by MUSIC NEWS
THE Reggae Geel Festival, which takes place August 2-3 in Belgium, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
One of Europe’s oldest reggae events, it started in 1978 as a sound system fair in the town of Geel Bel. It has become massively successful, attracting over 30,000 fans annually.
“We’re still close to the original venue in the woods of Geel Bel. But due to the expansion of the festival and considerations of safety, we moved to another venue. Geel, the town, is pretty central in Belgium (which is about the size of Jamaica),” festival spokesman Rigo Verwimp told the Jamaica Observer.
He says Geel was once used by Belgium’s mental health authorities as a rehabilitation centre for the mentally-challenged. The reggae festival has become its most viable asset.
Verwimp spoke about changes for this year’s show.
“We decided to switch the outlay of the venue around. Our patrons will have more space,” he said. “All stages will run simultaneously and the main stage will open on Friday. The main stage features a broad spectrum of reggae live shows, the other stages are more track shows and sound systems.”
Verwimp says the first 10 years of the Reggae Geel Festival drew an average 1,500 people annually. In 1987 after facing bankruptcy it became a free festival.
Since 1997, patrons have been paying again to see their favourite reggae artiste or hear top sound systems.
Despite a period of financial instability, protests from the Belgian gay community may have been the event’s greatest challenge.
This was in response to violent utterances by several Jamaican dancehall acts against the gay lifestyle.
“The Belgian reggae community — promoters, journalists, festivals took the initiative to go and talk with the gay rights associations to prevent the seemingly random boycotts of reggae events,” Verwimp recalled.
“The statement inciting hate, discrimination or violence towards gay people is important. You’re allowed to have your stand on homosexuality. If you think it is wrong, that’s your personal view. What cannot be accepted is promoting hate, discrimination or violence.”
The European reggae festival circuit has become increasingly competitive in the last five years. Verwimp believes the professionalism of these events makes it easier for promoters to book Jamaican acts.
He says the Reggae Geel Festival has become a consistent income earner for the region.
“It incorporates the local community by funding organisations rather than individuals to participate in running the festival,” he explained. “Many non-profit organisations in the social sector perform services to Reggae Geel and in turn Reggae Geel funds them. For example, the local school exploits the breakfast tent and in so doing raise extra funds for activities.”
Among the Jamaican acts performing on the festival this year are Freddie McGregor, Third World, Barrington Levy, Marcia Griffiths, Capleton, Busy Signal, Romain Virgo, Gyptian, Protoje, Jah 9, Pentateuch and Iba Mahr.