By Angus Taylor
Traveling to OverJam in Tolmin, Slovenia by car from Venice, it’s striking how much the winding mountain roads and lush greenery resemble Jamaica. We could be visiting the Blue Mountains or driving up past Stony Hill on the way from Kingston to Portland or Ochi.
Of course, after 3 years’ enforced lack of travel, it’s easy to let one’s imagination run away with itself. It’s been so long that perhaps the mind is painting pictures of Jamaica on any canvas of rural beauty that isn’t home. But two days later, when, on the first official day of the festival, World A Reggae does an impromptu OverJam Radio interview with Jesse Royal, he makes exactly the same comment. There is definitely something similar about the mountain location, at the confluence of two rivers. The magic is real.
Jesse Royal is one of the headliners that evening on the main, Maver stage. He’s got a stripped-down version of his band, understandable post-pandemic. “I didn’t bring my background singers,” he says “you’ll have to be my background singers” during his song Strongest Link (Do My Best). He jumps down into the pit to teach the crowd the lyrics. A woman who has been waving a banner saying “Jesse, One Love” gives him a hug. The track’s theme of money as a corruptor is reflected in much of Jesse’s between-song repartee. “We are in a critical time for humanity. Money is not the answer. Love is the answer”, he says before scathing anti-politician polemic Dirty Money. Rendered live by the band, the infectious Afrobeats polyrhythms resemble the Senegalese rhumba of Orchestra Baobab.
The main highlight of Monday is the late replacement for Nneka: General Levy. On the Maver stage, with DJ Afghan on the “ones and twos”, his drum n bass and the jungle-driven set is ideal for the audience drawn by headliner Djaikovski. But it’s when he follows Afghan into the sound system area, hosted by Friuli’s Warrior Charge sound, that things get really interesting. Hearing Levy’s lyric-twisting “computer tongue” over vintage roots reggae rhythms like Steve Boswell’s Cool Rastaman Cool is an event unlikely to be repeated back in the UK anytime soon.
At the OverJam University discussions on the river beach that day, Djaikovski explained how his love of Jamaican music was driven by the influence of groups such as Leftfield. The same timelessness can be heard in his frenetic cinematic breakbeat and drum n bass productions, with Macedonian folk elements, played live by a violinist, and trumpeter and given voice by emcee-trombonist Roots Man. Sounding unique and fresh, with a catalogue stretching back to the mid-90s, is an impressive feat. Also taking part in the Balkan-themed university panel was dapper, well-drilled Slovenian foundation covers band KocevSKA Orkestra. Their tight playing and focal point in charismatic, good-humoured front man Semo Lee, yielded nice re-treads of time-honoured classics 007, Israelites, You’re Wondering Now and Everything I Own. The group is currently working on original recorded material…
The cheer when Rico from OBF comes on stage to check his setup before the show is a useful gauge of how popular he, Charlie P, and Sr Wilson are with the OverJam massive. “Five minutes!” he mouths sans the mic. The French-formed Swiss sound’s big party-starting collaborations with the English and Spanish emcees are all present (16 Tons Of Pressure, Rub A Dub Mood). But there is a distinctly respectful flavour of salute to the Jamaican foundation: with specials of next-act-on-the-bill Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana, and tomorrow’s veteran draw Max Romeo’s One Step Forward and War Ina Babylon. There is also a moving tribute to recently departed OBF alumni Nazamba aka Wildlife.
The Abyssinians are currently touring without founder member Bernard Collins or longstanding later member David Morrison. Co-founder Donald Manning – exhibiting sprightly dance moves at age 82 – is joined by another late-period stalwart George Henry and new lead singer Everton Pessoa. Pessoa’s rich voice is very different from Bernard’s haunting tone. As well as dancing and providing harmonies, Donald takes the lead on the powerful spoken word to Satta, Mabrak. His two sons are on drum and bass duties.
After the show, World A Reggae chats to the group about their history and the new line-up. Pessoa says the Abyssinians are “restructuring” in the wake of Bernard’s departure due to illness. Donald tells some interesting stories such as how the bible – not school – taught him to read English and how peer pressure from his Rasta brethrens laughing at errors helped him learn Amharic for his songs. He recalls how Rasta elder Mortimer Planno used to send him out for herb on his bicycle from the stables where he was working as a youth. “I can’t like the horse more than the music but I was doing the horse thing before the music” he confirms. He also talks about his strict methods for making his sons practice their instruments and says some unprintable things about his time at Studio 1.
Skarra Mucci, backed by France’s Dub Akom band, gives a different kind of history lesson. His My Sound is based on Wendy Rene’s soul classic After Laughter, and he takes us through the Jamaican songbook with the Maytals’ Bam Bam and Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.
The core of Dub Akom stays on to back operatic voiced Trinidadian diva (in the correct and positive sense of the word) Queen Omega. “Good to see your beautiful faces,” she says as she powers through Judgement and her reggae gospel cover of Amazing Grace. “This one is brand new off my new album – still to be released” she confides before sharing the fresh song Kingdom. Her high note at the end of said album’s first single Fittest demonstrates that her voice is nothing short of extraordinary live.
“This is the last show of my tour,” she tells the adoring crowd “I hope you’re having fun. I’ve been doing this since I was two years old”. At the OverJam University on the beach earlier that day she recalled how she started singing in contests as a tiny child. “We all have a purpose,” she continues “we are spiritual beings. Thanks for the good vibes”. As an encore she invites Skarra Mucci and one of Thursday’s headliners Soom T to the stage for a freestyle, taking the places of Capleton and Sizzla, on her breakout Warning.
