Reggae steels itself for weekend in shadow of deadly turf wars

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The Independent Online
METAL DETECTORS and an army of 500 security guards have been brought in amid fears of gang violence as 50,000 people gather in London this weekend for the biggest reggae music festival in Britain for over a decade.

The decision by organisers of Sunsplash to come to Britain for only the second time in its 21-year history has coincided with a murderous turf war in the capital which has seen 13 people shot dead this year.

At least three of the victims were involved in the reggae industry.

Henry "Junjo" Lawes, a leading reggae producer, was shot as he went to buy cigarettes near his home in Harlesden, north-west London; Richard Parkinson, a security guard, was shot and killed in April at a concert by the Jamaican artist Beenie Man; and Keith "Andy" Balfour, a music promoter, was killed when gunmen walked into his south London office and opened fire with automatic weapons.

Earlier this month, the Radio 1 rap DJ Tim Westwood, who is also involved in the British reggae scene, was shot in an incident which has been linked to a dispute with music security guards. His friend and Radio 1 colleague, Chris Goldfinger, presenter of the station's reggae show, will be one of the star performers this weekend.

Organisers of Sunsplash appealed yesterday for the gunmen to respect the festival's reputation for peace and harmony. Andy Pritchard, director of Transglobal Management, said: "The message I send to them is ... put down the weapons, forget the violence and join together in unity as a community. Show the good and not the bad."

He said Sunsplash had not been plagued by trouble in Jamaica even in years when it has coincided with political violence that has claimed hundreds of lives.

Organisers of Sunday's event in Victoria Park, east London, have deliberately avoided booking artists who preach aggression. Instead, singers like Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley's former backing vocalist Marcia Griffiths, the family group Morgan Heritage and Marley's son Ky-mani have been chosen for their spiritually uplifting messages.

When Sunsplash last took place in London in 1987, reggae was near the height of its popularity and around 170,000 attended. Since then, the music has undergone a revolution in which instrumentation has been largely replaced by computer-generated rhythms accompanied by a lyrical diet of sex and guns.

In the past five years, a new Rastafarian-inspired consciousness among the current generation of artists has taken the music back towards its original roots.

But an undercurrent of violence has remained, made worse by recent economic problems and the gang wars in Jamaica, in turn linked to the arrival in Britain of a fresh influx of gangsters from the Caribbean.

Earlier this week, police arrested nine men in London in connection with the shootings. The arrests were made under the umbrella of Operation Trident, set up by the Metropolitan Police to investigate this type of crime.

The Trident team - which has compiled a database of 200 people of Jamaican descent now living in Britain and linked to firearms offences - will be monitoring Sunsplash. The event also will be cordoned by a 12-foot steel fence and no one will be admitted without passing through metal detectors; alcohol and glass bottles are banned and security guards have been recruited from around the country.

The shootings, most of which have taken place in London, continued last weekend as four teenagers were hit by shotgun fire outside a disco in Birmingham. Two girls, aged 14 and 15, and two boys, aged 13 and 15, were accidentally hit as a man opened fire at passengers in a car that was passing the alcohol-free event in the Lozells area of the city.

The reggae fans who gather in Victoria Park this weekend will be trying not to think of the gunmen, or shottas as they are known in Jamaica. Instead they will mourn the recent death of one of the genre's greatest stars, Dennis Brown. The heir to Marley's throne, known as the "crown prince of reggae", died of lung failure aged 42.