Travel Diaries: A Journey To Jamaica's Reggae Sumfest
Shenseea photo by Yanic & Pedro/Courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board
Dancehall and reggae have been an integral part of Jamaica’s cultural backbone for decades, and every year the genres are celebrated at the highest levels at Reggae Sumfest. Held in Montego Bay’s Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex nearly every year since 1993, the music festival (the largest in the Caribbean) gathers a mix of Jamaica’s most seasoned and rising artists to showcase their talents.
But the festival (like with many others worldwide), had to change its course during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 saw a virtual staging, but this year was anticipated as it marked the official in-person return of the festival in two years. And it was well missed: 2022’s Reggae Sumfest was completely sold out, making the island’s overall celebration of its 60th year of independence that much more special.
This year’s lineup included Koffee, Beres Hammond, Christopher Martin, Spice, Shenseea, Masicka, Skeng, Alkaline, Ding Dong, and a special tribute to legendary producer Dave Kelly (Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Wayne Wonder, Cham, Spragga Benz, Mr. Easy and Frisco Kid), and a handful of others. And as with previous years, the music celebration spanned an entire week: Sumfest Street Dance on July 18, Sumfest All White on July 19, Sumfest Blitz on July 20, the Sumfest Global Sound Clash on July 21, and the festival’s live stage performances on July 22 and 23. The festival also boasted five levels of tickets that mirrored tiers at other major music festivals: General Access, VIP, VIP center stage, Ultra VIP seats, and an Ultra Lux Lounge.
DownSound Entertainment’s Joe Bogdanovich, the executive producer of Reggae Sumfest, shared his gratitude with Jamaica Observer despite the challenges of making this year’s staging possible: "This whole festival is the most challenging one I've ever done in my life and with this team. But with the kind of support we got from the Diaspora and everyone, it's a sell-out show...I mean we sold everything out. That is amazing, considering that we are still in the throes of a pandemic.”
Naturally, the number of tourists who flocked to Montego Bay to enjoy both the festival’s sounds and the ocean’s shores heightened. “Both visitors and locals alike are re-embracing the Jamaican reggae genre and from my observation of the audience,” Minister of Tourism, Jamaica, the Hon. Edmund Bartlett told the Jamaica Gleaner. “To come to the Mecca—the home of reggae—is a tradition the world needs to be exposed to and that we must use to make more persons come to our shores.”
“While Jamaica is a small island nation, our music clearly has influence on a global scale as evidenced by the international travelers arriving to experience Reggae Sumfest,” said Director of Tourism, Jamaica Tourist Board, Donovan White in a statement. “It’s truly gratifying to see so many people coming together over a shared love of reggae and dancehall music here in the birthplace of the genre itself.”
One of these visitors happened to be EDITION’s own managing editor, Bianca Gracie, who soaked in as much of Jamaica’s sonic essence as possible during her Reggae Sumfest adventure. Read on to find out all that she experienced.
Day 1: July 21
The trip's adventures began at Sandals Montego Bay, the franchise's first resort (it opened its doors in 1981). There was a sense of calm while checking into the resort, from the relaxing crash of the Caribbean Sea's waves to the low lull of guests' conversations. After receiving a tour of the lush, greenery-filled property, our group (which included fellow journalists from Toronto, NYC and London) headed to Sugar Mill.
Known as one of Montego Bay's finest dining establishments tucked inside the Half Moon resort, we enjoyed a curated dinner alongside Jamaica's Minister of Tourism, Hon. Edmund Bartlett. After filling our bellies with dishes like grilled lobster, oxtail ravioli and tuna roll-ups, we headed to Pier One for the first event of the trip: the Sumfest Global Sound Clash. It was a thrilling way to kick off the Sumfest weekend, as respected DJs and sound systems — Germany's Warrior Sound, Canada's Mystic Sound, Jamaica's Silver Hawk, Guyana's Exodus Nuclear, and Jamaica's Bass Odyssey — unleashed their most fiery sonic disses and retaliations. Ultimately, the winning crown went to Bass Odyssey.
