Reggae summer feast shines the light on Jamaica's rhythms

Jamaica's annual Reggae Sumfest will draw thousands of reggae music fans to Montego Bay this week.

Jazmine Sullivan performs during International Night at Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The festival, in its 21st year, is dubbed by organisers as "the world's greatest reggae show on Earth". Brittany Somerset/Corbis
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Jamaica's annual Reggae Sumfest will draw thousands of reggae music fans to Montego Bay this week.

In its 21st year, the festival, dubbed by organisers as "the world's greatest reggae show on Earth," is yet again expected to be a major economic driver for both Jamaican tourism and the reggae music industry.

The week-long festival, which starts today and runs until Saturday, takes place in Montego Bay's Catherine Hall. It kicks off with a beach party tonight, while Dancehall Night will take place on Thursday and International Nights 1 and 2 will follow on Friday and Saturday.

Popular artists such as Flo Rida, Beres Hammond, Barrington Levy, Damian Marley, Romain Virgo and Chronixx join this year's line up.

Tickets range from US$25 at the gate to $60 per night. There are also several packages available, including a weekend pass for $110 and a VIP pass for $210.

The festival's corporate sponsors include Digicel, Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, Secrets Resorts & Spas, Pepsi Music, Ting, Red Stripe and Jamaica Tourist Board, among others.

Each year, when festivalgoers arrive in Jamaica for Reggae Sumfest, the tourism industry benefits. This year is predicted to be no different.

"For many festival attendees, reggae music is their introduction to Jamaica," says Jason Hall, the deputy director of tourism for Jamaica.

"We're not at our peak time of the year for Jamaican tourism, but during Reggae Sumfest almost all the hotels are filled," says Charles Campbell, the executive director of the Jamaica reggae industry association.

Many hotels are booked as far out as Ocho Rios, which is an hour and 10 minutes' drive away from Montego Bay, according to Mr Hall. Several hotels, including Half Moon, the Richmond Hill Inn and Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, offer special Sumfest packages for the occasion.

While the festival draws fans from around the world to the region, other tourism areas, beyond hotels, also enjoy a boost in traffic and revenue. This ranges from guided tours to dining and nightlife to beach-related activities such as boating and parasailing. There is also the potential for repeat travellers who will attend the festival again or will choose to visit Jamaica another time of the year.

In addition, the festival provides an infusion, in terms of profits and public attention, for the reggae music industry, both locally in Jamaica and worldwide.

"Jamaica is the ground zero for reggae music," says Mr Hall.

"Reggae Sumfest provides a platform for truly dynamic artists along with those up-and-coming musicians stepping on to the global stage for the first time," he adds.

This year's festival comes at a time when the reggae industry in Jamaica is suffering something of a setback while other regions, such as Europe and the United States, seem to be thriving.

"Over the years, the business of making money in music has changed significantly," says Mr Hall.

He says recent milestones such as the inclusion of a reggae category in the Grammy Awards, the musical equivalent of the Oscars, and a special reggae segment during this year's BET Awards, which celebrate African Americans and other minorities in entertainment, has helped attract attention to the industry. However, he adds, the artists are still required to rely mainly on live performances for a steady income stream.

Mr Campbell agrees. "Reggae artists are doing well on the live circuit, but they are simply not doing what they used to do in terms of sales of CDs and merchandise, like T-shirts and posters," he says.

Music industry insiders say downloading songs from the internet is a big contributor to the declining sales of CDs.

The US sales tracking company SoundScan reported paltry record sales last year for big-name Jamaican reggae artists. For example, Reggae Music Again by Busy Signal showed sales of 4,548, while Romain Virgo's The System sold just 1,490 records. Beres Hammond's double compact disc titled One Love, One Life sold only 2,198 copies.

Meanwhile, although Jamaica and its artists have been in a slump regarding sales, Europe is experiencing "somewhat of a renaissance for reggae", according to Mr Campbell.

"More of today's popular reggae artists are living in Europe but come to Jamaica to produce music and for the vibe."

US reggae artists are also having more success. In contrast to the record sales of popular Jamaican musicians, American reggae hits such as Peace of Mind by the California band Rebelution sold 52,488 copies and Soja's Strength to Survive had sales of 38,427 in 2012, according to SoundScan.

However, reggae advocates in Jamaica firmly believe the country surpasses any other for this type of music, historically and in the present day.

In fact, many people share high hopes for a bright future of reggae in Jamaica.

"Jamaica is to music production as Bombay is to film production," says Mr Hall. "You have more musicians, technicians and sound mixers per capita in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world."