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Reggae, Ambience Mesh at Sunsplash

May 25, 1998|DON HECKMAN

In a busy Memorial Day weekend, Reggae Sunsplash 1998 at the Greek Theatre more than held its own Saturday, with a jam-packed crowd of enthusiasts eagerly greeting a 4 1/2-hour, nonstop program of eclectic reggae.

The celebration (dedicated to the event's former producer Tony Johnson, who died in 1997) once again reached beyond the music in an effort to encompass the full Jamaican ambience. Food and crafts booths opened at 1 p.m. and continued into the evening, selling clothing, jewelry, food, records and every imaginable device in which to process and smoke tobacco (or anything else).

And a colorfully dressed crowd, whose ethnic and racial mix clearly demonstrated the reach of reggae and Jamaican culture, enjoyed it all, moving back and forth between the theater and the vendors' area, greeting each act with cheers, singing along as the emcees recalled Bob Marley hits.

Appropriately, however, it was the music that was the centerpiece of Sunsplash. And its most intriguing aspect was the view it presented of reggae as music with open-ended, far-reaching potential, capable of embracing many different stylistic elements--a perfect reflection of the program's professed desire to "Unite the World Through Music."

The diverse lineup included the group Third World, singers Gregory Isaacs, Marcia Griffiths and Chevelle Franklyn, "ragamuffin" rapper Shinehead, "dub poet" Oku Onuora and the local ska band Hepcat.

The veteran band Third World, performing in the climactic star position, brought the crowd to its feet with a string of hits, including the Top 20 "Now That We Found Love." Typically, the music frequently ranged far afield from fundamental reggae, but it was never less than gripping. Singing with a sweet, collective vocal sound, with William "Bunny Rugs" Clarke providing soaring solos, Third World may not completely satisfy reggae fundamentalists. But there was no denying the appeal of its music, regardless of its category.

Also weighing in on the side of sweet reggae, Isaacs, Jamaica's finest balladeer for more than two decades, offered medleys of his numerous romantic hits. But he also tossed in a few of his "reality" songs, underscoring his capacity to stay in touch with the rapidly shifting landscape of reggae styles.

Among the other participants, Hepcat was a surprising standout. Identified as a ska ensemble (with roots in Toots & the Maytals), Hepcat actually moved in far more diverse directions. Blending Latin rhythms with jazz and rock soloing, alternating pure reggae with the shuffle rhythms of ska, Hepcat typified Sunsplash 98's message of "one-love, peace and harmony."

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