Story and photos by Jason Storbakken
Dancehall stars and conscious reggae artists performed blazing sets for the thousands of fans who recently attended Irie Jamboree 2K5. The 3rd Annual Irie Jam concert rocked the Roy Wilkins Park in South Jamaica, Queens on Sunday, September 4. The bill was packed with an all-star cast including the legendary Barrington Levy, energy god Elephant Man, Sizzla Kalonji , and Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
Entering the park, a sea of people with red, gold and green flags and parasols were swaying to the sounds of Caribbean-influenced R&B vocalist Sanchez. After his set the Dancehall Crew and Crazy Hype dancers took the stage. They were winding to the tight dancehall rhythms until the music unexpectedly stopped. It was a shaky start to what promised to be the finest reggae show of the summer.
I ventured backstage to check out the scene. Stagehands, musicians, Rastas and even Miss Jamaica were mingling amidst a buzz of activity.
I was standing near the steps to the stage when I noticed Barrington Levy in an orange t-shirt and an inconspicuous ball cap readying himself to go on stage. Levy, also known as the Mellow Canary by virtue of his cool vocal style, livened up the crowd with his classic “Under My Sensi.” Levy has been making music for over two decades and his songs are standards on dancehall compilations. The crowd danced and sang along to “Murderer” and other infamous tracks.
After Levy’s stirring set a dancehall comedy duo comprised of two identical twin brothers took their antics to the stage. The jokesters were followed by newcomer Richie Spice who chanted down Babylon for about fifteen minutes en route to the European leg of his world tour. Then there was the quiet before the storm. Elephant Man exploded on stage wearing an Indian headdress with white and black feathers and his dreadlocks dyed orange and yellow.
He shouted to the crowd, “Put up your flag!” and flags from Guyana, Belize, St. Kit, Trinidad and Jamaica waved across the gathered crowd. He ran back and forth across the stage, chanting and riling the crowd. “Turn up my mic!” he shouted to the sound engineer until his voice was a blood-screeching chant. He jumped atop speakers and even welcomed a full-figured fan from the audience to romp with him onstage for a song.
Beenie Man performed next. I had a spliff and wanted to blaze so I returned backstage. Sizzla had arrived with a small entourage of Bobo Ashanti Rastafarians and they began rolling. I figured it was a perfect time to light up. Sizzla took big pulls from the spliff backstage and breathed fire onstage. Sizzla has been a mainstay on the charts since his powerful “Black Woman & Child” album. “Always at war with Babylon,” he cried. “End to pirates!” He empathized with the sufferers of Katrina in New Orleans and even sang a special song in dedication to the victims.
The final performer of the night was Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley whose hit “Welcome to Jamrock” is topping the charts. Marley was accompanied onstage during his performance by a flag-bearer waving an Ethiopian flag with imperial crest. Jr. Gong’s appearance is that of an ancient yogi recently returned from a millennia of meditation. His dreads hang to his thighs and he has a regal bearing. His style is highly defined and his innovative sound is moving conscious music to the mainstream. He performed songs from his first two albums “Mr. Marley “ and “Halfway Tree” as well as some songs from his brand new album “Welcome to Jamrock.” Jr. Gong surprised the Irie Jam audience when he invited his eldest brother Ziggy Marley onstage to help him sing “It Was Written.” It was a fiery climax to a full day of amazing music.
After the show, many Irie Jammers migrated to J’ouvert, the all-night paint-and-mud block party in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. J’ouvert lasts until the West Indian-American Day Parade. Irie Jamboree 2K5 distinguished itself as a premier outdoor music festival and it was a high point in live reggae this summer.