The Reggae Sunsplash festival was the brainchild of four Jamaicans - Tony Johnson, Don Green, Ronnie Burke and John Wakeling. The four founding directors created a company called Synergy Productions Ltd, which was responsible for promoting and producing the Reggae Sunsplash festival.
The first Reggae Sunsplash festival was staged at Jarrett Park, Montego Bay, Jamaica, in June 1978 and began at dusk and continued until dawn for seven days. It was billed as the "biggest Reggae festival in the history of the world". The festival introduced the concept of music and travel as a boost to tourism in Jamaica. Prior to the staging of Reggae Sunsplash, the hotels in Jamaica were traditionally closed during the summer period. The four founding partners staged the festival each year for a number of years and successfully created an annual summer tourist season in Jamaica. The success of Reggae Sunsplash led to a wave of annual music festivals in Jamaica and the Caribbean islands. The festivals popularity led to a shortage of hotel rooms and a tradition of camping out on local beaches.
To promote Jamaica as a tourist and travelling target in Europe, the Jamaica Tourist Board invited in 1983 the German band Supermax as opening act of the annual festival in Montego Bay. Clever was to invite also several German journalists to report not only about the festival but also about the sunny side of Jamaica.
From 1981 the festivals were filmed and recorded, with several videos and albums released, the first being Reggae Sunsplash '81: Tribute to Bob Marley, released by Elektra Records. From 1987 the festival included a sound clash event, with finalists from a national sound system competition competing as a precursor to the rest of the festival. The festival also expanded to include an 'oldies night' featuring stars from past eras of Jamaican music. For many years the festival was emcee's by Tommy Cowan.
In 1984 the Reggae Sunsplash festival also expanded into international events with a one-day festival staged at The Crystal Palace in London, England. In 1985 the Reggae Sunsplash World tour was launched in the USA and Japan and subsequent years saw the Reggae Sunsplash festival touring extensively throughout North America, Europe, South America and the Far East. 1991 saw the introduction of a 'Caribbean Night' featuring other Caribbean music such as soca, and the following year the festival's scope increased further with the addition of a 'World Beat Night'.
While the festival had become hugely popular, opening new global tourist niche markets to Jamaica and attracting millions of dollars of foreign exchange into the country, it had not been a financial success, largely due to the lack of sponsorship or government support. In 1995 the Chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board operating through a company called Radobar Holdings Ltd offered financial assistance in exchange for equity in Synergy Productions, the founders of Reggae Sunsplash. This initial offer was never consummated and in a disputed claim Radobar Holdings announced the formation of a company called Reggae Sunsplash International in Jamaica and proceeded with the hostile take over of the Reggae Sunsplash festival. The first attempt at staging Reggae Sunsplash without the original owners Synergy Productions in 1996 was a financial disaster for the new claimants. In 1997 the Reggae Sunsplash festival was postponed until 1998 when it was timed to coincide with celebrations of the birth of Bob Marley but more losses were incurred. More futile attempts at recapturing the original spirit of the Reggae Sunsplash festival were never replicated by the Radobar group.
The festival was re-established by the Johnson family in 2006, but it was not successful. The international touring festival, however, has continued.
Two of the founding directors, John Wakeling and Tony Johnson died and with the passing of Tony Johnson a number of individuals have tried to claim the rights to the festival unsuccessfully and all have failed to recapture the spirit of the legendary Reggae Sunsplash. Don Green and Ronnie Burke are the two remaining Reggae Sunsplash founders alive.
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