Former festival promoter happy with nat'l award

Observer senior reporter

Thursday, August 23, 2018

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OVER the past 25 years, the name Johnny Gourzong has become synonymous with the staging of Jamaica's premier music festival, Reggae Sumfest.

Up to three years ago, Gourzong served as executive producer of Summerfest Productions, the company responsible for staging the annual event held in Jamaica's second city, Montego Bay. And for that, as well as his contribution to the island's tourism product, he is among a select number of people who will receive a national honours and awards at King's House on October 15, National Heroes Day. He is set to receive the Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer (OD).

Gourzong admits to always being involved in music in some way. He jokingly remarks that he has been a music fanatic since birth, so making the transition from being a banker to show producer wasn't really a stretch.

“I had dabbled in music events prior to Reggae Sumfest. So I guess that why a schoolmate of mine thought I was a natural fit when it came to staging the event in Montego Bay with the departure of Reggae Sunsplash. I was working in the bank at the time and Ronnie Burke was my client. So I immediately called him and he confirmed that they were moving to Jamworld and definitely not coming back to Montego Bay. Only then did I say: 'Yes, I'm in'.”

That set Gourzong a searching for investors as more people were required to orchestrate this event in a matter of months. Among his calls were to Robert Russell, Hugh Thompson, and Mickey Morris. By this first round of invitations, it became a team of eight to plan the inaugural Reggae Sumfest in 1993.

The team came up with a budget, but two months down the road they hit a speed bump as the budget was blown and more investors had to be invited on board. It became a company of 20 shareholders, and Sumfest was on its way.

“Despite our previous experience in events, nothing prepared us for Reggae Sumfest. We went in with a bit of trepidation. The Jamaican dollar was about 18 to one against the US dollar and we ended up losing quite a bit that year. One of our major mistakes was underpricing tickets, but more importantly, we aped Sunsplash too closely. We had too many events too early, but we would learn quickly,” Gourzong told the Jamaica Observer.

A string of losses would follow for the ensuing years. This resulted in a number of the initial investors parting ways with the company. But Gourzong and a few other remained committed and dug deeper to continue a product which they believed in. By 1997, the festival found its groove and the formula of promoting music: the universal force and offering an inclusive music festival incorporating foreign acts helped them turn a corner.

“The truth is, from year one, we never wanted to be exclusive and offered varied musical styles, while maintaining a reggae and dancehall core. In our very first year we had the mighty Sparrow and The Temptations. The following years saw acts like Percy Sledge, David Rudder and a band out of Barbados called Spice and Company. Once we got it going, there were acts such as Boyz II Men, KC & Jojo, Rihanna, Destiny's Child, Lionel Richie, Usher, Chris Brown and so many more.”

Gourzong believes his legacy has it relates to the entertainment industry will be providing that stage for new and emerging acts.

“Over the years, we have had so many examples of these youngsters... Tarrus Riley, Chronixx, Etana, I-Octane and so many more... who cut their teeth on the Reggae Sumfest stage. They began performing at nine o'clock and they gradually moved to prime time slots as their careers grew. I would really like to see that continue at Sumfest — an avenue to support of emerging talent.”

Regarding the National Award, Gourzong is “humbled and honoured” at this recognition from the government and people of Jamaica.

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