Don Carlos, founding member of celebrated Jamaican vocal trio Black Uhuru, who often performs with California ska/punk/reggae outfit Slightly Stoopid. "Eric is in a reggae band because he went to a Don Carlos show years ago and his mind was blown. So Bright Side could have been held anywhere, but we wanted it to be in reggae’s birthplace.” A portion of Bright Side ticket sales ($7,000) and an assortment of school supplies that Rebelution fans were asked to bring to Jamaica, were donated to Rockhouse Foundation, a non-profit organization that has invested more than $4 million in improving schools in the island’s western parishes.

“I really love the idea of a destination event with non-Jamaican bands coming to Jamaica to play reggae," says Delroy “Pele” Hamilton, bassist and founding member of Raging Fyah, 2017 Grammy nominees and the only Jamaican group on the Bright Side bill. Opening for several American bands while touring the U.S., including Rebelution in 2018, Pele notes, "Some American bands truly love Jamaica’s music and culture, so them coming here, it’s like a payback to reggae’s Mecca that they are celebrating with their fans.”

Zion Thompson, guitarist/vocalist of The Green, suggests there is a parallel between Jamaicans’ perception of American reggae and Hawaiians’ sentiments towards hearing their native music played by persons outside of their culture. “When [California’s] Hula Halau dance troupe comes to Hawaii to perform hula, and other musicians come to play Hawaiian music, we in Hawaii aren’t judging, we appreciate that they are sharing Hawaiian culture and keeping it going,” Thompson tells Billboard. “I hope that’s what Jamaicans think about us playing reggae. But at the same time, I can’t worry about that. We just try to be pono [a Hawaiian word meaning correct] in what we do, represent Hawaii and spread aloha.”

However, within reggae’s Mecca there is undeniably some resentment towards the success of American reggae bands. “Because it’s the art form that we created, as Jamaicans, many of us feel that we should be at the forefront of reggae within the American music industry,” says Sean “Contractor” Edwards, of Contractor Music Marketing based in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. “These bands haven’t had mainstream radio hits that we would hear on the radio here, but their success comes from the hard work they have put in, building from the ground up in America. But in Jamaica, we don’t see that growth [the way we would with our local artists] which, I think, furthers the resentment.” Edwards, who attended the final night of the Bright Side Festival where he saw and heard Rebelution for the first time, characterized their music as “warm, friendly, something Jamaicans would like, maybe not hardcore reggae fans, but people who like easy-rock reggae. Their music isn’t revolutionary, but it has a nice feeling, it goes deep inside of you.”

Jamaica-born Wayne Jobson, a.k.a. Native Wayne, helped establish XM Satellite Radio station The Joint, America’s first national reggae station, and broke some of the biggest rock-reggae bands of the early 1990s -- 311, No DoubtSublime -- on Los Angeles’ KROQ 106.7 FM. He calls Rebelution “the baddest reggae band in America” and believes the Bright Side Festival can deepen the connection between homegrown and imported reggae by simply adding more Jamaicans to its roster.

“Rebelution should have different Jamaican acts opening for them every night to show the variety of the island’s talent,” suggests Jobson, who now hosts the syndicated radio program Alter-Native, which plays reggae from Jamaica and beyond. “In the 1970s, Eric ClaptonThe Police and The Clash turned white rock audiences on to reggae; Stevie Wonder brought white and black audiences to reggae with [his Bob Marley tribute] 'Master Blaster.' Now Rebelution is touring and performing with Jamaican acts and another generation of white kids will get to know these artists who they might not hear otherwise.”

The Bright Side Festival is the first reggae-focused event for Island Gigs, founded by Cameron Sears, Karim Kuzbari and Sven Lapiner, who have produced numerous hotel takeover events in Jamaica by American acts including Southern rock jam band Gov’t Mule (a side project of former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes and late bassist Allen Wood); '90s teen pop heartthrobs Hanson; and Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. “We are thrilled to have merged these reggae-enthused bands within an on-island experience where roots-rock reggae comes from,” notes Sears. “It’s a wonderful cross pollination of music and spiritual cultures and Bright Side has opened our eyes to other opportunities to bring more of the local band element into play.”

As the team plans for the 2020 festival, which has yet to be announced, Rachmany views Bright Side as a stepping stone towards playing an actual Jamaican festival or perhaps even a free show in the city where reggae was born, Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, that would include some of their Jamaican collaborators. “Before, I was nervous; I didn’t know how Jamaicans would react to our music, but now it’s something I definitely want to do,” says Rachmany. “We might be considered a white Cali-reggae band and seen as inauthentic but we want to show how the Rebelution sound is different than the reggae and dancehall coming from Jamaica. We also want to do more fundraising for local organizations, to give back to a place that has inspired us big time. However we can get involved in that realm, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Festivals 2019