Sadly, bad weather caused Channel One Sound and Matic Horns’ flight to be cancelled. This leaves a gap on the Maver stage – ably filled by one of the hardest working performers of the festival, Friuli’s Warrior Charge sound featuring emcee D-Vibe. They recreate a similar feel to a Channel One session, starting with foundation tunes like Beres Hammond and Zap Pow’s Last War before moving into digital steppers. Meanwhile, their rig is running as host of the sound system area – making Warrior Charge the only act on the bill to appear at two areas simultaneously.
Max Romeo is traveling with much of his immediate family and a horn section – a testimony to his clan’s acumen. He starts his set with strong newer material such as The Love Of Money and Timebomb. Only later does he come in with the big Perry productions One Step Forward and War Ina Babylon – at which the place explodes. The finale, in keeping with most tours, is a medley of ska classics from the era he entered the business. “Give all thanks to Rastafari, I’m just the messenger,” he says by way of explanation for the fact that year in, year out, he never delivers a bad show. His son Azizzi and his daughter Xana take the stage to sing a few tunes as an interlude. Both are vocally gifted, but Xana’s poise and star quality suggest she could be packing out festivals like Max in years to come.
The family vibes continue with a double set combo from Madrid’s Emeterians and Pordenone’s Mellow Mood. Emeterians walk on to their fiery Ras Kuko-produced protestation Judging Not, whose lyrics they explained eloquently at the OverJam University that day. “What a show from Max Romeo,” says Maga Lion. “He made the way” says Sister Maryjane. Respect for the foundation is what it’s all about as they segue from Music Lover to Perry’s Run For Cover on the same Peckings-leased rhythm. Mellow Mood’s band, anchored by bassist Giulio, works with them to create one of their most moving festival performances.
Mellow Mood’s last album, 2018’s Large, was a massive step up from an already high level of success. They suggest it’s no fluke or plateau with material from their new album Mañana, at the time still a few days away from release. As well as known singles Mr. Global and My Bed they slap the crowd hard with the new tune Dub Jah Bless (on what sounds like the Ganja Smuggling rhythm). It goes without saying that tunes from Large and the previous albums land. “In these days you can’t say anything, everybody gets offended by everything,” says the dry-humoured, mischievous half of the Garzia twins, Lorenzo, as an intro to the scathing Ms. Mary. “I fight for your right to say what you think about me” is his new libertarian approach to his old landlady. They were always going to call back Emeterians for their collaboration I and I Chant, written by Lorenzo and Jacopo with the trio in mind – but that takes nothing from the result.
The inevitable mountain rain pours down on Thursday, meaning an interview on OverJam radio with reggae-loving Paralympian Martina Caironi must be canceled mid-conversation. “This is climate change” are her last words before the mic is packed away.
The rainstorm subsides and that evening the Maver hosts two of the biggest and most powerful performers of the festival. Alborosie, like Max the previous day, starts with some of his later songs such as his rework of Wailing Souls Shark Attack and For The Culture. The visceral syn drums of the Shengen Clan band hit the audience squarely in the chest, as Pupa Albo stalks us like a tiger on stage. Midway through the set, he takes up the bass – as he probably could most instruments in the band.
Soon it’s time for the original singles run of bust-out classics. Having prowled with quiet authority he breaks into a flurry of dance steps to a ska stepper rendition of Herbalist. Then, during Kingston Town, he does something unusual. “You make too much noise,” he says to the musicians, telling them to pipe down and that he’s not enjoying the music. At first, it seems like he is having an onstage meltdown but he’s doing an in-character rant as the anti-reggae voice of war, of Babylon. Then, as if wrestling with himself, he counteracts by saying “We’re not supposed to kill each other, we’re supposed to love each other. But who am I to tell you that?” he says, shifting the ground again, “I’m just a singer, a Rasta. Love is the only way to survive”. As well as composer, producer, engineer, singer, deejay, and multi-instrumentalist, one wonders if he could have been an actor…
As ever, Morgan Heritage makes a reggae festival like a rock concert. Guitars squeal, choruses explode, and people punch the air and sing along to the oldies like Don’t Haffi Dread. In Slovenia, where rock music is very popular, they are clearly dearly loved. The emotionally charged atmosphere is further bolstered by small showers of rain. Gramps is vocally very present but stays behind his keyboard. Peetah stands centre stage, commanding the crowd. Mr. Mojo is particularly active, coming out to rap, deejay, and imitate Capleton during Jah Jah City, as a follow-up to Liberation.
The antidote to all this bombast on the main stage is Soom T and DJ Fleck in the Jammin’ area. Her uncategorisable voice with its unique tones and smoky jazz phrasing soars then tap dances over the rhythms of their live PA set. Songs like I Wanna Live from the recent album Good are stunning in their beauty. Her rapport with the quickly packed-out audience is instant and completely natural.
The 10th edition of OverJam suffers the closest thing to a blow when headliner Collie Buddz, despite being on site, is too unwell to take the stage. But had he been able to follow one of the festival’s strongest performances by Hempress Sativa, it would have been a bonus. The daughter of veteran drummer, singer, and 12 Tribes selector Albert Malawi, she is a modern Jamaican artist who creates the vibe of a foundation legend in their prime. People don’t shout, punch the air or sing along as they do for Morgan Heritage. The crowd sways, locked in communion and introspection, as if stunned by what they hear.
As a replacement for Collie Buddz, a collection of local musicians is assembled, led by one of the sound system area’s gifted and frequent mic men, Tadiman. The jamming session that ensues features festival artistic director Fulvio on drums and festival boss Tesky on hand percussion. For such a friendly, perfectly sized festival, where so many musical links and friendships are made and cemented over the five days, there couldn’t be a more fitting way to go out.
By Angus Taylor