About half an hour after arriving at the Raggamuffin reggae festival, I worked out what was unfamiliar about the crowd. Not one person was wearing over-sized, black-framed glasses and black skinny jeans. None of the girls were wearing 80s polyester dresses or looked like 1950s virgins. There were Rasta mamas with their locks piled high and curvy girls wearing short shorts or mini-skirts, there were big broad Islanders, suburban white kids, a smattering of forest hippies, young African guys in green, red and gold B-boy caps, a couple of older surfers…it was a mixed race, mixed bag kind of crowd that reminded me of street festivals in London. It also reminded me how white my suburb is.
‘Hey,’ I said to my friend S. ‘There are no hipsters here.’ No Ray-Ban Wayfarers or shirts buttoned up to the neck. Just a sea of original looks that had my friend and I entertained for hours in a game of ‘Would you get away with that outfit?’ How about The Original Wailers’ backing vocalist’s tight, bleach-splashed jeans, stiletto heels and a ruched, black satin shirt? Or Jimmy Cliff’s backing vocalist’s long strapless dress in bold green and gold stripes? What about taking on the Queen herself – Mary J. Blige, now 40, who emerged on stage in sunglasses, a black leather shoulder-padded jacket, white singlet, wide black leather cummerbund, leopard print tights and boots that would make a dominatrix call for mummy? I don’t think so.
There are no hipsters at a reggae festival because reggae is not cool and the scene is so roots-y that hipster irony would get bear-hugged to death. When The Original Wailers invited the crowd to sing along to ‘Buffalo Soldier’, they sang along. When Maxi Priest wanted ‘to hear all my ladies scream’, the ladies screamed. When Jimmy Cliff sang ‘I can see clearly now’, the audience chanted that indeed, it was a ‘bright, bright, sunshine-y day’. Wave your arms in the air? Of course. And at the end of the night, when Mary J. asked everyone to light up the night in celebration of her first Australian visit, Sidney Myer Music Bowl was transformed by phones and lighters into a glowing cavern.
Many had come to Raggamuffin to see Mary J. Blige. Eighteen years, nine Grammys, nine albums and no Australian show until Raggamuffin. One fan was screaming so loudly I thought she’d take out my left eardrum. Other fans were looking forward to seeing dancehall artist Sean Paul and were disappointed by a no-show that was neither explained at the gig, nor flagged on the Raggamuffin website. But I defy anyone to remain disgruntled in the face of Jimmy Cliff’s charm offensive. ‘He’s like the Leonard Cohen of reggae,’ S. said. It was true that, as with Leonard Cohen, the good vibes just seemed to emanate from him, making everyone, including his band, grin like idiots.
One of the reggae originals, star of the 1972 film ‘The Harder They Come’, Jimmy Cliff is now 63. Not only is he still touring, he’s limber as a cat. He’s also one of the only people who can get away with wearing a T-shirt bearing his own name and an entirely red outfit with glittering gold shoes. What else marks him as a higher being is hearing him sing songs like ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ – a song he wrote in 1969 – as if no-one had ever heard it before. When he lets rip with the soaring opening line, he’s still feeling the pain of being a stranger in England, trying to find his way over those many rivers. And it still gives me the chills. Hearing the song build as his backing vocalists deliver the big gospel chorus response was almost painfully good.
Strangely though, it was during Jimmy’s happy sing-along set, to the strains of ‘No more war’ in the song ‘Vietnam’ that I saw an act of aggression. A young woman came flying towards me through the crowd. She’d been propelled by two fierce women who wouldn’t have looked out of place among the teeth-challenged backwoods folk in the recent film ‘Winter’s Bone’. The women glared at the poor girl, who burst into tears as her friend tried to shuffle her out of harm’s way. Later I saw that one of the scary women had ‘Attitude’ tattooed at the base of her spine. ‘You really need to advertise that?’ I thought.
The scary women had disappeared by the time the banks of keyboards, mikes and a towering drum kit had been rolled out for Mary J. Blige. Raggamuffin is billed as a reggae event but Mary J. is in no shape or form a ‘reggae’ artist. She’s a hip hop/ R& B star, she has a big, beautiful voice and a show that includes three backing vocalists and two dancers who were the bomb. Look, I enjoyed the spectacle but after a few songs, I felt guilty for having such a primo position at the front and gave it up to one of Mary J.’s many adoring fans. R&B has never really been my thing.
Dancehall – reggae’s fast and loose cousin – is something else again. It’s the salty to reggae’s sweet. But if you think women can do better than be a man’s bling, dancehall can be a guilty pleasure. Let’s just say that an alien, from watching a lot of dancehall videos, would think that men on Earth wear clothes while women wear bikinis, and men stand upright while women writhe on all fours. Between eye rolling and laughing, I can seem quite unhinged while watching these videos. But it’s a complex world, isn’t it? I love dancehall. I watch the video of Sean Paul’s 2002 hit ‘Get Busy’ and think about entering the pre-no smoking law fug of reggae/dancehall club night More Fire * back in the early years of the noughties. Friends and I would go there at midnight or so and dance for a couple of hours until the pounding bass and cigarette smoke drove us back out into the night. Sean Paul, I would have been in heaven if you had turned up to Raggamuffin and performed ‘Get Busy’. I would also have loved to have gone to the party depicted in this video. Sean Paul, you didn’t show. And I’m not at the party in this video. So given that imperfect universe, we’ll just have to turn up the volume and shake it.
*Chant Down celebrates ten years of More Fire on Saturday February 12. It’s now smoke-free, of course.