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by Cody Hoover, June 23, 2011
“He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.” — Psalms 104:14
“I don’t have a credit card or bank account or any shit like that. I never will,” said the guy who hitchhiked into Boonville on Thursday, June 26th, the day before the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival began. He was at the Ander-son Valley Brewery tasting room bar standing next to two guys from Virginia. The brewery was renting pieces of their beautiful grounds to the festival attendees for camping. The guy was trying to rent a tiny slice but they had sold out.
“I’m just one guy with a tent. I go out of my way to camp here at the brewery every year,” he said loudly, arousing the attention of people around him.
The hostess gracefully offered the young man on foot a deal for the whole weekend; he didn’t refuse.
I left the brewery and walked north through town. Many people were just showing up with their oversized packs and their two feet, setting up traveling piles in the patches of grass in front of the Mendocino County Fairgrounds on Highway 128. The usual festival transients — VW buses, campers, vans, and rental RVs with pictures of happy vacationing families printed on the sides — trickled into town the day before the festival was to begin.
By the next afternoon, Friday the 27th, a change in downtown Boonville was taking place that could not be ignored. I got a wristband in the administration office from a sweet young woman with blue feather earrings named Megan Sheehan. Passing through the gate I expected harsh security, but it consisted of nothing more than a young girl sitting on a bale of hay. She felt my backpack to determine if I was sneaking in any beer cans or bottles and that was that.
Inside the festival there was a U shape of vendors’ easy-ups and tents lining the field. A happy reggae band ran through a sound check on the main stage, or “Valley Stage” as they called it. A burlap sack with a pot leaf printed on it hung from the keyboard player’s rig, flapping in the warm breeze. The Valley Stage was built at the opening of the U of vendors. Attendees had no escape from the form-revealing hippy dresses, the hemp clothing, the glass pipes and beads, and of course all things red, green, gold, and black.
There are two confusing elements in the name “Sierra Nevada World Music Festival.” It is not held in the Sierra Nevadas anymore, and it is virtually a roots-reggae, Jamaican, Rastafarian-influenced music festival, a capitalist celebration of Rastafarian socialist culture. I walked around the U of vendors and looked inside. Tent after tent — at least 15 tents I saw throughout the whole weekend — had nothing but t-shirts and flags of Bob Marley; Bob Marley with a joint, in a soccer uniform, blowing a smoke cloud, in denim with fist to his heart and dreads coming down onto his exposed chest. Many of the other vendors sold Rastafarian or Jamaican-inspired clothing and accessories. A bottom half of a female mannequin wore a pair of sexy red, green, gold and black hot pants that had “ONE LOVE” printed on rear ass in white. A white college aged girl pranced across the field wearing a Jamaican Flag bikini bottom. Before the music even officially started, this made me consider the foundation of all this Rastafarian and Jamaican inspired gear.
When powerful European nations began making strides in naval technologies that enabled them to navigate tricky tidal currents, regular trading routes began to take form connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Christopher Columbus “discovered” Jamaica in 1494, and “claimed” the island for Spain. At first the Spanish used the native Arawaks as slaves, but they were very brutal and thousands of them died. The Indians didn’t obey the Spanish much, so a popular belief formed among the Spanish settlers that they should start getting their slaves from Africa instead, by way of British and Portuguese vessels. This slave trade continued through 1665 when Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables drove the Spanish out and claimed Jamaica for the British Empire. Before the Spanish slave owners fled the island they freed their slaves. The Maroons, as they were to be called, ran to the hills of central Jamaica, built communities, and strongly resisted the British power. During the first 200 years of Britain’s rule Jamaica was one of the world’s largest exporters of sugar, which required a massive labor force. The British rapidly increased their population of African slaves until they became the majority in the 1670s. In 1807 the British abolished slavery, but Africans continued to be smuggled into the colonies. During the 19th century the white Jamaican planters saw a reduction of their wealth, caused by European wars that disrupted trade across the Atlantic. In 1838 slaves received full freedom and “Free Villages” and peasant farming began to flourish.
