Since 2015, the Wilkswood Reggae Festival has been a summer highlight, a relaxed three-day event held in late July on a farm near the village of Langton Matravers, outside Swanage in southwest England. This area of outstanding natural beauty is a stunning location near the Jurassic Coast where dinosaurs once roamed and since Wilkswood is run by a small team devoted to roots reggae and sound system culture, there are always high-calibre artists on the line-up and extracurricular activities, such as spoken word events and artists’ panel discussions.
Needless to say, the 2020 event was postponed because of Covid-19 restrictions, and the 2021 shindig was cancelled at short notice, due to conflicting messages from the British government, a lack of clarity about cancellation insurance and related issues also squashing WOMAD and several other festivals this summer. But such is the devotion of organizer David ‘Daddy U’ Mountjoy of Countryman sound system that all was not lost. When it became clear that the July event could not take place, Wilkswood opted to stage a side event called Carnival In The Barn, a scaled-down three-day alternate in the same location taking place over what would normally be Carnival weekend, focussing on some of the UK’s best sound systems, deejays, and performers.
I reached the venue on the opening Saturday just in time to catch my fellow scribe and sometimes DJ partner, Angus Taylor, taking the decks with a fine selection of vintage Jamaican roots. It has been a pleasure seeing Angus develop his skills over time and on this occasion he kept us grooving with artists like the Chantells and Johnny Clarke, never wrong-footing the crowd with anything wilfully obscure; a resident toaster dropped the odd rhyme on a few occasions, but thankfully did not crowd the music. With decent weather and a spot on the lawn that adjoins the barn, it was the perfect way to ease myself into the event, after the long journey of the day before.
Bristol’s Unique Star with Snoopy at the helm opted for the dubplate burner approach, playing plenty of CD specials saluting the sound in different subgenres, mostly leaning towards contemporary dancehall blasts and some nu-roots. Hearing the sound in full-throttle clash mode didn’t always gel with the surroundings, but there was no doubting the exclusivity of the material aired.
The rest of the evening was presided over by One Nation sound system, a new set from Birmingham in the West Midlands. The likeable quintet that run this quality outfit includes the highly-rated vocalist/producer Prince Jamo and on this occasion they played an easy-going selection of UK and Euro Steppers, slowly building things up from the more melodic end of the form. Naturally, they featured some of Jamo’s productions from labels like Blackrose and Roots Awakening, with several great Don Fe flute melodies drifting in and out of the mix; Jamo came on the mic at key intervals but didn’t overdo it, allowing the music to breathe.
Sunday ended up being the day that news broke of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s passing, which reached me just as I was on my way back to the venue. It was hard to process this information, to say the least, yet an exemplary mega-set from Channel One that lasted most of the day took the edge off of things, especially as Mikey Dread played the music so lovingly on one sole deck, giving salutes to Scratch on the mic with heartfelt reverence. Mikey conjured a lovely atmosphere that permeated the festival site, keeping everyone transfixed, and inspiring many to dance. With a fine balance between classic Jamaican roots and more contemporary material, Mikey displayed all the skill that has given Channel One their top ranking for so many years. As the hours rolled by, the music just got better and better, with classics from iconic figures such as Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Barry Brown, Jacob Miller and so many others. A true highlight with a delightful feeling, which made a lasting impact.
On Carnival Monday, I reached the venue at the tail end of Brixton Heights’ set, with Dario at the decks, keeping the crowd on their toes. Then Countryman backed an artist showcase with the ever-reliable Brother Culture spitting rhymes on the mic and his fellow Jah Revelation alumnus, Ras Diplo at the controls.
As the sun went down and the air got a little chilly, the musical action heated up, as Prince Fatty took to the stage with Horseman and Shenice McMenamin complimenting each other on the mic. Fatty’s reggaefied takes of soul, funk, and rock nuggets, such as ‘90% Of Me Is You,’ ‘Funkin For Jamaica,’ Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ and Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ are always enjoyable and everyone loved the vocal interplay between Shenice and Horseman, Fatty dubbing things up live as the night drew to its climax.
With a relaxed atmosphere, great beer, passable Caribbean food, and easy means of maintaining social distance, the Carnival In The Barn was a great way to spend the Carnival weekend and a laidback way to reacquaint oneself with the festival environment.
The dates for Wilkswood 2022 are already set for 22-24 July, and there is talk of another Carnival in the Barn offshoot, so check the Wilkswood site to stay informed. It is well worth the effort to reach there for either event!
For more information: https://wilkswoodrootsreggaefestival.co.uk/