In 1979, dub-poet Linton Kwesi Johnson released ‘Want Fi Go Rave’, a song that could not be more relevant in our current climate of financial uncertainty and political frustration. Giving voice to the youth, ‘Want Fi Go Rave’ spoke of their disaffection and despair at the political and subsequent musical wasteland they were faced with. Set to a reggae rhythm called a ‘rave-up’, Kwesi Johnson encouraged them to release pent up energy by dancing, even in the streets if there was no other alternative.
Music is the very pulse of nightlife culture the world over, a universal language through which we allow ourselves to experience something bigger than stresses of the day-to-day, regardless of our race, language or social status and without which an ambitious project like the SMIRNOFF NIGHTLIFE EXCHANGE PROJECT could not exist.
After the success that was 'Smirnoff presents Sensation' at the O2 earlier this year, my expectations were justifiably high. Unfortunately, what Smirnoff delivered was an evening in a too-big venue that lacked imagination, with a line up that disappointed to say the least.
How is it that New York got Madonna, Vancouver got A-Trak (would that I could’ve teleported there!), and London gets the questionable pairing of Basement Jaxx – who seemed just as confused as anyone else as to why they were there, delivering a set that reflected as much – and Ms Dynamite? Neither has had a hit in recent memory and, in the case of the former, had any cultural relevance to the night whatsoever, unless you go in for tokenism and count their club night ‘Rooty’ in Brixton held sometime in the nineties.
With the emphasis distinctly less on the music – surely the primary focus of anything to do with nightlife – and more on the 'interactive' Facebook-heavy element, which generated more frustration than fun, the mood of the night suffered massively. Where were the flocks of gorgeous Carnival Queens giving out the drinks tokens on arrival? Two Carnival Queens for 1500 people is not going to cut it. Instead of pensioners in head-to-toe Smirnoff-branded kit, accosting you with clipboards and promises of Amazon Vouchers in return for your contact details, how about a steel drum band in the foyer? Why not huge screens above the stage streaming clips from the party in Jamaica and around the world, instead of the little interactive ‘dance booth’ virtually hidden at the back of the room?
Cheers for the free welcome cocktail and light-up swizzle stick Smirnoff, totes spesh, but in what dark parallel world are techno and dubstep the sounds of Jamaican Nightlife? A grotty warehouse round the back of Tottenham Station maybe, but hardly a carnival in Jamaica.
Where were the Sound Systems – UK-based Aba Shanti-I and Channel One? Sound Clashes? The legend that is David 'Ramjam' Rodigan? If you’re importing acts alongside the likes of Assassin – dancehall’s current golden boy and a major new force on the Jamaican music scene – then what about Alborosie, Jamaica’s favorite Italian transplant and winner of the MOBO Award for Best Reggae Act 2011? You can’t get much more cutting–edge than that! Where were the Dub, Reggae, and Dancehall?
Giving Assassin 10-minute slots to seemingly act as hype-man between the generic dub step and techno DJ sets was frankly disrespectful not only to him but to the opening act, mento legends The Jolly Boys – the youngest of which is possibly in his early 70’s – who got the crowd going with a genius cover of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Rehab’; seriously worth keeping an ear out for, but to the rich musical heritage of Jamaica itself.
There was no Nightlife Exchange happening on Saturday night, just a brush off by a big brand with more ambition than imagination. The SMIRNOFF NIGHTLIFE EXCHANGE PROJECT was less Jamaica meets London than an over-branded supersized version of Clapham’s infamous Infernos on Tikki Nite. I’ll take Linton Kwesi Johnson’s advice and take my dancing to the street…