From its humble origins as a two-day event in northern Italy showcasing local talent to its move to coastal Spain where it has developed into the world’s largest reggae festival, annually presenting more than 100 acts on eight stages, Rototom Sunsplash celebrates its 25th anniversary August 16-22. The theme of Rototom 2018, “25 Years Walking Together,” underscores the astonishing growth the primarily self-financed, multi-cultural event has experienced over the past quarter century, bringing together 3.2 million people and presenting more than 2,300 artists, representative of five continents. In 2017, 220,000 music lovers traveling from 98 countries attended Rototom Sunsplash, held in the picturesque city of Benicàssim.
“Rototom has grown a little more every year and we are all proud of this because we didn’t start as a big event, but we were the first reggae festival in Italy and one of the first reggae festivals in Europe,” Rototom’s Artistic Director and Booking Manager Sabrina Trovant tells Billboard. Trovant was born and raised in Friuli, located in Italy’s northeastern region, as were her Rototom co-founders Filippo Giunta, Festival Director and CEO, Giuseppe Destro, Commercial Director, and Costantino Sanfilippo, Technical Department Member and (local) Public Relations. The four friends opened a club in Northern Italy in December 1991 presenting live acts across several genres including blues, funk, metal, punk, rap and reggae. They called their venue Rototom, the name of a drum without a shell that is tuned by rotation. “Depending on the rotation of the rototom, it makes a different sound and that was like our club, sometimes we were playing rock, sometimes jazz, sometimes reggae, so that’s why we chose the name,” explained Trovant. “But the special vibes we felt during the reggae shows convinced us to set up an event lasting more than one day to bring together reggae music lovers in Italy.”
The final round of main stage headliners at Rototom 2018, announced exclusively by Billboard, are beloved Jamaican singer Beres Hammond (and his Harmony House Band) whose soulful stylings have made him a favorite since the late 70s; singer Tiken Jah Fakoly, from Cote D’Ivoire, Africa’s foremost dissenting voice and the continent’s best-selling reggae artist; an all-star tribute to the late reggae revolutionary and Wailers’ founding member Peter Tosh, featuring keyboardist Keith Sterling (from Tosh’s Word Sound and Power Band), British bass and drum duo, Mafia and Fluxy, with vocals provided by Tosh’s eldest son, a reggae star in his own right, Andrew Tosh. Other main stage acts include the ageless Jimmy Cliff; soul-funk rocker Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals; contemporary reggae singer Tarrus Riley and his Blak Soil Band led by the incomparable saxophonist Dean Fraser; Jamaica’s renowned Riddim Twins, Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass) with special guests Yellowman, Johnny Osbourne and Bitty McLean; sizzling Jamaican sing-jays Kabaka Pyramid and Protoje; reggae outfit Fat Freddy’s Drop from New Zealand; a collective of Italy’s top reggae artists performing as the Italian Reggae All Stars; Sicily born, Jamaica based singer Alborosie, who performed at Rototom for the first time in 1995 as part of the band Reggae National Tickets, and popular Spanish reggae acts, singer Morodo and the band Green Valley. Seminal Jamaican ska band The Skatalites will perform with veteran singers Derrick Morgan and Doreen Shafer and renowned English reggae radio host/selector David Rodigan will celebrate his 40th anniversary by sharing stories behind some of his favorite classic Jamaican recordings, as played by the 25-piece Outlook Orchestra. Rodigan will also play a set of cherished singles on the festival’s dancehall stage, which will host a cosmopolitan roster of reggae sound systems including Italy’s One Love Hi Powa, Brooklyn NY’s Addies International and Germany’s Pow Pow Movement. Emerging talent will be showcased on the Lion Stage, African artists will perform in the festival’s African Village and some of Europe’s finest dub selectors will display their skills at the Dub Academy including the UK’s legendary Jah Shaka; known for his mesmerizing marathon length sessions, Jah Shaka will play an extraordinary eight-hour set.
“The main idea for our 25th anniversary is to offer special shows within the lineup that aren’t seen at other festivals. We have artists representing ska, rocksteady, dub, roots and dancehall from foundation to the new school,” notes Trovant. “Our audience is very heterogeneous in terms of age, tastes and country of origin, and the lineup has to reflect that diversity, so we try to represent European reggae and Spain’s national scene with special attention paid to Jamaican reggae.”
