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Zimbabwe could learn from Reggae Sunsplash

Last week, I was overwhelmed by phone calls from all over the world, especially from the UK and from Jamaica. My friends, King Sounds and Tony Rebel called me from Jamaica wanting to know what is happening on the political landscape in Zimbabwe.
By Fred Zindi

Then I got another call from Howard Campbell, a journalist at the Jamaica Observer newspaper wanting to know about the impact of the fall of former president Mugabe on reggae music in Zimbabwe. I told all of them that it is a wait-and-see situation and that I would respond to them as the situation unfolds.

Former British prime minister, Sir Harold Wilson, once said, “A week is a long time in politics”. Just as we were planning to visit Makhosini Hlongwane, the former Minister of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture who had promised to help the arts sector, cabinet was dissolved, thus putting the visit in a limbo.

I know more about music than politics, but my advice to the new ministers of Arts and Tourism is that they cannot afford to ignore the arts sector. There is money in the arts sector if it is properly managed.

A small country like Jamaica with a population of less that three million people has through government support for the arts, spread its wings internationally. Reggae music has as a result boosted Jamaica’s gross domestic product by millions of dollars.

In 1992, I experienced this happening during the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica where Synergy Productions collected close to Jamaican $100 million in one weekend. This music festival, apart from giving me the time of my life, was not only mind-blowing, but it also opened my mind to possibilities of what can be done in Zimbabwe outside Hifa.

After landing at Jamaica’s Kingston Airport on a Thursday afternoon, I booked into the Pegasus Hotel where I was to meet two Jamaican friends, Robert Lee Of Synergy Productions and Martin Augustine, a guitarist in Ruff Cut Band. The next day we drove to the festival in Montego Bay. It took us two and half hours to drive the 182 kilometres from Kingston. When we got there, the festival site was already packed with over 2 000 cars and about 10 000 music revellers queuing up to get in.

Entry fee was $100 or 1 000 Jamaican dollars per person. There were music tourists from all over the world. In particular, visitors came from nearby islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Antigua, Grenada, Montserrat and Dominica. Many others came from the United States of America. Despite being in possession of VIP tickets, it took me a gruelling two hours in the queue. Robert had gone through the back entrance and Martin had joined him. I stupidly remained in the queue.

I eventually managed to gain entrance into the magnificent Jarret Park which was the festival venue.

Here, business was brisk. There were stalls selling everything that is Jamaican from curios to Rastafarian clothing items plus food which ranged from rice and peas, curry goat, jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk shrimp, brown stew chicken, ackee and salt fish, Jamaican patty, callaloo, cocoa bread to guinep fruit. There were also bars serving alcohol from Appleton gold rum to Red Stripe beers. I sampled the ackee and salt fish and drank beetroot juice. Immediately after, I wanted to use the toilet. There were toilet cubicles everywhere set up about 50m apart, which were manned by bouncers. I rushed to one in a bid to relieve myself. The big burley man standing at the toilet door stopped me and asked me in clear Patois, “Is it number 1 or number 2 you go in for?” Without thinking, I replied, “Number 2” “Alright den, you haffe pay for toilet paper. Is how much square you want? It’s a dollar per square!” he exclaimed.

I had perfunctorily used toilet paper before but I had never calculated how many perforated pieces (squares) I needed to wipe myself. So I asked him, “How much is a whole roll?” “300 dollar!” he replied. This was equivalent to US$3 for one roll of toilet paper. He added, “No badda use your own toilet paper. We no allow use of your own toilet paper as it might block our toilet”. I thought to myself, some people know how to make money.

After using the toilet, which was impeccably clean, I joined my friends to enjoy the festival. On the stage was Charlie Chaplin perfoming some Bob Marley renditions plus his original tunes for about 45 minutes. He was followed by Culture, then Chaka Demus and Pliers after which came Big Mountain. At midnight came the Roots Radics. It was non-stop music till everybody was either drunk or asleep. Fortunately the weather was just fine.

There were no places to sleep, but some enterprising youths sold flattened cardboard boxes for people to lie on for 10 Jamaican dollars each. There were some who hired out tents for 50 dollars per hour. Expensive, but the atmosphere was great. Martin and I squeezed into one tent just to get some rest. The music continued for another two days till Sunday afternoon.
In 1993, we tried to bring Reggae Sunsplash to Zimbabwe, but due to some stringent bureaucracy and financial considerations, the plan fell through.

Reggae Sunsplash festival is the brainchild of five Jamaicans — Tony Johnson, Don Green, Ronnie Burke, John Wakeling and Ed Barclay. The five founding directors created a company called Synergy Productions Ltd, which was responsible for promoting and producing the Reggae Sunsplash festival.

The first Reggae Sunsplash festival was staged at Jarrett Park, Montego Bay, Jamaica, on June 1978 and began at dusk and continued until dawn for seven days. With the help of Peter Martin, a longtime Jamaican tourism stalwart and his public relations firm, Peter Martin Associates, the Sunsplash Festival was able to gain international exposure. It was billed as the “biggest Reggae festival in the history of the world”. The festival introduced the concept of music and travel as a boost to tourism in Jamaica. Prior to the staging of Reggae Sunsplash, the hotels in Jamaica were traditionally closed during the summer period. The five founding partners staged the festival each year for a number of years and successfully created an annual summer tourist season in Jamaica. The success of Reggae Sunsplash led to a wave of annual music festivals in Jamaica and the Caribbean islands. The festivals’ popularity led to a shortage of hotel rooms and a tradition of camping out on local beaches.

To promote Jamaica as a tourist and travelling target in Europe, the Jamaica Tourist Board invited in 1983 the German band Supermax as the opening act of the annual festival in Montego Bay. The board also invited several German journalists to report not only about the festival but also about the sunny side of Jamaica.

From 1981 the festivals were filmed and recorded, with several videos and albums released, the first being Reggae Sunsplash ‘81: Tribute to Bob Marley.

Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica has shown us the way by opening a new global tourist niche markets to Jamaica and attracting millions of dollars of foreign exchange into the country. Surely, we can do the same in Zimbabwe. This is something for the ministries of Arts and Tourism to think about.

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