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SYNERGY: THE FORCE BEHIND REGGAE SUNSPLASH!

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

 

Following the announcement that Synergy would not be part of Reggae Sunsplash’s promotion in 1994, journalist G Fitz Bartley saluted their contribution as founders of the festival.

“Thanks for the memories,” he wrote in the Jamaica Herald.

Bob Marley (right) with children Ziggy (left) and Stephen performing on Reggae Sunsplash at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay, St James, in 1979. (Photo: Adrian Boot - Midnignt Raver)

Bob Marley (right) with children Ziggy (left) and Stephen performing on Reggae Sunsplash at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay, St James, in 1979. (Photo: Adrian Boot – Midnignt Raver)

Formed in 1977, Synergy launched Reggae Sunsplash on the proverbial shoestring budget in 1978 at Jarrett Park, Montego Bay.

The company had a formidable team of ‘dreamers’ led by Tony Johnson, Don Green, Ronnie Burke and John Wakeling. The first Reggae Sunsplash was held June 23-30 with Jimmy Cliff as headliner. Dennis Brown, Third World, Inner Circle, and Toots and The Maytals were also on the show.

Despite its impressive line-up, it did not attract a massive crowd. The following year, when Bob Marley was the star, Reggae Sunsplash came of age.

Ronnie Burke, one of Reggae Sunsplash’s principals

Ronnie Burke, one of Reggae Sunsplash’s principals

“Everything started to come into place. The bookings for Montego Bay was so overwhelming they (tourism interests) had a crisis. Montego Bay had to send for staff that had been sent home for the holidays, trucks were rolling in from Kingston with liquor from GraceKennedy and all the big suppliers…it was chaos,” Burke told the Jamaica Observer in 2015.

Synergy’s strength was their adventure. Sunsplash not only featured Cliff and Marley, but exposed diverse artists who went on to bigger things, including dub poet Mutabaruka, British band Steel Pulse, and dancehall acts like Yellowman.

It was never all about the money, Burke pointed out. And it was not easy getting sponsorship given social prejudice against reggae and Rasta.

“If we had been businessmen, and not some guys with a vision, we would have called it a day from early,” he said.

The idea for a reggae festival in Jamaica came from Johnson and Green, who lived in Los Angeles and New York, respectively.

sunsplash

According to Burke, they saw the popularity of reggae grow overseas and were surprised it was still treated as a poor cousin in the land of its birth.

It would take some time before Reggae Sunsplash saw a profit, but it earned Montego Bay and tourism a pretty penny in its heyday. Sixteen years after it started Synergy was no longer in charge.

Johnson ran Reggae Sunsplash International for several years, promoting shows in Europe, North America, and Japan. He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1997. Wakeling died from lung cancer the following year. Green still resides in New York. Burke, now 75, is the only member of the four to receive a national award.

He was awarded the Order of Distinction in 2015 by the Jamaican government for his contribution to the development of the country’s music.

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