Throw Me Back To Jamaica #1 – Negril & Stepping High Ganja Fest

Stepping High Ganja Fest

Sunday, March 6th 2016

Touchdown! Reaching sweet Jamaica in Mobay after almost 24 hours of security-extreme-delayed travelling (never EVER will I fly via the US again!), I fill my lungs with the tropical air of this young Sunday morning. Of course the sun is shining, and I don’t mind waiting half an hour for my pick-up driver McKenzie. When he honks his horn at me, I throw my backpack in his car and take my place beside him on the front seat. Our (or rather, my) destination is a Hostel in Negril I booked online, a choice that turns out to be a very recommendable one. Judy House Cottages, the name of the place to be, is a paradise for low-budget backpackers. Located on the quiet hilly outskirts of Western Negril, it welcomes us with a colourful garden and a friendly receptionist. I wave McKenzie farewell and follow Steph through the interlaced pathways that connect the randomly arranged rooms and cottages. After she showed me my room, I explore the hostel grounds a bit and discover a dormitory of hammocks, one of which can be booked for only 12 $ US per night.

Judy House Cottages – Hammock dormitory

Reaching a table among comfortable shades, I am instantly invited to join a group of international wayfarers, hailing from Italy, UK and Hungary. After a bit of small-talk I retire to my room to catch up with a few hours of sleep. Thus refreshed, I wait for the arrival of Peter, a wonderful person and part of the Nanook family whom I got to know in Germany last year when he and other members of the UP-Tour were enchanting us with Jamaican arts and crafts (read more about it HERE). He picks me up around three, and together with two new-found friends from the Hostel we drive to the festival grounds of the…

…Stepping High Ganja Fest!

Smack on the beach of Negril is the venue of this rising star on Jamaica’s Festival sky. An insider’s tip until recently, its 13th edition is the second time that it’s running with an official license, the premiere 2015 profiting from the decriminalization laws in effect since early that year. Thus, it needed some getting used to seeing fully uniformed police officers alongside peacefully celebrating festival-visitors from all over the world, and, more so, hundreds of Ganja plants in all its forms, from seed and seedling via fully-grown Marihuana tree to virtually everything produced from this beneficial plant. Roundabout 40 stalls displayed a wide array of Ital food, fresh fruit juices, herbal medicines, clothes, jewellery, books, arts, crafts and steamers.

Roots wine @ the festival grounds

Before turning to the vitally important musical side of things, let me share with you a few words of the man Lyndon Connell, originator and founder of the Ganja Fest and person behind the scenes. Asked why and how he started, he said:

“It has multiple reasons. Firstly, I want to get everybody high. Using the THC, that’s our life, our enlightening, our enlightener. We know it’s such a divine spiritual connection that the THC has. I’ve reconnected to that fact so I wanna share that, so firstly I wanna get everybody high so they could be in that space to have a clear view of what happens here on surface earth. That’s the first mission of doing this, of being together of the minds, on the same mental level.

Secondly, the economy and the material level, for economic reasons. We know that herb has the potential to grow the economy, to breed income, you know what I mean, it also has that potential. That’s the second thing about it.

And then, the social vibes. You know, it brings about love and actually we are deficient of love here on surface earth, so as a physical being, I see Iself responsible to help to enhance love among us as a  people, as physical beings, you see? This is a deficiency we suffer, so I see that THC also has the potential to create social activity, and we need that. I don’t see any other component that has this potential. So there again, the medical values, the healing values, we need to establish that among the humans, the physical beings, so these are some of the multiple purposes of the event.”

Ganja Cup Contestant

And how exactly did he manage to cooperate with the Police Force in such a respectful and benevolent manner?

Mr. Connell: “Actually, we see ourselves as one people. We are one people, it’s just different philosophies that created that individualistic separation. We happen to be able to actually show the police that we are one, even though they were trained to create a separate kind of column. We just discussed with them for this one and the one last year, before that the Ganja Fest was underground.”

The steady growth from that “underground” status to full-fledged festival has been impressive and is reflected in the captivating line-up. While you will hear about Sunday in detail below, Saturday has to make do with a mere list of artists (as I haven’t been there to see them): No Maddz, Able, Terry Ganzie, Dann-I, Ice-Block, Empress Minott, Empress Joyce, Shush and Wild Life. Lyndon says the following about the choice of performers: “We look for artists that are not so well-known or those that have a corresponding kind of transmission, vibration. So, we try to be diverse, different. Just creating the favourable things that will make ourselves get excited.”

