Damian, Stephen Marley, Romain Virgo Celebrate Roots Reggae at Jamaica's Rebel Salute
Damian, Stephen Marley, Romain Virgo Celebrate Roots Reggae at Jamaica's Rebel Salute

With more than 40 veteran artists, contemporary stars and upcoming acts performing during its 12-hour presentation, Pepsi Rebel Salute, held on Jan. 14 at the Port Kaiser Sports Complex, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, reaffirmed that culturally-themed roots reggae is flourishing in the land of its birth despite the dominance of non-Jamaican reggae acts on international charts and at reggae festivals throughout Europe, Japan and in parts of the US.

Inaugurated in 1994 by reggae sing-jay Tony Rebel (b. Patrick Barrett) as a celebration of his January 15th birthday, this year's Rebel Salute attracted approximately 15,000 patrons, according to Rebel, who annually performs at the concert.

Outstanding sets were turned in by singer/songwriter Tarrus Riley, Marley scions Damian and Stephen, stalwart singer Johnny Osbourne and veteran sing-jay Leroy Gibbons, whose singular interpretations of R&B standards earned one of the few encores of the marathon-length show. In an emotionally charged performance at dawn 22-year-old Romain Virgo, who is signed to New York-based reggae independent VP Records, elicited a resoundingly approving drone of vuvuzelas with his romantic songs and heartfelt social commentaries.

The most promising upcoming acts at Rebel Salute included sing-jay Prophecy delivering his compelling anti-violence theme "Body Bags," sing-jay Aba Mahr, who captivated with the lovers rock hit "Will I Wait" and the band Raging Fyah, their revolutionary spirit evoking the late Peter Tosh or Steel Pulse circa the late 1970s. Each of these acts is poised for significant ambassadorial roles in heightening Jamaican reggae's global presence while redirecting international attention towards the music's island birthplace.

"The world's biggest reggae concerts are held in Europe and the majority of performers aren't Jamaican which shows how far our musical form has reached, but ultimately Jamaica is reggae's heartbeat and we need to continue to originate here and preserve what has come before," observes Jason Hall, Deputy Director of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). As a means of intensifying the focus on Jamaica as reggae's epicenter, and in recognition of the music as one of the island's most powerful tourism tools, the Jamaica Tourist Board contributed JA$4 million (US$46,380) towards the 2012 presentation of Rebel Salute, significantly less than the $250,000 the JTB gave to the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, which is dominated by foreign acts, but nonetheless a 300% increase over their 2011 Rebel Salute funding.

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Tony Rebel is one of the few Rastafarian sing-jays to have attained widespread popularity championing edifying themes on such hits as "Teach The Children" and "Sweet Jamaica" in the early 1990s at a time when dancehall reggae was dominated by x-rated, violent and misogynistic lyrics. Rebel signed with Columbia Records' Chaos imprint in 1992 and released the album Vibes of the Times the following year. His duet with Queen Latifah "Weekend Love", which reached no. 29 on the R&B singles chart, typified the Hip-Hop, R&B/dancehall fusions utilized by majors throughout the 90s as a strategy for crossing dancehall reggae into the mainstream.

In accordance with the tenets of Rebel's Rastafarian way of life, artists booked for Rebel Salute are prohibited from performing x-rated and violent lyrics; sales of meat and alcohol are also forbidden (although those items are sold by numerous vendors lining the venue's exterior). Rebel claims these restrictions have limited Rebel Salute's sponsorship pool. "Because we don't sell alcohol we lose out on that sponsorship," explained Rebel in an interview at the Kingston offices of his Flames Productions. "We have a 19-year old brand beloved by Jamaicans and the international community; we are preserving a healthy aspect of our music, something any well-thinking Jamaican business should want to be associated with, yet greater support is given to events that aren't dealing with the values represented at our show."

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According to the Rebel Salute website, in 2012 the concert attracted the JTB and (Jamaica's) Grizzly's Entertainment as Gold sponsors, five Silver sponsors, 11 Supporting sponsors and hotel sponsorship from the Wyndham, Kingston. "Rebel Salute represents all that's great about Jamaican music, all that has made it popular worldwide, that's why we are involved," says Carlo Redwood, Marketing Manager for Pepsi Jamaica, Rebel Salute's Title sponsor for the past three years. Redwood wouldn't disclose the amount of his company's contributions but he did outline their primary areas of support. "A hefty portion of our sponsorship revolves around pre-show promotion, posters, commercials etc, and in the execution of the event itself," Redwood stated.

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Rebel Salute's 20th anniversary in 2013 will honor the artists that have previously performed at the concert who have since passed away including singers Sugar Minott, Gregory Isaacs, Joseph Hill and Rebel's close friend Garnet Silk who died in an accident at home 11 months after the very first staging. An intended expansion to two days will broaden Rebel Salute's appeal, as some music fans cannot endure its 12-hour duration. "Through PR campaigns targeting cities with direct flight access to Jamaica," offers Hall, "we might look at tying Rebel Salute into other Jamaica travel packages so visitors will have the opportunity to attend one of the few shows still delivering good quality reggae music."