Minus headliner, Lee "Scratch" Perry
Respect Jamaica 50 - Ras Lawi With Reggae Vibes

Here comes the bad news. Lee “Scratch” Perry is supposed to headline the first night of the Respect Jamaica 50 Festival, but he can’t. “His flight from Switzerland has been cancelled. It’s the first tragedy with traffic in the London Olympics,” the audience hears with evident regret.

Step up, The Upsetters.

You have to feel for Dreadie D, Kirk Service, Derek Johnson and Spider. They are the UK-based avatar of Lee Perry’s backing band and have the entirely unenviable task of keeping this show together. Spider – the keyboardist, who has assumed a brunt of the vocal responsibilities – admits the problem towards the end. “We can play instruments. But we can’t open minds,” he laments.

Does The Upsetter himself feel upset he couldn’t be here? Who knows? Who really knows anything about what goes on in Mr. Lee “Scratch” Perry’s mind? All we know is that he has cancelled a concert, again, and that we now need an immense reserve of positive vibrations to keep the room alive.

So, when someone shouts out questioningly, “Where’s Lee “Scratch” Perry, dude?” it doesn’t really help.

The main man’s absence is kept secret when the Mad Professor is earlier on stage. The Prof and his two toasters, Dego Ranks and Kar Melody, are masters in their art. But they let themselves fade away for a bit after introducing a petite, fearsome new singer called ‘Red Head’. That name might well change, but the woman’s voice is here to stay.

The best place to keep track of her is Ariwa records, the Prof says. He is wearing an Ariwa t-shirt. Some of these t-shirts are gifted to the crowd. So are some new Ariwa CDs. In fact, like a slightly loco Santa, the Prof repeatedly digs his hand into a sack of Ariwa goodies to be given away.

But, it’s worth spending money on the label from the evidence at hand; when Ranks plays around with Damian Marley’s ‘Welcome to Jamrock’, and turns it into ‘Welcome to the O2’, you feel like you are at the right place. The waterside arena is decked up for London 2012. But it’s the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence that’s being celebrated here in this space. That’s what this festival is about, and Spider reminds us about it at one point when – despite the lengthy effort from the Mad Professor’s crew and the crafty tempo of The Upsetters – the pall of gloom over Lee Perry’s absence has remained.

But all has not come to an end. “The festival will carry on and I’ll be here. So I’ll see you if you’re there,” Spider says. There will be a galaxy of other reggae musicians in attendance. All of them have a hand in holding up the “one love” flame, which – like that other flame burning in the city – has an inherent purpose of bringing the world closer together. The strength of that message should be our primary concern, apart from indulging ourselves in songs and sports. So, now that we know the bad news, as well as the good news that we are getting our money back, what do we do?

“Just play some music man,” another person shouts from the back.

He is the one with the right idea. Because we need to ask ourselves this question: does it matter that Lee “Scratch” Perry has gone missing again?

Words by Shunashir Sen
Photo by Stephen Fourie

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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