Tue | Apr 16, 2024

From swamp to spectacular: Transforming Reggae Sumfest into a world-class festival

Published:Sunday | July 23, 2023 | 12:06 AMJanet Silvera - Senior Gleaner Writer
Work being carried out to compact the home of Reggae Sumfest, the Catherine Hall complex in Montego Bay in 2011, as the organisers promised no ‘mud fest’ that year.
Work being carried out to compact the home of Reggae Sumfest, the Catherine Hall complex in Montego Bay in 2011, as the organisers promised no ‘mud fest’ that year.

Reggae Sumfest Director Robert Russell recalled the daunting task of turning a swamp into a show venue for Reggae Sumfest 1993.
Reggae Sumfest Director Robert Russell recalled the daunting task of turning a swamp into a show venue for Reggae Sumfest 1993.

Patrons cheering for their favourite artistes during the 1994 Reggae Sumfest held at Catherine Hall, Montego Bay.
Patrons cheering for their favourite artistes during the 1994 Reggae Sumfest held at Catherine Hall, Montego Bay.
LEFT: Reflecting on the journey, Russell emphasised the importance of learning from one’s mistakes to ensure future success.
LEFT: Reflecting on the journey, Russell emphasised the importance of learning from one’s mistakes to ensure future success.
Russell said the team had just 13 weeks to prepare the Catherine Hall venue for the debut show in 1993. These two patrons were captured during the inaugural show  held from August 11-14.
Russell said the team had just 13 weeks to prepare the Catherine Hall venue for the debut show in 1993. These two patrons were captured during the inaugural show held from August 11-14.
1
2
3
4
5

WESTERN BUREAU:

Despite initial struggles, Reggae Sumfest is now celebrated as a global showcase of Jamaican music.

In a remarkable feat, Robert Russell and his dedicated team took on the challenge of transforming a swamp into a world-class venue in just 13 weeks for Reggae Sumfest’s debut show in 1993. The journey was not without its obstacles, as the festival faced financial setbacks in its early years. However, with grit and perseverance, Reggae Sumfest now stands tall as one of the greatest music festivals of the year and is lauded as putting Jamaican music at the forefront of the global stage.

In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Russell recalled the daunting task of turning a swamp into a show venue for Reggae Sumfest 1993.

“I looked at it and I shook my head because I couldn’t believe that we could really transform this swamp into a show venue in just 13 weeks which is the time frame that we had. And we did it! And I mean, it was just marl, it wasn’t grass yet because of course the grass had not grown yet, but I felt really, really good when the gates finally opened on that first night. To see how beautiful the venue looked, remembering what it was before.”

The results were astounding, as the once desolate swamp is now the renowned, well-lit, and secure environment where both local and international music enthusiasts have gathered for the last 30 years.

In its initial two years, Reggae Sumfest faced financial losses, attributed to the team’s relative inexperience in managing such a massive production. However, they quickly learned the ropes and determined not to repeat their mistakes, they broke even by the third year.

Russell reminisced: “We wrote off what we lost to experience because we were all new in this size of production, because none of us had done a production quite as big as this. So, we learned on the job, and then we started to profit and we started to give exposure to young artistes.”

Indeed, Reggae Sumfest has been a launching pad for numerous local talents who went on to achieve international fame. Legendary acts like Beenie Man, who received just 15 minutes on the stage at the debut show, and many Jamaican artistes credit Reggae Sumfest as a pivotal moment in their careers. As the years went by, Reggae Sumfest began to attract bigger names and international acts, further cementing its reputation as a premier music festival. The festival has hosted the like of Rihanna, Lionel Richie, and Destiny’s Child, making it a truly universal event.

However, when Joe Bogdanovich, CEO of Downsound Records (DSR), acquired the major local brand, Reggae Sumfest, Bogdanovich decided to use only local acts in an effort to revitalise the show. Though there were initial concerns about this move, the bold decision proved to be the right one. The strength and appeal of Jamaican music shone through, attracting audiences from around the world without relying on international headliners.

PROVEN RIGHT

“Joe was convinced that the local artistes would be strong enough and their talent would be enough to ensure that the show would be a success, and that a lot of people that travelled from abroad for Sumfest really were interested in the reggae music – not so much in their own music – and it’s why they would come to Jamaica. And he had been proven right because our biggest years now have been without a big foreign act,” Russell said.

Today, Reggae Sumfest not only brings a festive week of musical activity but also substantial economic benefits to Montego Bay and Jamaica at large. The festival directly employs around 200 individuals and supports numerous families through indirect services, making it a significant contributor to the local economy.

Russell elaborated: “We have a lot of employees, we have a lot of families that depend on employment for the Sumfest period ... I mean the whole town literally comes alive for the month of July and everybody earns a little bit more than they would normally earn. Kids get back-to-school money for September. As I say, it’s not only at the top, but it goes all the way down, from the top to the peanut man. And every hotel, every restaurant, every nightclub, every taxi, every jerk pork man, everybody does well and makes money.”

Reflecting on the journey, Russell emphasised the importance of learning from one’s mistakes to ensure future success. He encouraged aspiring festival organisers to delve into the intricacies of event management, from sound and lighting to artiste management and promotion.

“We have made a lot of mistakes, but we have also done a lot of things right. We learnt, otherwise, you’re destined to repeat. So, it’s a learning curve, and anybody that’s doing a festival, if they don’t know what they’re doing or they have never done one before, we tell them to get into the swing of things and to understand how the festival unit works.”

He notes that the sound, lighting, artistes, security, promotion and advertising, and the preparation of the venue – all of these are ingredients, and each of them in their own right is quite a bit of work, which comes with the territory.

The only remaining member of the original team, which was Summerfest Productions, chaired by Johnny Gourzong, Godfrey Dyer, Joe Hilton, the late Nathan Robb and Sidney Reid, Mickey Morris and Walter Elmore to name a few, Russell’s unwavering dedication to Reggae Sumfest is apparent in his diverse roles within the event’s organisation over the 30 years.

From handling security to securing sponsorships and planning the event’s lineup, Russell’s all-around expertise has been pivotal to the festival’s success. No wonder during negotiations, Joe Bogdanovich personally requested Russell to remain on board.

Dubbed the largest festival on earth, Reggae Sumfest continues to be the island’s most anticipated summer show. The 2023 staging, The Return, concluded last evening, with Festival Nights 1 and 2, with a dazzling star-studded line-up of reggae and dancehall acts.

janet.silvera@gleanerjm.com