Their lot in the societal structure was still much lower than that of the white planters they now outnumbered. Tensions continued throughout the century, resulting in the Morant Bay Rebellion, which sparked much needed changes for the newly freed black Jamaicans. During the beginning of the 20th century, and during World War I, black Jamaicans began to travel off the small island and gain a global perspective. Though still mostly poor, this movement of people and ideas became part of the ingredients for a fertile era of realization and ideological growth for the black Jamaicans.
At this time nearly all of the African continent was still controlled by European colonist powers. As a result of the 1884 General Act of the Berlin Conference or “Scramble for Africa”, colonialist European countries divided the continent up amongst themselves. Liberia (founded for returning slaves with the help of the United States) and Ethiopia were left as the only independent African countries.
On June 15th of 1914 Jamaican journalist, publisher, and entrepreneur, Marcus Mosiah Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Garvey’s goal was to unite all of Africa and the African diaspora into “one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.” Garvey wanted the European colonial powers gone from Africa, and for them to be replaced by economically empowered, educated Africans.
Garvey’s Pan-African ideas greatly influenced the poor, rural black Jamaicans. Many early Rastas started out as “Garveyites”.
On November 2nd of 1930 the coronation of Haile Selassie I as Emperor of Ethiopia took place. He was the only black Emperor in Africa accepted by the European rulers. He is believed by Ethiopians and Rastas to be the 225th in an unbroken line from the Solomonic Dynasty, believed to have started with Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.
At his coronation he was titled “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” “King of Kings” and “Elect of God.” News of Sellasie’s coronation ceremony reached Jamaica via two Time Magazine articles, one before and after the event. He was seen as the messiah and Jesus incarnate by many of the impoverished blacks in Jamaica.
Before he was emperor, Selassie’s title was “Ras,” meaning “Head,” a position equivalent to a Duke in Great Britain. His birth name was Tafari Makonnen. When Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21st of 1966, approximately 100,000 Rastafari greeted him at the airport. Per-ceived prophesies in the Bible lead to cannabis being con-sidered a sacrament for the Rastafarian Movement. “A haze of ganja smoke” arose above the crowd awaiting the man they believed to be their new messiah at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston. This became known as “Groundation Day” to the Rastas.
The Rastas wore their hair in dread locks, a reference to the Lion of Juhad, a symbol of the Israelite Tribe of Judah whom members of were believed to have returned to Ethiopia as servants with the Queen of Sheba from her visit with King Solomon in Jerusalem. The Lion appeared on the Ethiopian flag when Haile Sellasie I became Emperor. Sallasie was believed by most Rastas to actually be the Lion of Judah mentioned in Revelations 5:5 of the Bible.
The use of red, gold, green and often black by the Rasta-farian movement originated from a combination of the colors used by the Marcus Garvey movement and the colors of the Jamaican and Ethiopian flags.
As I scanned the vendors’ inventories on that first day of the the festival (and each following day), I saw only one Haile Selassie I flag hanging in a tent among rows of Bob Marley merch. A t-shirt on the other side of the same tent had a picture of half of Bob Marley’s face morphed into half of a lion’s face, forming one.
The dreaded singer of a band now performing on the Valley Stage asked the audience “Where ya ganja smokas at!” and clouds of smoke wafted from crowd.
I walked on the road in the fairgrounds that connected the mainstage to the rest of the festival. A desperate looking man in a #36 jersey with a mohawk made a quick move as I passed him to put himself right behind me. He followed me, I looked back over my shoulder and let him know I knew he was there. He soon slowed down and turned around and walked back in his original direction. I saw Bruce Hering in full Uncle Sam regalia holding an American flag with peace sign made of stars in the blue square. Four women in red flowered dresses danced to natural African drums, being played in front of a tent with a sign that said “Drum Temple.” The Drum Temple was provided by long time sponsor Sageman, whose display of drums for sale sat under a tent nearby. The next day I passed the drum temple again and 20 to 25 mostly young girls danced to African drumming. An experienced, sexy young woman tried teaching a nerdy red head hippy girl how to do the African dance they were all doing together. The awkward hippy girl could not quickly grasp it and returned to her spot on the grass.
