Abandoning Italy because of what they say are racist government immigration policies, the Italian organizers of a major reggae festival have sought refuge in Spain for this year’s edition.
Rototom Sunsplash, one of Europe’s biggest music gatherings featuring hundreds of concerts and drawing tens of thousands of people, has been held in Italy for the past 16 years — until now.
"Like in the Bob Marley song ‘Exodus’ we have left Babylon behind and we have arrived in our land of promise," said Filippo Giunta, president of the Exodus association that was specially set up to organize this year’s festival, which ends on Saturday in the coastal Spanish city of Bencassim.
Giunta hit out at the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose coalition partner is the anti-immigration Northern League.
The Northern League was an essential ally in Berlusconi’s return to power in 2008, campaigning on pledges of cracking down on illegal immigration and crime, often linking the two.
Italy has faced criticism from the UN Refugee Agency and rights groups in recent months for allegedly pushing boatloads of migrants back to Libyan shores where they face the risk of mistreatment.
"We were afraid we would no longer be able to offer a peaceful atmosphere," Giunta said.
"In the last two years, the (Italian) police were very hard on foreigners, especially black people. In Italy, we are breathing in the air of intolerance, the government follows very racist politics," he added.
The week-long festival has drawn headline acts Alpha Bondy, Morcheeba and Big Youth and Rai singer Khaled — testament to the eclectic nature of the festival.
Giunta said Spain was an ideal choice of venue as it was "the most free country in Europe, one that pays the greatest attention to individual liberties."
"It’s a festival that wants to feel welcome and connected to its location, like a tree that needs its roots," he added.
Some 300 concerts take place over eight days, plus cultural debates and activities including dance classes, juggling courses and massages.
Festival-goers pay €25 ($32) a day or €20 for passes and organizers hope that this year’s turnout will at least match the 15,000 people who attended last year.
Returning to Italy is not off the table — but only with a change of government, say organizers.
"I hope some (change) will happen, beyond Rototom which can very well take place anywhere," said Bunna, singer of Italian reggae group Africa Unite, a longtime performer at the festival.