‘We Don’t Mess With The Good Vibe’

by Steve Heilig, June 9, 2011

The biggest event annual event at the Boonville Fairgrounds occurs this year again Friday-Sunday June 17-19: The Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. Long moved on from those mountains but still known by that “brand,” the SNWMF remains one of the best such musical gatherings anywhere. Longtime promoters Warren and Gretchen Smith are now known to many Anderson Valley locals, and can be found all through the festival weekend, semi-frantically running around or driving little carts with walkie-talkies buzzing, herding artists from around the world to the two simultaneously-running stages and managing a large cadre of staff and volunteers. The AVA found Warren by phone a couple weeks before the event for a preview, starting with this question:

What is “world music,” anyway? And how did you get into it?

Well, “world music” probably has a few billion definitions. But for us it’s something distinctly non — American in style. We stay away from rock and roll, country, hip-hop, and try to experiment with sounds from overseas. I started in the 60s in the whole San Francisco scene, and promoted a few rock bands back then. In college I was a bit of an activist and close to a collective in Berkeley, who turned me onto reggae, and I was hooked, by Jimmy Cliff, for starters, and then Bob Marley of course, and by 1975 I was in Jamaica, and was a booking agent for bands from there. I had a record label, and by the mid-1980s I took a few years out and worked in the stock market for a small firm in San Francisco, but was still booking a few shows. Then I got a job promoting a festival called the Gathering of the Vibes for a few years, and when that folded we just took in onward with the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, which was indeed in the foothills of those mountains.

So now it’s been 18 years since we started the SNWMF, and this will be our 6th year in Boonville. We love it there, and it feels like we found home; in fact, a lot of our key staff grew up in Mendocino County. And I’d have to say Mendocino was always extremely well represented for some time by our attendees, considering how small the county is in terms of population. We thought we were going right on down the tubes for a time there, but people in Mendocino have saved the festival — and that surprised us a bit as we did not realize that many folks were already familiar with it and were happy we came here.

Here in Boonville we have not encountered the intolerance we had in the foothills towards people of different races, of different hair length, and so on. We did have some of those problems in our two previous locations, so while we meant some great people too, eventually we had to move on to here, and we wound up glad we did. Being in Boonville has made the extended family that much stronger. The people here seem to actually like our audience. We have one of the most unique audiences of any festival. People are great who come; we used to have a massive cleanup problem, and even gang issues before we came here, but not any longer. The audience shows up, has a great time, and cleans up. There is not a problem with too much alcohol. We don’t have to tell people how to behave or what to do.

I will say that this year our sales are up and we may have lots of 1st-timers, maybe a bit of a younger demographic too, as we’ve embraced the domestic reggae bands a bit, such as Rebulution — these are artists with a big audience who work relay hard to gain respect. We’ve run into an inevitable thing as the whole roots reggae scene began to decline in the 1980s and the pool of artists gets smaller as years go on. The dancehall scene — Jamaican hip-hop — does not translate or draw that well in the US, even though there are some very strong followers of it. And their problems with the law, the homophobia, etc makes it so they can’t get visas to get here. This is true even about some of the good roots artists, partly due to the fear of terrorism and so forth. There are also tax issues. Many of them get frustrated and even don’t want to come anymore, and that shows no chance of getting resolved anytime soon. So we have to get more creative in putting together the festival.

But we work hard to put together a strong and varied lineup of artists from all over, including some who have never been to this country. We are bringing in a phenomenal band from New Zealand called Kora, who are four Maori brothers, somewhere between a reggae band and Prince. And Saritah from Australia has Korean roots and embraces reggae as well. In some of these parts of the world, reggae has become a central way they express their culture. It has had a tremendous impact.

From Jamaica, we are tremendously excited to bring The Cables, a tremendous vocal harmony group from Jamaican for over 40 years who have never really had a proper presentation in the US. The Jolly Boys come from even farther back, the 1950s in Jamaica, and they play mento music, which predates even ska music in the 1950s. I love reggae stars Pablo Moses and Taj Weekes, Jamaican deejay legends like Dennis Alcapone, and Brigadier Jerry, and our dancehall on Friday evening will be pure roots and spiritual music.

The Saturday dancehall will be Stone Love bringing the latest and greatest from Jamaica, with some guests who will be exciting. On Saturday we’ve got Toots and Steel Pulse headlining, and all the jam band friends will be up for Midnite. And roots reggae veteran Horace Andy on Sunday is one I am looking forward too very much, his voice is in top form. Romain Virgo is a dancehall crooner and this I think is his first California appearance. Rupa and the April Fishes put on a wonderful show. Thomas Mapfumo from Zimbabwe, and Vusi Mahlasela, “The Voice of South Africa,” will play twice, once on each stage.

On Sunday there is the 7th Street Showcase, Mambo This! from Mendocino, and Jesus Diaz from Cuba. Junior Toots — Toot’s son, and roots man Prezident Brown, Anthony B holding things down with fire, and closing the show will be Ozomatli, a Latin street band from LA who are the antithesis of pop stars, joining us for the 3rd time. They are playing for the state Democratic convention! So there will be a strong Latin music flavor on Sunday, I’d say.

To go along with all the music, we’ve increased the food vendors a bit this year, have a big childrens’ and cultural program going all day Saturday. We have a canned food drive for the Ukiah food bank, and in these times it is so important. There are parades in there, there is always something to do and you can’t get bored there, and you have to pace yourself. We’ve got our fingers crossed re the weather, and I don’t mind a bit of moisture, so something in the middle would be nice. We know some people wait to see what the climate will be like, to make sure it’s not too hot or too cold, but nobody seems to have any answers lately regarding that and we tell people to bring all their layers of clothes, and maybe buy some from the many vendors as well. It’s part of the whole role of the dice and we hope to conquer it all (laughs).

I do want to say that Jim Brown and the staff at the fairgrounds has been so good through all the year as have all the people of Boonville. We have about 500 staff and volunteers. We can sell up to 5,000 tickets, much much less than the fairgrounds are set up to accommodate, but we don’t want it to get too crowded like some other festivals. That still leaves a lot of room, as we made the decision to be intentionally smaller and preserve a good vibe. We’ve never sold out. We do expect to have tickets available at the doors. We’ve never gotten into pop acts, and that’s kinda where you have to get into to get huge — and that can backfire, as some other festivals have learned. One thing we don’t want to mess with is the good vibe. That’s sacrosanct. ¥¥

(See: http://www.snwmf.com .) ¥¥

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