Music Festival Roundup

by Bruce McEwen, June 23, 2011

The high point was a fantastic figure about 15 feet tall in gleaming red satin pants surrounded by a mob of brightly dressed and face-painted children, a few boys, but mostly girls, many of them young women in fishnet stockings, all marching to drums: rata-tat-tat went the bongos; RUMBLE-BUMBLE Rah went the congas. This fabulous rabble surged down the street from the inflated pavilions of the Kid’s Area about 3:30 Saturday afternoon, a children’s parade with hugely arch characters on stilts, some of those legs shaped like giant insect pincers. They all stamped along to the beat — sort of like the Rouge’s March commandeered by mutineers and rebels — rata-tat-tat, RUMBLE-BUMBLE Rah! Rata-tat-tat, RUMBLE-BUMBLE Rah!

On they came, surging and swelling like a riotous amoeba, spreading infectious excitement, a plague of pandemonium. Uncle Sam was out in the middle waving his peace flag to the beat, rata-tat-tat, RUMBLE-BUMBLE Rah! Join in or run for cover!

Who could resist? And good training for future protests, to be sure. But think of all the deprived kids who couldn’t afford to be there.

Many locals seemed to think admission for the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival was too high. Even though locals were given a discount — $60 rather than $80 for Saturday, the festival's big day — many still felt the cost was out of their range. But if the ticket price was too shocking for their budgets, the concessions and other booths would have bankrupted them. Once you get in and see all that pricy stuff, you realize you’re in way over your head.

I mean, this isn’t just about the music. It’s a whole lifestyle and all the accoutrements that go with it are just as exotic and expensive. Especially the clothing, and not just the essential red, yellow, green (incidentally, the same colors of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company logo) emblems of the roots reggae. I took a little tour of the booths surrounding the big lawn in front of the main stage to get an idea of how much money it would cost just to fit in for a day.

The first thing I needed was a Bob Marley T-shirt, $20; then a cutesy little painted straw fedora, $40. A kid working the crowd, Nkosi, with a tray of bracelets and incense fixes me up with some black, red-yellow-green beads and I can really start to feel the reggae rhythms now. I can feel the Jah love, too, and pretty soon I’ve got a swanky young woman on my arm. At this point the shopping escalates exponentially, because far and away the booths are mostly directed at women — fashion boutiques hung with silky gowns and all manner of skimpy little things that we’re both dying to see her in!

While she goes behind a dressing screen to try something on, I chat with some fellows at the adjacent booth. They're selling carved giraffes.

“We’re from Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World,” a big man in an incredibly dashing black suit and brilliantly colored shirt and ascot tells me. It’s near the border of Zambia and Zaire.”

My atlas — which shows these two countries many miles west and south, respectively, of the enormous lake, may be mistaken, but the giraffes are of amazing workmanship.

A white man comes out of the booth. This is Luke from South Africa, and he has the accent of the Afrikaaner. The wood is called mukawa, Luke tells me, an African species of mahogany. Some of the statuettes are five feet tall, others only two feet, and they sell for about $100 per foot.

My companion emerges with her unmentionable in a lurid parcel. She surreptitiously pays $85. I know this because I espied her take $15 change from a C-note.

The next booth features sunglasses, T-shirts, flip-flops, the ubiquitous black, red-yellow-green beads, pins, decals, bumper stickers, posters. All must-have things for the house, the car and, oh, look, a black, red-yellow-green leash and collar for rasta dog.

Another boutique, this one with flowing batik gowns and scarves. Even a philistine like me has to stop and relish the taste. The gowns are exquisitely exotic, the artistry out-of-this-world, the prices astronomical. My companion shells out more clams, this time even more discreetly than the last. It’s kind of embarrassing, really. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that the hip young women represented here were protesting the implicit sexism in pricing for women’s clothing. And what ever happened to the howls of outrage over women being forced — by corporate men, the implication went — into playing the roles of sex kittens? These boutiques were all run by women, the clothes designed and the prices set by women.

The next booth features products labeled eco.fabulous.fun and it includes — what? High-tech flip-flops, straw hats and other casual frippery made from “salvaged, recycled and sustainably harvested” things like wood, palm leaves, and “regulated ivory.”

More booths, more variety, more of the same. A proprietor named Dennis gives me a quote: “We poor folks. Give us a little space and we’ll rock the world.”

Swift’s dictum applies here: “The only thing that separates the honest poor from the corrupt rich is money.”

The strongest drug is money. And the next booth, Blaze.1.com, sells things for smoking your meds. Kiki Chess is the proprietor. The prices are only a little higher than the smoke shops in Ukiah.

Then come the black, red-yellow-green hot pants and bikini tops. Wow! My companion didn’t appear to notice these naughty things, but the next day she was wearing the very one that was most prominently on display.

Djumbies, bongos. All sorts of drums and tambourines.

Hoola hoops. Just the thing for someone in a bikini swaying to the music. CrucialVibesUnlimited.com.

SatayaImports.com. Batik tapestries and gowns, jewelry, wrap skirts and skimpy tops. Chai in her batik gown is the booth’s languid proprietor.

The Fifth Element. The Salt of the Earth. Bilu in his white caftan and turban, his flowing gray beard, is the shopkeeper. He’s a Himalayan salt merchant, cum holy healer. The pink rock salt has many healing properties, when burned in tasteful little glass lamps. It works as an air purifier, he assures me. “It generates negative ions, very good for people with respiratory problems and allergies.” How much for that great huge ingot of salt which weighs perhaps 75 pounds? $300.

