Music Will Surely Live On: The Montreal International Reggae Festival, I, by Maurie Alioff



In my book, the Montreal International Reggae Festival (August 14 – 16 at Montreal's Old Port) is the city’s most vibrant summertime musical event. Now in its twelfth year, the event is more focused and intimate than the humungous Osheaga and jazz festivals, and it offers body and soul-stirring music and magnetic stage performances. Stands cooking up curry goat and jerk chicken, snapper and rice, dumplings and green bananas fuel thousands of fans.


Richard Lafrance 
Photo: Maurie Alioff

Richard Lafrance, an MIRF co-founder and media relations man, is one of the festival programmers who puts the yearly package together. Onetime reggae critic for the Montreal publication Voir and co-host of Basses fréquences (Low Frequencies), a reggae show on CIBL FM, Lafrance says that the programming is done "in a very communal way. We brainstorm at the beginning and try to pool names. And then Eric Blagrove (founder and President of the festival), the one with the contacts with the agencies and artists in Jamaica, will take that list of names and see who's available for how much.”

Lafrance emphasizes that programmers don’t even consider acts with a reputation for ultra-violent or anti-gay lyrics. "In Montreal we are extra careful about that.” The Jamaican music industry is itself advising artists to cut out the kind of chatter that gets them withdrawn from gigs in North America and Europe. And in early August, PRIDE JA, a weeklong event in Kingston, became what The Guardian called “the first public gay pride celebration in the English-speaking Caribbean.”

When it comes to the overall setup of the festival, “There are no real guidelines,” says Lafrance, “except in the past few years we've identified a way that is working better." Once a three full-day event, the MIRF now opens on Friday night with “one good headliner. We try to keep it as short, sweet, and punchy as possible.” Once the festival launches, “as Eric says, we are looking for a balance so that everybody gets what they like. It's never really only one thing.” For Lafrance, “it makes sense that the dance hall acts are always on Saturday. Sunday is more, like Jamaicans say, big people music, meaning people over 45.”  The “big people” vibe to classic roots reggae and the younger artists who are reviving it, but don’t necessarily respond to dancehall deejay-singers like Lady Saw, a main attraction at the 2015 fest.

During an interview, Lafrance explained that it’s not always easy for MIRF organizers to book the acts that will achieve optimum balance because of the “huge reggae festival circuit in Europe, which goes on from June to September.” For instance, the Rototom Sunsplash in Castelló, Spain, runs for seven days, compared to the MIRF’s weekend, and streams online. This year, Rototom launches one day after Montreal’s opening and, like most European events, caters mainly to lovers of roots or “culcha” music.

“We try to confirm artists as soon as possible,” Lafrance continues, “and they try to hold us back until they are damn sure they are not getting a bigger paying gig in Europe. When they're hot, they want to be at those festivals playing in front of 45,000 people. The international reggae market is pretty much determined by what goes on in Europe right now” —a fact that irritates people on Jam Rock.

“I read the Jamaican papers every day,” says Lafrance. "And very often, there are pieces and editorials saying that reggae music is being taken away from Jamaicans. Europeans start sound systems and roots bands, and they do the circuit, and they sell a lot of records.” The Jamaicans ask, "And what about us? We invented the damn thing.”

On top of losing talent to European festivals, the MIRF sometimes faces the problem of booked artists with visa problems or holdups at Canadian customs.


Beres Hammond
Photo: Maurie Alioff

For 2015, the committee selected Beres Hammond, one of reggae’s most beloved performers, as the festival’s opening act. Smooth and relaxed on stage, 60-year-old Beres’s brand of the music is soulful, r & b inflected lovers' rock with guaranteed lift-off. “I feel good when you’re wrapped up in my arms / Dancing to a reggae song.” That’s Beres


Cocoa Tea
Photo: Maurie Alioff

Closing night’s performers include another artist rooted in old school reggae. Cocoa Tea’s appearence at the 2013 festival was considered the fest’s best set by many fans, maybe because the sprightly Rastaman merges righteousness with playful romanticism, casually jamming out a song and reeling you in. Closing night also spotlights Tarrus Riley, the scholarly looking, idealistic Rasta who has been lately taking on some dancehall colouring. Riley’s She’s Royal is one of reggae’s top love songs. 


Shabba Ranks
Photo: Maurie Alioff

Shabba Ranks, a star since the 1990s who is making his first ever appearance at the festival, closes Saturday’s dancehall night. Hugely influential on many artists who came after him, particularly Shaggy, Ranks’s Hispanic-flavoured “Reggaeton” made him one of the first Jamaican dancehall artists to build a following internationally. When deejays like Ryme Minista and regular people shout out “Shabba!,” an epithet almost as common in Jamaica as “Bomboclot!,” they are unwittingly, or not, referencing Ranks. 


Lady Saw in Red

Among other artists slated for Dancehall Night, Lady Saw (see the current Salon .ll. article "Divas at the Montreal International Reggae Festival") and Dexta Daps embody the on-going vitality of a musical form that took over from the roots reggae of Bob Marley’s generation while remaining inextricably linked to it. With her unmistakable thundering voice, sexual provocations, and twenty-year-and-counting career, Lady Saw ranks as the undisputed Queen of Dancehall


Dexta Daps
Photo: Maurie Alioff

At the other end of the timeline, Dexta Daps got really hot during the winter and spring of this year. Like so many Jamaican singers and musicians, including Marley, twenty-eight-year-old Daps embraced music as a passion and saw it as a way out of the ghettos where living is so destitute; the people who live in them are called “sufferers.” 


For Part II of this article, please follow this link.

© Maurie Alioff, 2015

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off and online, including Canadian Cinematographer, Take One, POV Magazine, Salon .ll.and The New York Times, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter. Alioff is also researching other Jamaica-related projects including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island.