Day 2: July 22
Spice and Joe Bogdanovich photo by Yanic & Pedro/Courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board
The day began at Chukka Adventures Sandy Bay Outpost, where tourists and locals alike could enjoy a variety of adrenaline-infused activities. For our group, we opted for ziplining and horseback riding. Despite getting caught in a massive downpour, seeing the surrounding nature at the zipline's apex made it all worth it. After a fun-filled morning, we headed back to Sandals to get ready for the long night ahead of us: Sumfest's Night 1 (aka Dancehall Night).
Dancehall is my go-to genre, and there were too many highlights to stuff into this recap! But some favorites included Laa Lee, who brought his mother on stage for an absolutely adorable dance-off to "Leggo Di Bird" and Ding Dong leading his Raverz dance troupe through a bevy of classic and new-age Jamaican dance moves ("Bad Mon Forward", "Bounce", "Good Ting Dem", etc). The ever-controversial Ishawna had all eyes on her as she sauntered onto the stage dripping in a crystal-studded outfit that nodded to Lil' Kim's seductive '90s-era looks, soon making headlines for dancing on cutouts of Bounty Killer and Prime Minister Andrew Holness. Shenseea also proved herself as a bonafide, appearing in a Shenyeng Dragon-green outfit that resembled Mortal Kombat's Kitana as she ruled the crowd with hits like "Can't Anymore", "Shenyeng Anthem", "Upset", "Dolly" and "Good Comfort".
Here's some other highlights:
- Spice officially being crowned as "Queen of Dancehall" by Sumfest officials
- Teejay paying respect to dancehall's new Gen Z artists by bringing onstage Brysco and Marksman
- Jahsii's high-energy and emotion-filled set that grabbed the crowd's energy at 7 a.m.
- Masicka proving that he's an untouchable and growing dancehall legend in the making. The self-proclaimed "baddest artist in Jamaica" ("Dem don't give mi the credit mi deserve!") brought out Stefflon Don for their "Moments" collaboration and performed an energized set filled with back-to-back hits including "Update", Different Type" and his "Infrared" collaboration with Vybz Kartel.
Day 3: July 23
Minister of Tourism, Hon. Edmund Bartlett photo by Yanic & Pedro/Courtesy of the Jamaica Tourist Board
After returning to the resort around 9 a.m. (yes, you read that right—Reggae Sumfest isn't for the weak!), the group and I took a well-deserved nap before lounging on the beach and enjoying champagne. As soon as night fell, we were off once again to Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex for Night 2 (aka Reggae Night) of Sumfest.
Here's some highlights from the performances:
- Beres Hammond reminding everyone just why he's a decades-long legend with an A+ performance filled with joy, nostalgia and pure love. The reggae icon kept a smile on his face the entire time as he belted, hopped and skipped to generational classics like "Putting Up A Resistance", "One Dance", "Rock Away" and "I Feel Good".
- Koffee, who began her solo tour earlier this summer, took a break to return to her home country. Of course, she was welcomed with open arms. Her set (assisted by an incredible live band) included songs like "Rapture", "Toast" and "Lockdown" — which were all performed with such confidence and ease that showcased why she's a history-making Grammy winner.
- Dexta Daps wooing the ladies like the romantic he is with bedroom fantasy favorites like "Twinkle", "See Mi Bed & Miss You", "Weak To You" and "Owner".
- The unforgettable Dave Kelly tribute that was packed with living dancehall legends Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Wayne Wonder, Cham, Spragga Benz, Mr. Easy and Frisco Kid. It was exhilarating to witness all of them feed off each other's hits (many of which are collaborations and on the same riddims) and displayed brotherhood in a genre that's often ego-driven. The '90s nostalgia-heavy set was the ultimate closer to this year's festival.
Day 4: July 24
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Once again, we returned to the resort in the wee hours of the morning! While our group was quite exhausted at this point, our energy levels quickly arose after a nap as well as learning that we would spend our last day in Montego Bay on a luxury yacht. It was provided by Aristo Kat Tours, which only does private charters across five different vessels. They create luxury experience for groups with all-inclusive bars and finger foods, a private chef, and customizable packages. We celebrated the memory-filled trip with Jamaica's signature rum punch, jumping off into the azure-blue waters and local music (the skippers led us all into a dance routine). It was the perfect sendoff following an unforgettable experience.