Along with the Rastafarian themes put forth by many of the musical acts, an undeniable theme of sexuality ran through the festival weekend. It was distracting, in the way fireflies distract someone sitting on a porch on a warm summer night.
There were two or three times more people in town and inside the festival on Saturday. In the early afternoon I made an effort to see The Cables who formed in the late 60s in Jamaica. There were four of them, all singing. A band called The Expanders who performed their own set just before The Cables came on stage played as their backup band. The man who sang lead on most songs announced to the audience “This is our first time in Nevada!” No one corrected him until he thanked Nevada again and I heard one man in the front yell, “This is California!”
The four old men’s vocal harmonies were top notch, but the songs were noticeably under-rehearsed by the Expanders. I think they may have “overexpanded” themselves.
The last song they played was a reggae rendition of “Salt of the Earth” which was played by the Rolling Stones at the end of Beggar’s Banquet. They dedicated it to the soldiers fighting overseas;
“We are here having fun dancing being happing while everyone over there is getting their asses kicked and blown up.”
When The Cables finished I walked out onto Highway 128, some traveling festival kids tried to sell “treats” inside tiny plastic containers. An older couple with necklaces on display in their trunk asked me in a carny voice, “Do you want to buy a Rasta necklace?” Another crew of kids sold coffee from a push top dispenser on a square foldout table beside their station wagon.
I returned again on Sunday morning, sat and drank coffee with my friend in the Boonville Camp’s Burning Man gypsy wagon art car. We listened to a band performing on the smaller “Village Stage” in a wooded area near a gazebo where the art car was parked.
Soon a band from Fort Collins, Colorado, called Dub-skin began playing on the Village Stage; good minor key dub style reggae with lots of delay. Many people gathered in front of the stage, dancing as Dubskin performed their first song. But something happened — they stopped playing mid-song. The festival crew on and off stage yelled for a medic, then yelled for the medic to run. The crowd shifted to their right, all together like a flock of birds changing direction in the air. Something was happening behind the PA speakers that sat in my line of vision of the incident. I heard the guitar player say, “It’s happened before man, it’s happened before,” as he walked down the stage stairs. The festival medics brought a lifeguard style stretcher. Radios were buzzing all around.
When they held up a large plaid blanket and put him on the stretcher, the crowd mostly dispersed. A man walked around the plaid blanket shield holding the downed musi-cian’s bass guitar. The man sat the bass guitar down and picked up a mic. Apparently he had a seizure on stage during the first song.
“When you go about the rest of your day having fun, think about this gentleman and what he tried to do for us.” Then he said, “He is okay, it’s going to be okay, have a great.”
He left the stage and immediately a happy reggae song started playing through the PA. The singer was saying, “Hey Rastafari” with flutes in the background.
I walked over to the Valley Stage and saw my favorite act of the festival, who wasn’t reggae at all. His name was Vusi Mahlasela. He is an African folk singer with just a guitar. A big man with a beautiful voice, hitting high notes that make Mariah Carrey sound like Barry White. He sang a song about bushmen in Botswana. Under the Queensland Protection Act, a fancy name for apartheid, the government tried to remove the bushmen and women from their birth-place and home where they also got all of their medicine and food. Someone intervened however and they were able to stay on their land for now. Some of his singing wasn’t even words, just sounds and noises that gave the impression of being narrative. His last song was the title song of his new album produced by Taj Mahal called “Say Africa.” The way he sang and played his acoustic guitar compelled some watching to squeal in delight.
“I may be walking on the streets of a city called London. But the dust on my boots and the rhythm in my feet and my heartbeat say Africa — Say Africa!”