The reggae logo, a stylized lion’s head with a flowing mane, is everywhere rendered slightly differently. Doja — Home-Sewn Clothes had my personal favorite rendition of Simba, that ornery old lord of the savanna, bane of the zebra and kudu. But he rarely threatens people anymore. Nowadays, Simba stays in the game reserves, and it’s the mercenary with his machete that the people have to fear. No sign of that here, except the camo shorts and shirts. But all this shopping is thirsty work and I’m famished, how about a little lunch?

First stop is the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Guess what color their logo is? If you said red-yellow-green, you get a gold star; that and $7 will get you a beer at this booth. But the lines are long and life is too short. Besides, the same beer is half that price across the street at Lauren’s. Plus, you get a frosty glass and table service at Lauren’s.

Then we come to New York Pizza, $6 per slice. But I want something more cosmopolitan, something closer to the heart of darkness. I’m thinking of a story told me by a big game hunter I knew when I worked at Guns Magazine. I’m thinking of The Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi where the well-fed tourist could get an overnight bedfellow for a doggie bag of table scraps from The Carnivore. So I went to the Jamaican chow line where some chaps from LA have your spicy “roots” shish kabobs grilling just as you please. Three huge grills sagging under fat marinated chicken-halves, thickly basted rib-racks — enough essential protein to feed every starving adolescent prostitute and juvenile pickpocket from the slums of Dar es Salaam, Kenya to the outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where the children with legs and arms like sticks and bloated bellies have never tasted fried meat, even a rat. The men eat all the meat out of the rice, the women and kids get what’s left, if anything.

I’ve got my Thai iced tea and a steak kabob, so I’ll be okay. But You-Know-Who is watching her figure and, considering how much money she just blew on sexy clothes, her cautious stinginess is rather more thrifty than cheap. And is that stuff I’m eating really all that healthful? She doubts it. Depends on how regularly you get a square meal, I suppose. Will she eat the North Beach chicken at Barbary Coast Bistro? No, she’s from Santa Cruz and was practically raised on the stuff, but this is an adventure and she’s hungry for the spice of life: something new. Chocolate dipped frozen fruit kabobs? Well, maybe…. How about Lydia’s Loving Food? It’s organic, gluten-free, raw, vegan, expensive — what more could you ask for? The Buddha burrito is only $8; the organic strawberry lemonade $5; the plain lemonade $4.

Now everybody’s happy (read ‘temporarily satiated’), let’s go see the Pomo Indians do the opening ceremony!

Oops, we’re too late — too busy stuffing our faces. There they go now in their beautifully feathered traditional costumes, escorted by a phalanx of security people calling out, “Make way! Make way up there, move over.”

There are collectors in Berlin who would pay tidy little fortunes for what’s colloquially known as “the old pawn,” meaning Native American things to adorn the walls of their flats and chateaux. Some enterprising thief might be tempted to pluck one of these exotic birds as they pass; thus, the escort is a necessary precaution.

One doesn’t have to be reminded that all this time the music is thundering throughout the valley, or does one?

It is.

We visit the Drum Temple, where the drums and dancers are surrounded by more, many more booths. And what, oh what, will alleviate the addictive yearning of our shallow indulgences, our empty lives? More junk for the closet, the trunk, the garage, the attic, the basement, the storage unit? Precisely. That’s exactly the point: stuff.

Sure, some of it is quite “valuable.” There are fedoras for women — but whereas I paid $40 for the guy’s version, the fem hat costs $189. Why? Because it has a peacock feather, a bead or two, some new headband; in short, it’s artsy. And look at these earrings, the cheapest thing in the whole booth: one or two tiny Mexican fire opals at $120. The necklaces and bracelets vault immediately into the thousands. I can tell by the sidelong glances that I must give my companion some space to consider such an outlay of ready cash. Plus, I need a break from the poverty of the Third World.

I leave and go to Lauren’s but the lack of business has caused her to close and send her help home. Over at the Buckhorn, it’s as quiet as a church on Monday morning. There’s one old farmer, having a beer. And me.

We commiserate, like men will, on the expense of women, the high maintenance of the gender in general; and the wonderful luck of having been blessed with such a practical one in our own particular cases — everyone else it seems is much worse off! Hear hear, I’ll drink to that!

Back out on the streets, the locals may have noticed the Davis Pedicabs, the bicycle-powered rickshaws. These are new this year. They cost about $10 for a ride from, say, the campground at the AV Brewery to the main gate at the Festival. But the cabbies work for tips. What went unmentioned was the cut Davis Pedicabs took. This is the capitalist way. Never tell your brother or sister how you’re getting remunerated — *you have a chance to rise above; they don’t; and never forget it!

It’s an infantile regression, the need to be carried, and most of the passengers were strong young men; athletes, really, but still babies in their world-view: Riding in a baby carriage, sucking on a bottle, watching the world go by. Momma, Daddy, pick me up; carry me, carry me!

I pushed a wheel chair down the street trying to solicit riders. No go. It was the wrong image. This deal was all about youth, sex and… well, definitely not your grandpa’s music!

The music, after all, is about third world politics and poverty, by implication, if not always actually stated in the lyrics.

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