Walking into a dark and sparsely occupied arena around 2 p.m. on Saturday, sliding on the loose floor-protection squares while rushing to the stage where Richie Spice was about to perform, it was difficult to grasp the musical experience that was to take place here: an entire weekend dedicated to Bob Marley and reggae music.
The 25th annual Ragga Muffins Festival was a two-day celebration of reggae with some of the biggest icons the genre has ever produced. It also served as a musical haven for people of any race, age or other category society might use to divide them.
A middle-aged Latino man with tattoos completely covering his forearms grooved to the same tune as a blonde girl that looked like she could have walked straight off the set of the O.C. The 23,000 people who attended the festival saw performances from artists that have been around long enough for their dreadlocks to grow down to their calves. Reggae was represented from the roots on up.
Richie Spice emerged on stage to clear air with the faint smell of newly burnt incense.
Dozens of vendors in the lobby and outside peddled all types of souvenirs and food. The aroma from freshly barbecued Jamaican jerk chicken mixed in the air with the scent of spicy Thai noodles, hit your olfactory bulb like a freight train stirring up growls from the stomachs of reggae fans at an all day festival.
A little competition on the beer selling front would have been nice to see, because $12 for a cup of Heineken was ridiculous.
Richie Spice played songs like “Earth a Run Red,” “Youths are so cold,” and “Grooving My Girl” during his 35-minute set, which saw the steady increase in the audience as the crowd flowed through the entrance doors flocked to the stage. It must have been difficult to put on an energetic performance for 500 people in an arena that holds 13,000.
Looking up at the bleachers lighters were randomly sparking in every section across the arena like a swarm of fireflies followed by a puff of smoke ascending toward the ceiling.
Alton Ellis supplied the rock steady for the day, giving the romantic couples and newly acquainted singles something to vibe to with songs like “I’m Still in Love.” At the age of 61, Ellis and his music were still appealing to the youth. Even though this was probably the first time many of them had ever heard the original version of “I’m Still in Love” they were still rocking to it steadily.
In the afternoon it had become impossible to escape the layer of smoke that settled in, hovering above the heads of the audience. A spotlight scanning across the stage looked reminiscent of a lighthouse signaling out to ships in the night fog.
A DJ playing Bob Marley songs between sets asked for the crowd to turn their lighters on momentarily, creating a sight to be seen in an otherwise dim arena. Nowadays people just flip open their cell phones in a situation like this, but not this crowd.
While Lee “Scratch” Perry had everybody waiting in vain by not making it to the festival, reggae legend Gregory Isaacs had to mantle the task of delivering a performance on par with the crowds expectations. The Cool Ruler lived up to his nickname’s reputation and delivered a solid performance.
The 55-year-old Isaacs didn’t look much like the reggae superstar he was in his younger days. Long gone were his dreads, and in his black suit, tie and hat. He looked more apt to be on his way for a Sunday stroll in the than to be performing for 10,000 screaming fans.
Regardless of what he looked like, there was no mistaking that this was the man people had come to see. The audience in the bleachers stood up out of their seats and the ones on the floor migrated closer to the stage.
After nearly nine hours of reggae music, the MC thanked everyone for coming out, not realizing Lutan Fyah had yet to perform. He tried calling the concert goers back in after realizing his mistake, but the exodus toward the exit was hard to stop.
Not discouraged by the departing audience, Lutan Fyah still put on an entertaining and energetic show to cap off the first day of Ragga Muffins Festival.
Day two was equally packed with reggae veterans and new stars. The sold out Long Beach Arena got to see Freddie McGregor make his long overdue comeback to Ragga Muffins Festival, not having performed there since the first one 25 years ago.
Ras Michael, an old friend and colleague of Bob Marley, sang some of Marley’s most famous songs, such as “Redemption Song” and “Get Up Stand Up,” as well as some of his own. He also joined in with his percussionists to play the Nyabinghi “burra” drum, an instrument he has become famous for in his roots, rock reggae.
In the shadows there was a tall, thin silhouette of a highly anticipated performer taking in the performances of Ras Michael and Luciano.
Luciano arguably presented the most energetic performance out of the whole festival. With a never ending radiant smile on his face he just about covered every square inch of the stage as he flipped, jumped and ran all over it with his wooden cane.
Around 8 p.m. Matisyahu stepped out of the shadows and onto the stage in his long black coat and thick beard. Anxious to get the show started he cut his introduction short and signaled the announcer to leave. A seemingly endless ear-piercing roar emanated from the audience as he walked on stage. An Israeli flag was seen in the ocean of fans from all religious backgrounds. Undoubtedly Matisyahu has had an immense influence on reggae music already by introducing it to Orthodox Jews who up until now have been fairly secluded from the genre.
Backed by a potent three-man band, Matisyahu’s Hasidic reggae engaged the arena audience. Songs like “King Without a Crown” and “Aish Tamid” were among the highlights. Matisyahu explained that Aish Tamid is Hebrew for continuous fire, representing the soul, which is an eternal flame that evil cannot put out. He also did some memorable beatboxing and combined with a tireless Luciano on stage for a short collaboration. The duet seemed to excite Matisyahu as much as the audience, as a boyish smile appeared on his otherwise serious face.
The Wailers set almost turned into a sing-along performance with their renditions of “One Love,” “Buffalo Soldier,” “Exodus” and the other classic reggae tunes. Lead singer Gary “Nesta” Pine had the difficult task of filling the shoes of the most famous reggae vocalist of all time, but he did an admirable job and added his own flair to it.
Organizers Barbara Barabino and Moss Jacobs did a great job assembling the festival and gathering all of these great reggae legends along with performers from the younger generation. It would have been nice to see one of the Marley sons there, Damian for example, but the festival did a marvelous job spreading the message of peace and love. Concertgoers could only “give thanks and praise,” as the Rastafarians say, when leaving the greatest reggae party of the year.
Johan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.