Beats by the Beach
I’m surrounded by about 2000 people, some dancing blissfully with their eyes closed, others transfixed on the evening’s entertainment. Jamaican reggae and dancehall superstar Anthony B is up on the stage, belting out his hit song ‘Real Warriors’ as he struts back and forth. He moves to centre stage and pauses, beaming out at the crowd.
“Exercise time,” he announces, with a playful grin. “We call this dancehall aerobics,” he continues, rallying the crowd to follow his lead as he pumps both hands in the air to the beat of the music.
“Hands up! Hands up!” he instructs, as he breaks into a dance variation of a star jump. The crowd cheers him on, although he’s clearly not done.
“Sit on your bicycle seat and pedal, pedal, pedal,” he sings out, prompting the most enthusiastic (or, more likely, inhibition-free) fans to hunch over make-believe cycles as if they are mimes on their own Tour de France.
But this isn’t some sort of mega Zumba class. Anthony B is the headlining act of Goa Sunsplash, India’s largest reggae festival. On one hand, it’s like most other reggae festivals on earth. While there’s plenty of home-grown talent here, the bulk of the performers are international, with the likes of the UK’s Channel One Sound System and Australian beatboxer and bass producer Dub FX on the bill. There are also dance workshops, yoga classes and even panel discussions led by Donisha Prendergast, Bob Marley’s granddaughter.
However, in many ways, Goa Sunsplash is anything but your typical reggae festival. First of all, it’s in Goa, a tiny seaside state known for its mix of sandy beaches and lush jungles superimposed with centuries-old Portuguese forts and churches, vegan cafes and a seemingly endless number of booze shops. Goa is also the birthplace of psychedelic trance, high-BPM electronic music that can run the gamut from uplifting to mind-fucking – basically the antithesis of laidback roots reggae.
Perhaps even more striking is that unlike most music festivals, Sunsplash is neither in a big club nor a big field. Instead, the event is staged at Riva Beach Resort, one of a handful of high-end hotels in the northernmost reaches of Goa, an area otherwise dominated by cheap backpacker guesthouses and roadside stalls selling healing crystals. More curious still is that for the duration of the festival, the resort continues to operate as normal, so people who just happen to have booked a stay at Riva during Sunsplash weekend end up as de facto festival guests.
Yet nobody here seems out of place. Sure, there’s no shortage of usual suspects in attendance. A quick glance into the crowd reveals plenty of dreadlocks, bare feet and Lion of Judah t-shirts, not to mention the occasional awkwardly unaware youngster garbed in a Native American war bonnet. But there are also plenty of day-drinking pensioners among the crowd, along with young families towing toddlers.
Like most events in Goa, the crowd is decidedly global. While it’s clear plenty of people have come from around the world to attend Sunsplash, many are from elsewhere in India, particularly from urban hubs such as Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad where reggae in its many forms has a strong and solid fan base.
But this hasn’t always been the case.
When I first moved to India in the mid-noughties, the most reggae you’d hear was ‘No Woman, No Cry’ occasionally blasting over the speakers in a smoky backpacker cafe. The scene began to take off at the end of the 2010s, when bands, DJs and collectives influenced by the sounds of Jamaica began gaining prominence across India. At the forefront of the movement was New Delhi’s Reggae Rajahs, a sound-system crew who, in the course of a few short years, went from throwing low-key reggae and dancehall nights in South Delhi – where I first got acquainted with them – to opening for the likes of Major Lazer and Snoop Dogg. In 2016, the Rajahs took their efforts to the next level, launching Goa Sunsplash as a one-day event headlined by Britain’s General Levy, before extending it to two days the following year.
At one point during this year’s festivities, I find myself drawn to a huge throng of people swarming around a side stage, their howling cheers nearly drowning out the heavy basslines of an upbeat dancehall riddim thumping through the speakers. As I get closer, I realise that the star attraction isn’t the DJ but a dancer, a 20-something Indian woman who’s effortlessly switching from fast-paced footwork to perfectly timed gyrations, known in the dancehall culture as whining, as the crowd cheers her on. Impressed, I pull out my phone and begin livestreaming her performance, too captivated by her talent to notice that an old friend from Delhi, who has been involved in this scene from the beginning, has sidled up to me.
“We definitely wouldn’t have seen this a decade ago,” he shouts over the din. Though my eyes remain on the stage, I can hear an unmistakable note of joy in his voice. I assume he’s talking about her sensual dancing, which, even today, could raise eyebrows in socially conservative India.
I nod then second-guess myself, thinking back on the many nights I spent with him and our little circle of reggae-loving friends, bouncing about on makeshift dancefloors in tiny South Delhi bars. It occurs to me that his comment is not in reference to the dancing, or at least not alone. He’s talking about the entire tableau before us – the three stages, the world-famous performers, the 2500-odd jubilant fans, many of whom have flown halfway around the world to be here.
“Who would have thought?” I concur, realising I’ve been spending so much time capturing photos and videos that I haven’t given myself enough time to simply experience it. I put my phone away. Then we both begin to dance.
Air India has direct flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Delhi, where travellers can take onward flights to Vasco de Gama Airport in Goa. From the airport, it’s 90 minutes by taxi to Mandrem.
While Goa Sunsplash doesn’t offer accommodation packages, travellers can book rooms directly through Riva Beach Resort. There are also a few affordable hotels in the town of Mandrem, most within a 10-minute walk of the festival, and plenty of guesthouses and hostels in nearby Arambol, about 10 minutes away by motorbike.
Goa Sunsplash takes place in January each year, and from 2020 will become a three-day festival. The website has ticket information, line-up details and workshop schedules. For more information about travel in Goa, visit the Goa Department of Tourism website.