Among his many roles as host and co-producer of the 2014’s inaugural Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, Damian Marley warmly greeted passengers from the main stage during the late afternoon sail-away party, just prior to setting the bar for the trip with a blistering performance. Over the subsequent three nights, Marley made guest appearances during several artists’ sets and graciously posed for countless photos with fans and industry colleagues.
Due to popular demand, two Welcome to Jamrock cruises will sail from the Port of Miami to Jamaica this year; Nov. 30 through Dec. 5, and Dec. 5 through Dec. 10. “We were almost sold out for 2015 without doing anything, so we made the decision to put on two cruises,” says Dan Dalton. “As of mid-March, both ships are 85% sold out, and we will be entirely sold out months in front of the cruise. Our only advertising is the few thousand dollars spent on boosting Facebook posts.”
Both cruises will offer identical entertainment rosters featuring some of the greatest acts Jamaica has produced. Joining Damian and his older brothers Julian, Ky-Mani and Stephen Marley are the world-renowned, prolific drum and bass duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, backing Mykal Rose, former lead singer of harmony trio Black Uhuru. (Sly and Robbie produced four Black Uhuru albums with Rose for Island Records including Anthem, winner of the inaugural Best Reggae Album Grammy in 1985.) Also making their cruise debut are venerable band Third World, UK-born Maxi Priest, who topped the Hot 100 in 1990 with “Close To You”, vocal powerhouse Barrington Levy, rapidly ascending Rastafarian sing-jay Protoje, (who debuted atop the Reggae Albums chart this week with “Ancient Future”), fiery chanter Capleton, dancehall’s energy god Elephant Man, singing and deejaying harmony quartet TOK and the sole female act, mold-shattering singer/songwriter Tanya Stephens.
Returning this year are sibling roots band Morgan Heritage, thunderous deejay Cham, silky crooner Christopher Ellis (from the Marley family’s Ghetto Youths camp) and contemporary roots singer/songwriter Tarrus Riley and his Blak Soil Band, led by the revered saxophonist Dean Fraser.
At the midpoint of each cruise, December 3 and 8, respectively, as the ships navigate Jamaica’s waters, the lineup will be comprised of artists, who, for assorted reasons, do not have US visas/work permits: the emotive singer Jah Cure, versatile sing-jay Busy Signal and his mentor the iconic deejay Bounty Killer are all returning this year and will be joined by former Vybz Kartel protege deejay Popcaan.
Dalton admits that organizing two back-to-back cruises isn’t the ideal solution for accommodating the thousands of reggae lovers who want to set sail this year, and he is currently in discussions to secure a vessel with nearly 4,000 available cabins for Jamrock’s (single) 2016 voyage. “Although the Pearl has functioned beautifully for us, we will be announcing the details of the larger ship and 2016’s specific dates and artist lineup from this year’s cruises. Passengers will have first dibs.”
Working alongside Marley and Dalton on the presentation of the cruise are Brian Edelman of William Morris Endeavor, longstanding booking agent for Damian and Stephen Marley, WME’s Cruise Division head Mike Rosenfeld and California-based Flying Dutchmen Travel, who specialize in music-themed cruises and handle the Jamrock cruise’s ticketing. Tiered pricing for the 2015 cruises begins at $724.00 for an interior cabin and increases to $2,774.00 for an ocean view owners suite. Meals and entertainment (not including alcohol, of course) are included.
Behind the scenes, Damian and his manager and partner in Jamrock Productions Dan Dalton (also of Career Artist Management) — the cruise’s producers — navigated the many details which provided a comprehensive, authentic Jamaican experience such as the daily jerk chicken barbeque, afternoon screenings of Jamaican and reggae-themed films, and a lineup of 17 acts which struck a balance between deejays (Jamaican rappers) and singers, reggae veterans and current dancehall stars. “All of the artists involved were proud to see reggae music taking this historic step, and that showed in the caliber of the performances,” Damian Marley told Billboard at the end of his 2014 Welcome to Jamrock Reggae cruise (so named for his 2006 Best Reggae Album Grammy Award-winner Welcome to Jamrock, which peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, and its blockbuster title track, which reached no. 55 on the Hot 100). “People everywhere listen to reggae, but it doesn’t sell a lot of units so we have to find other ways to build the business… this cruise shows how successful reggae can be if the business is put together properly.”
Jamaican sound systems (i.e. mobile discos), at the root of the island’s recording industry and still an essential vehicle for breaking reggae/dancehall hits, were prominently showcased last year in after-hours sessions which often continued through dawn. The most talked about session was delivered by sound system veteran, producer and architect in the development of dub, Lloyd “King Jammy” James. Jammy’s live dubbing of his own dancehall productions from the ’80s and ’90s, (including “Sleng Teng”, which ignited reggae’s digital revolution) supplemented by brilliantly improvised vocals from veteran deejays Shinehead and Mr Williamz, highlighted an era when deejays and singers honed their skills chanting over riddims, live, before an audience. King Jammy, Shinehead and Mr. Williamz will be cruising again this year and may be bringing other veterans from dancehall’s golden age with them. Returning sound systems Stone Love, Renaissance, Japan’s Mighty Crown and Shinehead’s own Kingston 12 will be joined by Metromedia, Bass Odyssey and the UK’s Saxon, where Maxi Priest got his start in the 1980s.
“The people onboard made a statement: they love reggae and dancehall and they came out every night to see all of the acts,” observed Grammy Award-winning dancehall superstar Sean Paul, who performed on the 2014 cruise. “It’s not like a festival where you might like one or two acts, if you like reggae you will like everyone on the lineup and everything about this cruise.”