A multi-platinum-selling rapper’s appearance generated the most hype and Jamaican DJs’ girls and gun exploits, as echoed throughout several performances on Dancehall Night, pulled the largest crowd. But it was a 53-year-old bespectacled crooner that stole the spotlight at Jamaica’s 16th annual Reggae Sumfest, the island’s largest music event.
Drawing from his 35 years of experience and a beloved repertoire of lover’s rock hits, veteran singer/songwriter Beres Hammond delivered a flawless set. Any artist hoping to attain even a fraction of his longevity would have benefitted from closely observing Hammond’s performance on Saturday evening’s finale.
The gravel-toned singer tore through hit after hit, stomping his feet, closing his eyes as if channeling his primary influences Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and punctuating his songs with shout-outs to the crowd. The females responded with squeals of delight, males pumped their fists in approval and both genders, representing a wide-age range, sang along to his songs, some dating back to the late ’70s, as if they were current chart-toppers. Hammond’s exceptional Harmony House Band adapted crisp new arrangements to time-tested reggae classics, while his backing trio melodiously framed his richly textured straight-from-the-heart vocals.
Hammond’s performance was sandwiched between sets by international guest artists T-Pain and Lil Wayne. But despite much anticipation (and no doubt, a hefty price tag) both failed to sustain any connection with the audience. T-Pain seemed to be lip-synching throughout his lackluster set, while Lil Wayne’s initial appearance engendered a frenzied response, which quickly dissipated.
Wayne’s between-song patter was noticeably slurred and when he asked if “y’all know how to dance out here?” he alienated his most vociferous supporters: star-struck teenaged girls who had fought their way to the front of the stage.
However, Akon, a last minute addition to the lineup, was rapturously received. The Senegalese-American singer is very popular in Jamaica because he is featured on several Jamaican artists’ remixes. He has also recorded many reggae-friendly hits, including “Don’t Matter.” But it was his willingness to interact with the Sumfest crowd that won him even more fans. He leapt off the stage, past the VIP section barricades and onto the heads and shoulders of patrons in the general admission area asking, “Where are my poor people?” The crowd went wild, cheering him on and grabbing at his shirtless chest and any other body part they could reach, as he wryly sang “Smack That.”
While Akon’s comedic yet extremely daring antics earned the audience’s adoration, reggae is what brings the crowds to Sumfest and several Jamaican artists delivered in splendid form.
Thursday’s Dancehall Night offered an impressive turn by newcomer Demarco, in his first Sumfest performance. Mavado (pictured), currently dancehall’s hottest and most controversial star, skillfully transcended his signature gangster persona, recruiting choral accompaniment for his song of salvation “On the Rock.”
He also delivered the hopeful “We Shall Overcome” and a heartfelt rendition of “Sadness,” which bemoans the violence he typically glorifies throughout his repertoire. Beenie Man is so beloved in Jamaica that the estimated crowd of 15,000 remained intact for his closing performance, which began after 5 A.M. He delivered his numerous hit songs in snippets that were woven into quick-paced medleys, which consistently generated an enthusiastic response as the sun rose over Montego Bay.
But Dancehall Night’s finest performance belonged to rising star Busy Signal, who was armed with an arsenal of hits including “Nah Go a Jail Again.” Its gritty depictions of prison life may prove to be Jamaica’s strongest crime deterrent yet. Seemingly driven by a passion to rise above the pack (perhaps to coincide with the September release of his sophomore album, “Loaded”) Busy bested such veterans as Vybz Kartel, Anthony B, Elephant Man and his longstanding idol Bounty Killer.
The latter was the evening’s biggest disappointment. Following the insults he hurled at dancehall icon Ninja Man, he was loudly booed for comments that questioned the sexual orientation of his longtime nemesis Beenie Man. Furthering the embarrassing spectacle, Killer was arrested as he walked offstage for the use of expletives throughout his set.
Contrastingly, consummate showmanship and vocal excellence were celebrated on Friday night throughout the performance by L.U.S.T. (Lukie D, Thriller U, Singing Melody and Tony Curtis). Each of these singers dazzled performing their individual hits, but they shone brightest alternating leads and then harmonizing on their current Jamaican chart-topper, a cover of Air Supply’s 1985 hit “Just As I Am.”
Strong performances by Etana and Tarrus Riley on Saturday night reaffirmed the power of Rastafarian roots rock reggae in the 21st century. Newcomer Etana displayed tremendous growth from her 2007 performance, with moving renditions of several hits featured on her acclaimed debut, “The Strong One.”
In the past few years, Riley has evolved from a Sumfest opening act to a major festival attraction. Fronting a superb band led by incomparable saxophonist Dean Fraser, he put down a stellar set of original songs including his smash “She’s Royal” and a celebration of Jamaican dancehall, “Pull Up Selector,” featuring his father, veteran singer Jimmy Riley.
Former Montego Bay resident, singer Jah Cure, was incarcerated for seven years on a rape charge. He recorded a series of hit singles while imprisoned and became a household name on the island but since his release last July he has struggled to regain the popularity he enjoyed behind bars.
Sadly, Cure’s first Sumfest appearance was anticlimactic. His reedy vocals, which are quite compelling on record, struggled to be heard above the band’s booming bass lines. Seemingly at a loss for what to do on stage, he repeatedly held his mike in the air to capture the sound of the crowd chanting along to his lyrics, but the result was oftentimes an awkwardly deafening silence.
Another former Montego Bay dweller, Queen Ifrika, fared much better, eliciting a fervent response for her hit songs addressing such controversial issues as abusive relationships (“Below the Waist”) and incest (“Daddy Don’t Touch Me There”).