Rototom Sunsplash (Sunsplash, after the prototypical reggae festival established in Jamaica in 1978) was initially staged in 1994 in Gaio di Spilimbergo, Italy, where it was held until 1997. In 1998 the festival moved to Lignano for two editions before heading to Osoppo, its home from 2000-2009; in Osoppo, the festival expanded to 8-10 days, with attendance exceeding 150,000 patrons. Rototom has consistently promoted a platform of equality, human rights and social justice; the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the festival as an “Exemplary Event for the International Decade (2001- 2010) for the Culture of Peace and Non-Violence.” Nonetheless, Rototom Sunsplash faced opposition from Italian politicians who prosecuted the organizers on the charges of facilitating the use of illicit drugs (in this case marijuana) under the repressive Legge Fini-Giovanardi Law, which equated cannabis with hard drugs and increased punishments for users.
Following Rototom’s 2009 staging in Osoppo, the festival’s founders chose to leave Italy. “It had always been difficult to obtain funding or even simple endorsements but starting from 2007, thanks to a wretched anti-drug law, the war with the police and institutions became unsustainable,” Trovant recalled. “In 2009, the festival was investigated for the consumption of drugs and for a supposed tax evasion. After six-years of investigations, both processes were resolved, resulting in full acquittal. As that investigation was underway, we decided to look for a place where we could continue our project without undergoing persecution. We relocated to Spain where there is a festival culture, where cultural operators are appreciated as entrepreneurs who move economies and promote tourism.”
The founders left their families and friends in Italy, settled in Spain, learned Spanish and established a new home for Rototom Sunsplash in Benicàssim, a town of 19,000, idyllically situated on the Mediterranean Sea. Since relocating, Rototom has expanded in size and scope. The festival now boasts over 100 market/artisanal market stands, nearly 50 bars and restaurants and an expansive camping area with on-site grocers, bakeries, as well as cooking and bathing facilities. Daily meetings are held at Rototom’s Reggae University, where artists discuss their careers and panelists examine various issues within the music. Activists and intellectuals lead spirited social forums and there’s a space for non-profit organizations and NGOs promoting environmental protection, human rights and various causes to dispense information and raise money. “Since the beginning we wanted to offer not only music but meetings, debates and other cultural initiatives; these activities have grown with the festival. Our continuous challenge,” Trovant acknowledges, “is to keep the festival sponsor-free and our forums independent of political interference.”
In 2015 Rototom Sunsplash generated international attention, not for the ongoing peaceful interactions among the various nationalities annually gathered at the festival but for a miscalculated decision ostensibly resulting from conceding to political pressure. Jewish American reggae artist Matisyahu, booked as a headliner on the festival’s main stage that year, became a focus for a nearby Valencia-based chapter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a campaign undertaken to boycott Israel. BDS demanded that the Rototom organizers obtain a statement from Matisyahu denouncing Israel and proclaiming support for a Palestinian state (Matisyahu was a member of the orthodox Jewish Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch sect at the time of his career ascent in 2004). As the only artist asked to declare an opinion on the volatile Israel/Palestine issue, Matisyahu refused, so the Rototom organizers expelled him from the roster. Widespread condemnation and media attention followed and the Rototom organizers, citing threats against the festival as the reason for their initial dismissal of Matisyahu, returned the artist to the lineup and he performed as scheduled.
Despite the far-reaching Matisyahu controversy Rototom continues to thrive, perhaps now with a heightened commitment towards renouncing any intrusion of “politricks” (as Peter Tosh aptly called it). As Rototom’s silver anniversary approaches, having presented the finest in reggae from around the world since the mid 1990s, is there any artist the organizers still hope to secure for their event? Without hesitation Trovant reveals that iconic Jamaican Rastafarian singer Burning Spear, now 73, tops the Rototom wish list. “Burning Spear performed at our club in 1992 and his magical show had such a crucial impact, many of us fell in love with reggae because of him,” Trovant reminisced. “The last time Burning Spear performed at Rototom was in 2006 and he played for two hours. Unfortunately, he seems to have retired from touring, but it’s our dream to have him back at the festival.”