The Raggamuffins Festival has happened annually every February since 1981, in commemoration of Bob Marley’s birthday, February 6. The trilogy of California shows starts in Long Beach, moves south to San Diego, then up north to the Bay Area with a leaner line-up. The third leg was held at the awe-inspiring Fox Theater on March 26, 2011, recently remodeled in downtown Oakland and managed by Another Planet Entertainment.
A few years back when the controversy of homophobia in reggae and dancehall lyrics was at its peak, the Raggamuffins Festival organizers (Barbara Barabino and Moss Jacobs) decided they wouldn’t book any of the many singled-out artists, including Buju Banton, T.O.K., and Beenie Man. This has resulted in a somewhat diluted representation of the music, however, this year, the line-up sparked some energy among reggae fans. The nearly sold-out audience was very mixed by age, ethnicity, gender, and race, and apart from reggae music, seemingly had marijuana as the common interest. For many fans, this is their only reggae show they attend per year.
In full disclosure, I have to say that I arrived at the Fox Theater at 7:30 pm, and had just missed Richie Spice’s set (Since when do reggae shows start so early?!). This was my biggest disappointment of the evening, as he is one of my favorite reggae artists out there. I did, however, get to talk with Toho Saunders, Richie’s bassist for all three Raggamuffin shows, and he shed some insight on the performance.
This is where my reporting gets fuzzy. Traveling with Richie Spice was Alphonso (last name unknown)*, the musical director and the drummer. He is the only musician who came with Richie from Jamaica. Toho says, “I just call him Rolando Alphonso, but that can’t be right because that’s the Skatalites guy.” Everyone in Jamaica has a nickname, so it’s not uncommon not to know the person’s given name.
With Alphonso on drums, Toho on bass, Everton Price on keyboards, and Byron (given name also unknown) on guitar, they performed many of Richie’s biggest hits in medley form. Because a festival set is shorter than a headlining set, they had to get it all in. With Richie Spice’s latest album just released, “Book of Job,” the band also performed some newer tunes including “Find Jah.” Of course the staples like “Earth A Run Red,” “Brown Skin,” “Youths Dem Cold,” did not go unheard. When I think about all of the amazing music Richie has put out, it makes me angry all over again for missing it!
German artist Gentleman has been a favorite of Northern Californians in recent years, pairing his energetic dancehall with positive messages. His 12-piece Evolution Band is one of the tightest bands musically I’ve seen and his earned credibility among Jamaican audiences is itself a minor miracle, as Jamaicans often have a level of contempt for successful foreign artists.
The fedora-wearing Gentleman gave the audience a smattering of his most popular tunes, including “Dem Gone,” “Leave Us Alone,” and “Superior.” He also paid tribute to the late Sugar Minott by performing the song they recorded together, “Good Old Days.” The audience’s excitement amplified on the call and response bits, and Gentleman kept his energy up throughout his set jumping all around the stage.
Those that saw his set in Long Beach and San Diego said his Oakland performance was the best of the three in that Gentleman seemed more relaxed than during the previous two shows. His wife, Tameka, who sings background vocals had a solo on one of the tunes, and their chemistry is undeniable.
For those that don’t know the Israel Vibration story, the band was formed in 1977 as a trio: Apple Gabriel, Wiss Bulgin, and Skelly Spence (Yes, nicknames – all of them!). The three had met briefly at the Mona Rehabilitation Clinic in Kingston, Jamaica, having all suffered from polio. As Rastafari brothers, the trio’s break came when members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel funded their first single. As a band, Israel Vibration broke up and came back together a few times, and Apple Gabriel took his career solo in 1997. Fast forward to today – they now perform as a duo – both still noticeably affected by their history of polio by wearing braces. On this particular day, they looked upbeat and bright, although it’s always a noticeable loss without the third voice of the trio.
I-Vibes music is for, what I call, the foundational audience. These are the fans that span in age but are drawn to the simplicity of 1960s reggae lines. While Israel Vibration doesn’t move me quite like the Abyssinians, or some of the older trios, I appreciate their musicianship and their story. “Rudeboy Shufflin’” is one of their biggest tunes that has a stellar and accessible riddim that nearly every artist can write to. The duo also had a female background duo accompany them, and the crowd could definitely get behind hits like “Roots Rock Reggae,” and “Cool and Calm.”
Bunny Wailer was the closer for this 6+ hour long show. What to say about Bunny? He’s the last surviving of the three Wailers and was with his Solomonic Reggae Orchestra (orchestra is the apt title due to the sheer numbers of musicians on stage). In pure Bunny fashion, he dressed in a white sparkly suit and used his typically gruff voice to deliver his powerful lyrics, extolling justice and righteousness. Bunny is a character just like Lee Scratch Perry is a character – he has created a colorful persona for himself and has been faithfully loyal to it. While some may call him “weird,” he has every reason to be, given his life story of fame, hardship, and loss. He gave the audience an old school ska intro, and played many of the Wailers tunes, including “Simmer Down,” and “I Am the Toughest,” a song that Peter Tosh made popular.
Overall, Raggamuffins did it again pulling together top notch popular reggae artists with their exuberant and excited fans. Contact high aside, my only wish is that they challenge the status quo and take some risks next year by showcasing incredible lesser-known artists and generating a culture that is more descriptive than just “mainstream reggae.”
*After publication, I found out that Richie Spice’s Musical Director and drummer actually is Rolando Alphonso Wilson, named after the famed Skatalite!
Special thanks to Lee Abel, Another Planet Entertainment, Nederlander Productions, Toho Saunders, United Reggae, and all of the wonderful artists and musicians who made this story possible.