If you were driving through Westwood on Memorial Day it might have sounded like an afternoon in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.
UCLA held its 31st annual JazzReggae Fest, a student-run event dedicated to showcasing artists who are making waves in their respective genres. In the past, performers such as Erykah Badu, Damian Marley and Common graced the stage in what has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition.
The festival was well underway early in the afternoon, and the rear of the crowd was peppered with smiling faces lounging on their blankets, soaking up the sounds and the sunshine. For those who showed up early enough to catch the day’s opening acts, the bands did not disappoint. Third Degree opened its set with a cover of R&B singer Gallant’s hit single, “Weight in Gold,” as lead singer Ryan Nealon demonstrated his vocal range mimicking the towering falsetto.
UCLA’s LatinJazz Big Band followed, filling the stage with saxophonists, horn players and various percussion makers. Bobby Rodriguez, the band’s director, added to the energy of the music with his own antics, keeping the mood light with corny jokes and impromptu dancing.
The Mattson 2, a jazz-rock duo who has collaborated with accomplished artist Toro y Moi, launched into a 40-minute jam session during their set. The twin brothers showed great chemistry on stage, at one point sharing the lone drumset between the two without missing a beat. During the set, Jared Mattson took a break from laying down his airy guitar riffs to pay tribute to late jazz musician John Coltrane, playing an interlude from the pioneer’s catalogue.
Reggae culture was proudly featured the entire afternoon, from the stage to the crowd’s unique fashion. The DJ played the sounds of the islands between acts, embracing his time on the mic while keeping the vibe going. Jah9 was the first reggae artist to perform, immediately seizing the spotlight with her piercing vocals before diving into “New Name,” the title track from her 2013 album. The singer used her time as a platform to preach about domestic violence awareness and marijuana legalization in between songs.
Though his afternoon set wasn’t the last of the day, Daniel Caesar felt like the true headliner of the music festival. The crowd grew larger as his performance came closer, and cheers erupted as he pulled up on a golf cart and snuck backstage. A few minutes later, he was greeted onstage with a thunderous applause. He opened his performance with “Violet” while strumming along on his guitar.
Caesar’s genuine appreciation shined throughout the set. His meek, unassuming persona onstage belied his musical command, striking chords and hitting notes without fail before giving the crowd a sheepish smile as they showered him with praise. He ran through “Death & Taxes,” “Paradise” and “Show No Regret” from his debut album Pilgrim’s Paradise, and saluted fellow Toronto native River Tiber before playing their collaboration “West.” True to the theme of the day, Caesar even closed his breakout single “Get You” with a reggae remix. He beamed as the crowd sang along.
Eventually, Caesar’s time was up; as he left the stage, most of those in attendance left with him. The front section of the crowd was less than 10 rows deep for official headliner Protoje, who showed understandable frustration with the lack of interaction from the crowd. Still, his performance was gripping from the outset, with his band members doing an excellent job in the background. The band set the tone on their own for the first few songs, dropping imposing reggae beats before Protoje came out to “Resist No Evil,” emphatically singing “Lord I pray, please, never let me lose my way.”
Protoje appeared defiant and strong throughout his set, proudly singing “I vow to protect my own” in his song “Protection,” the first from his 2014 album Ancient Future. He brought out fellow reggae singer Ky-Mani Marley to perform “Rasta Love,” and later reminded the audience of the importance of finding one’s happiness in the blessings they already have instead of chasing after it in things to come. Unhappy with the crowd but not unfazed, he went into “Blood Money” and “Hail Ras Tafari,” proclaiming his message with conviction before ending with “Who Knows.”
The noticeable drop in fan interest could have been avoided by switching the order of the last two performers, but everyone who took the stage proved more than worthy. The JazzReggae Fest was an impressive afternoon of jazz and reggae music, and a great prelude to the impressive run of music festivals taking place this summer.