In Jamaica, the months of December and January are usually filled with music stage shows, as the holidays are when family and tourists come to the island for some home-style R&R – reggae and rhythms. It’s a time when popular artists stay home, as there is as much money to be made in warm Jamaica in December/January as can be made touring in the snows of North America or Europe. Show promoters vie for their attention, and spend millions of Jamaican dollars, promoting and advertising a plethora of shows that feature the year’s most popular artists. Many of these shows all feature the same headliners, who often arrive late at a show venue because of just having traveled from another similar show at a venue somewhere else in the island.

Damian "Junior Gong" Marley

Damian "Junior Gong" Marley

This end-of-year somehow seemed to have more than the usual number of top line shows, all of which attracted bumper crowds and satisfied fans of reggae, dance hall, gospel and ‘all that jazz’. The Christmas shows began with the “Welcome to Jamrock” show on December 15 in New Kingston that gave fans a close-up view of Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley and confirmed to all that the Grammy should be his.

Not even Shaggy, his co-headliner and already a Grammy winner, could distract from the luster of this most unique Marley son, who has definitely inherited the social passion of his father that inspires his ghetto-conscious lyrics. Damion’s lyrics are tight, memorable poetry delivered in an unending stream that MUST be listened to. He has the charismatic stage presence of his father, that mix of brooding sorrow, an earnest plea for acceptance and a tinge of humour, overlaid with a pure spiritual Rasta vibe, that make his performances magnetic and exhilarating. The show was capably and lovingly produced by his mother, Cindy Breakspeare and it was great.

The annual dance-hall showcase “Sting” was very subdued this year as, with corporate sponsors’ boycott of X-rated or homophobic performances, “Sting” was little more than a mosquito bite, hardly drawing media acclaim for the usual antics of Ninja Man, Elephant Man and other assorted performers in this genre. One standout performance came from new artist Aidonia, who threw out his slew of new hits such as “Cardinal Points”, “Jolly With the Lolly” and “Chicken Heads” that have caused him to be one of the breakout artists of the 2005 and the next big dance hall star.

A few days later, the Morgan Heritage family’s “East Fest” in St. Thomas presented a long list of current Roots & Culture artists, with Junior Gong headlining for the legion of red-gold-and-green fans who didn’t hear him in Kingston a week earlier. Some artists who gave their fans a chance to see and hear them perform in person their current hits, were Capelton, Luciano, Gyptian, Mr. Perfect and Fanton Mojah and fans got their money’s worth. However, crowd control at the popular event is becoming a problem that the Morgans need to solve, if the event is to continue successfully.

Continuing its tradition as the premier Rasta culture show of the season, Tony Rebel’s birthday bash returned to its St. Elizabeth home in January with rare Jamaican performances by veteran Burning Spear and Seventies band Inner Circle, as well as a similar lineup of culture artists as East Fest. Spear performed for nearly two hours with his band and drummers, a nostalgic tour of his most famous musical tributes to Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie and Africa that reminded us of what made him great. But young members of the audience born after Spear based himself overseas and hardly performed in Jamaica, were unfamiliar with his material or performing style and became impatient when the performance seemed to last too long. Inner Circle had a better reception, probably because the songs they recorded with vocalist Jacob Miller have stayed current on radio play-lists, not forgetting the US TV media presence of their song “Bad Boys”.

(In parenthesis, it is interesting to see older artists returning to their Jamaican roots with elaborate and high-profile showcase performances, seemingly hoping to rekindle the fire they once had among Jamaican fans and introduce themselves to a new generation of music lovers. In the holiday season Third World also held its second Christmas concert at Kings House under the patronage of the Governor General and the Prime Minister, with an audience composed mostly of older, ‘uptown’ fans, while Jimmy Cliff starred at a super-social University of the West Indies academic gala honouring the Prime Minister.)

A sour note at ‘Rebel Salute’ was caused by Turbulence who, finding that day was dawning without him performing at a previously scheduled time, stormed the stage unannounced during another artist’s performance, took away the microphone and tried to perform. However, the microphone was turned off and he was forced to leave the stage. Explaining his behaviour, Turbulance said he had a flight to catch for an overseas show that the delay had made him miss, but the bad situation got even worse a few days later when the promoter of that overseas show told the media that he had informed Turbulence the show had been cancelled prior to “Rebel Salute” and he had no need to travel.

Patti LaBelle at Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival

Patti LaBelle at Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival

After exposure to so many Jamaican artists (so often!), the show-going community seemed more than ready for something new and different, when the Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival started advertising its line-up of James Ingram, Patti Labelle, Air Supply, John Legend and Bo Diddley. Morgan Heritage and Shaggy were the token nods to Jamaican music, and there was little that could be strictly classified as ‘jazz’, with the exception of flautist Nestor Torres.

But ‘The Jazz” has become a euphemism for “music we like other than reggae” for the thousands of fans of this annual event, that gives an opportunity for the wealthy and the powerful, the beautiful and the brains of Jamaican society to mingle for three nights in a luxurious venue enjoying artists they would only ever see on TV. Over the years the selection of artists have included Mary J. Blige, Al Jareau, Alicia Keyes, Monty Alexander and the Buena Vista Social Club, and “The Jazz” has become a popular event on the island’s social calendar, despite moving to Ocho Rios and then back to MoBay after a one-year lapse.

This year’s staging on the Cinnamon Hill property in Montego Bay, will undoubtedly be classified as the ‘Show of the Year 2006’ by all who attended, as an overflow crowd on each of the three nights surpassed the expectations of organizers and filled Montego Bay resorts. Star performances were hard to single out, as each artist made sure to leave a lasting impression. Newcomers like James Ingram and John Legend brought the pretty ladies swooning to the stage, but when veteran Bo Didley performed, the crowd sang along enthusiastically to all his old hits. Two members of Air Supply were adventurous enough to get down off the stage during their act and walk through the crowd, performing all the while to thunderous applause.

Nestor Torres quieted, then electrified the audience with his jazz flute, while Shaggy – opening his shirt wide to preen his no-hair, muscled torso – gave away red roses to screaming pretty ladies who fought to capture one for themselves. Patti Labelle was The Diva from the moment she hit the stage in a bright red mini-dress, displaying and boasting about her beautiful legs. She rolled out her hits in virtuoso fashion, belting the notes and lyrics with the powerful voice that has made and kept her a star. The night was certainly hers and Jamaica will not long forget that performance.

The show took place on the rolling, grassy hillside of the Cinnamon Hill resort’s golf course. Though the nights were chilly, patrons made themselves comfortable with folding chairs and blankets. Around the venue’s perimeter were housed several elaborately decorated and catered booths and sky boxes of Jamaica’s top corporations, competing to host the many VIPs and celebrities in attendance. Press and VIP areas (as usual under the extremely competent care of the Headline Entertainment group) were first class, ensuring the experience was comfortable for all.

The only negative was that the crowd (up to 30,000 on the final night) drawn to the occasion covered the field so completely that it prevented the free movement of people and caused complaints that next year’s event should either be in a larger venue, or cost more than the already-pricey JA$10,000 to deter the many teeny boppers and social wannabe’s that have discovered “The Jazz”.

Nevertheless, the buzz about “The Jazz” continued unabated in the media and the public for weeks after, with many radio and TV review programmes, artist interviews, corporate advertisements featuring photos of booth celebrity guests, newspaper features on “The Jazz” fashions, celebrity name-dropping in gossip columns, and a smug attitude among those who attended of “If you weren’t at The Jazz, you missed something big”. True, true.

The shows have ended for now, but the year is new and there are will soon be more for me to report on. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it!