And excitement spread indeed when, after .Wav Empress and Iset Sankofa had played a wonderful warm-up, the stage program unfolded around 5 pm, starting off with a Dub Poetry Open Mic Session. Accompanied by their voice only, Kings and Queens who have something to say passed the mic between them, meditating on subjects such as Ital food, love, education, ghetto life and ancient Egyptian wisdom.

6:30 pm

Taking in a beautiful sunset, we hear the moderator welcoming the Ganja Fest visitors in English, German, Italian, Spanish, French and even Polish. The first two artists (Darkeye from Trinidad and Empress Isachar from JA) have the difficult task to mobilize people to gather around the stage, and by the time surprise-act Torch enters, around 200 of them swing along to his hit Good Reggae Music.

7:21 pm

People keep trickling in while the Tension Invasion Band from MoBay make their appearance with a full horn section, giving way to the Stepping High Band who back up most of the artists of the night.

7:48 pm

Empress time again! Tuff Like Iron makes her appearance, announced as “a multitalented international singer and designer”, and during the next 30 or so minutes, she lives up to this claim to the fullest. Her fashion show the previous day must have been impressive as well, because several people mention it to me.

Tuff Like Iron

8:09 pm

While I interview Roughhouse-boss and festival-organizer Lyndon Connell, the good vibes on stage continue with Ashkenai, Andrea Love, Third Gear and Battle Axe. The biggest surprise for me, so far, is the one called King Fragrance. I cannot help but wonder why we haven’t heard of him before! Born entertainer, he keeps up an active communication with the audience, making people laugh and whistle, and even manages to move people closer to the stage once more. Despite the humorous deliverance of his songs, their content is definitely serious.

9:19 pm

After a nice appearance of an elder called Principal Grundy, the younger generation takes over once more: Loyal Flames! He is firing up the place with his powerful Break Free before clearing stage for Cali P, the Guadeloupian-Swiss artist who has just debuted with his EP Healing Of The Nation.

9:45 pm

Holding the flag high for foundation artists and Reggae music, Yung JR starts his performance with a rendition of his Dad’s international hit One Blood. Ever since having reviewed his debut EP Start The Movement last year, I’ve been curious to see this promising artist live – and what a joy that is! Strolling the stage from left to right, he further delivers songs like General and Raggamuffin, flashing his infectious smile at the skanking audience.

10:33 pm

Moving to one of the little fires around, it’s the perfect spot to experience the Nyabinghi interlude of a few Elders of Rasta around Prof-I. As you support the young and upcoming artists, so you shall respect those who have trodden this earth longer than us!

11:11 pm

Time to give in to the magic of Vaughn Benjamin and his new project Akae Beka. The five-headed band (Ras-I on bass, Kenny Byron and Edmund Fleilleteau on guitar, Suren Fenton on keys and Christian Molina on drums) weave fluid notes into Negril’s star-spotted night sky to which Vaughn chants his words of wisdom in tracks like Meditation, Love The Life You Live or the fervently celebrated Bushman (which had to be pulled up twice). The best possible closing ceremony of this stimulating festival!

Akae Beka

While moderator MC Blaze announces the winners of the accompanying Ganja Cup, backstage manager Ama-Donna leads me to the spot where Vaughn holds a reasoning with some of the awe-struck visitors. It’s good to see how Jamaica embraces this exceptional artist, and I can only start to imagine the epicness of his Kingston show on March 26th!

With that, the festival is over. Its extraordinary blend of roots and culture, old and new, music, art and herbal wisdom as well as the given possibility of liberal purchase and consumption of the Holy Herb itself are traits making this event unique. You should definitely consider prolonging your stay in Jamaica in case you visit Reggae Month this year – it’s well worth it!!!

Monday, March 7th 2016

After a looong sleep that drives any jet-lagged tiredness out of my bones, Peter picks me up once more for brunch at the newly opened Ital Garden Restaurant. Purple Black and Muta, owners and chefs, conjure vegan delicacies that are perfect to start the day with. I get to know the rest of our travelling party – Bastet Iyabinghi and her friend, visiting from St. Croix – and after spending a relaxed afternoon at the beach, we leave around sunset, heading East. Read about Port Antonio and International Women’s Day in Kingston next week in Part 2!

Text & Photos: Gardy Stein

throwforward to #2


About Gardy

Gemini, mother of two wonderful kids, Ph.D. Student of African Linguistics, aspiring author...