Music is everywhere in Jamaica. From the Bob Marley mixes that tourist taxis seem obliged to play on heavy rotation, to the brash urban staccato of dancehall riddims, from oldies ska to gospel radio, music is the air the country breathes and the sea it sits in. For the casual visitor it's a tuneful backdrop, but for the dedicated fan it's a reason to start booking flights to this greenest of Caribbean islands.
At any time of year you can find sound-system parties on the beach and deep dub nights set against the Kingston skyline. If you want the biggest Jamaican rush, however, grab your bottle of over-proof rum and head for Reggae Sumfest, the island's biggest musical weekend.
Sumfest is held every July in Montego Bay. It initially took shape as a move by promoters to attract tourists in the quiet summer months, but what began as a potentially cynical commercial ploy has since grown into a much-loved world-beating festival.
The official festival is a two-night affair (and as with all the best Jamaican parties, those nights go almost until dawn), the whole period around Sumfest attracts a host of spin-off events and semi-official pre-parties. Hotel rooms are in high demand, and the whole town gets into the groove, from Doctor's Cave Beach to the Hip Strip.
In the past, Sumfest relied heavily on international acts like Beyoncé and R. Kelly to bring in the foreign crowd. But just as Usain Bolt has proved merely first among equals in a deep field of homegrown athletics stars, so Sumfest has decided that the Jamaican music scene is in such rude health it no longer needs to rely on outside acts to sell tickets. Konshens, Mavado, Protoje, and Chronixx have all been major drawcards in recent years. Only Vybz Kartel — still the undisputed king of Jamaican dancehall — remains missing, though given his uncanny knack of continuously releasing new tracks from behind bars (he's in prison for murder), you almost wonder if an appearance via Sumfest's 360-degree virtual reality streaming broadcasts isn't out of the realm of possibility.
The first night of Sumfest is dancehall night, while the second is dedicated to reggae. Performers have to be on top of their game — Jamaican crowds know their stuff and can be hard to please, being quick to show both displeasure at those not hitting the target and noisy to celebrate the real crowd-pleasers. The big names take to the stage in the early hours, building on the atmosphere to deliver the goods. This is when Sumfest truly rules the roost, and it's worth pacing yourself so you don't burn out too early.
When the party's done, refresh yourself with an early morning dip in the sea, and a breakfast of ackee, saltfish, and dumplings, and then recharge your batteries for round two. In Jamaica, there's always more music to party to.
Header image courtesy Ben W.