by Steve Heilig, June 26, 2013
“I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed” — Marco Polo, 1324
* * *
Rain? In late June? Sure California sorely needs it, but the forecast did make the honchos at the 20th annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival a bit apprehensive. Early Sunday morning, while walking out by the high school and health center, it began drizzling as if things might get seriously wet, the dog looked at me like I was nuts for dragging him all the way out there from downtown, and I was reminded I had no rain gear nor umbrella. But it let up, to remain a light intermittent sprinkle that caused no real woes, and later a fast-talking wild-eyed woman wearing a sliced-up unstuffed stuffed lion on her head informed me she had “taken care of the rain thing” via some voodoo-type stuff she had “learned at Burning Man last year.” Whatever works.
Prior to that reassurance, I had briefly envisioned in the fairgrounds a sprawling muddy trashy mess reminiscent of the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival (theme: “Three days of peace, love, and music"), but the sun played hide-and-seek throughout Sunday instead, raising a kind of semi-tropical steam, and it was actually a nice respite from the heat of days before. Pretty much everything else went smoothly too. By Sunday evening, an eighteen-year veteran of medical services at SNWMF reported, well, nothing; the firefighters said they had nothing to fight; staff at the local stores reported their usual busiest weekend of the year; law enforcement had only tangled with a handful of underage drinkers, my traditional morning trashwalk yielded only two plastic bottles the whole length of town, and a loud nonstop-lecturing guy (there always seems to be at least one) in front of Mosswood Sunday morning yelled into his cellphone “I'm at that festival! Where? I don't know! Boonieville! Where's that? I dunno! But it sure is pretty and peaceful here, man!"
The big and broad musical roster went off with nary a hitch as well, once the last-week cancellations of a couple key acts were taken care of (with replacements by stars of equivalent fame and quality, no small feat, that). As always, the mix was dominated by reggae music, leavened with African, Latin, and some other flavors. Two stages run simultaneously from late morning to late night; choices must be made, but they are happy ones. On the small “village stage” one can have a Sunday brunch show with older reggae founding figures like key Jamaican duo Keith & Tex — actually they do Motown-like “rock steady,” briefly-lived 1960s step in the evolution of Jamaican music from jazz-like ska to reggae, having been together since 1967 — and Errol Dunkley with a few hundred dancing nearly-ecstatic fanatics. Or one can dance with a similar-sized joyful crowd to the funkified sound of San Francisco's Afrolicious, or hear irresistible Columbian dance music from Candelaria, some heavy roots from St. Croix (Virgin Islands). Abja & The Lions of Kush, or feel a deep trancelike sound of proto-Rastafarian drumming by Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus — to pick some highlights from each evening. There are always pleasant surprises there, and a respite from the louder, more crowded “valley stage” where the bigger-named acts tend to appear.
Some other musical highlights? As promised by festival chief Warren Smith, the Korean band Windy City enchanted a large Saturday afternoon crowd with a unique, eastern-tinged take on reggae and dub, and seemed genuinely grateful to be there — they bowed to the crowd, and to each other, to start things off, and I was told they even did so to the van driver who brought them to town. Leroy Sibbles, a founding member of The Heptones, one of reggae's most revered harmony trios, energized the whole arena with a sort of history lesson on Jamaican music. More modern reggae roots star Luciano, one of the late replacements, repeated his performance from last year, standing somersault included, and likewise got a big ovation (and warned, seemingly apropo of nothing, “don't get hooked, on Facebook"). Don Carlos, the other late fill-in and another roots reggae veteran, was in top form as well. Sunday afternoon's African/French showcase was superb, with rousing reggae by the French band Danakil, an even more intense set by Fatoumata Diawara from Mali, and Bombino's blend of Saharan blues and Jimi Hendrix (Diawara was stunning both musically and visually, and her story is inspiring; Bombino's a nomadic Touraug, and his life story to date is also worth looking up). Other female energy was provided by Marcia Griffiths and Sister Carol, who both put on very strong sets of positivity.and Hollie Cook, who was a bit, well, chirpy for my taste and was called “a delightful little kitten” by one announcer, which struck some as a bit sexist but must have been accurate in his view. Her musical partner/producer Prince Fatty did double duty as a fine DJ and performer. There were dancers and drummers most everywhere you looked, especially on the lawn in between the stages — if one could get past all the tempting food and drink purveyors. Festival closer Alpha Blondy, a temperamental veteran star from the Ivory Coast who sings in multiple languages not only showed up, but got onstage almost on time, and wowed the crowd, some of whom had come just to hear his first appearance at this festival.
I missed some acts I'd wanted to see, but that's unavoidable. A bit less wow-ing, for some of us, were the brothers Marley — Damian and Stephen, sons of Bob Marley and what they call collectively their “Ghetto Youth Crew.” A renowned reggae legend who knew Marley senior once scoffed “Ghetto youth, them? — Only ghetto them youth have seen is from a jet airplane.” In other words, they might be seen to be playing a role, banking on their dad's legend, and/or debasing his legacy a bit with some rude-sounding “dancehall” music. But the youth dem love it, as they say in Jamaica, so who am I to criticize on that level; It's hard to follow in the musical footsteps of a world-idolized musical figure — whatever happened to Frank Sinatra, junior? Sean Lennon? Etc? But these guys try, as they drew a sellout crowd of mostly younger fans on Saturday night, so they must be doing something and must be doing something right (besides multiple product 'brand' marketing of things like “Marley's Mellow Mood” drink, which is mostly sugar water, at this fest given away freely by some very alluring product representatives). Again, whatever works — I guess.
They were undeniably loud, too. The bands stop earlier than they used to, but can certainly be heard outside the fairgrounds. The next morning, while I sat reading a front-page New York Times story about how pot cultivation destroys animal habitats and nature in general via various transgressions, including water diversion (shocking; and, sounds familiar?), a number of locals who chose to remain nameless were complaining about the roar and rattle. “It shook my doors and windows last night,” one said. “We're still trying to figure out how to mitigate the impact of all this sound at a time when the fairgrounds is in trouble financially” said another. While all seemed to admire the dedication and sensitivity of the festival organizers, “It's still got to be tweaked a bit” seemed to be the sentiment. One person identified as a doctor opined that such noise could “damage the human chest,” a seemingly dubious assertion given that thousands of chests inside the fairgrounds, where it was much louder, seemed to be quite healthy. But “They're going to hear about it,” predicted one local, adding “there's got to be some way to turn it down.” Some folks then stuck around to solve the looming national and international challenges of national security, immigration policy, affirmative action, gay marriage, climate change, and the San Francisco Giants. All in a morning's work, but we had to move on, as my dog had his barking appointment with the numerous tough junkyard-types in the front yards up and down 128 — although he only yells back if there is a secure fence preventing actual encounters.
Whatever one might think or say, it is undeniable that the “vibe” in the festival is one of true “niceness” (a Jamaican term that means just what it would seem to). Jamaica has been called “the loudest island in the world” for how far and wide its music has spread. Thirty-two years after Bob Marley passed on, “Somehow, wherever you go, you will hear Marley there” said old pal Charlie from Point Arena, who related he once heard Bob Marley music on the Ganges in India (likewise, I heard his songs in the Sahara desert). “Whatever you are going through in life, Bob wrote a song about it,” another festival attendee said. “I have two grandkids named Marley” said another (in my own experience, those are usually dogs). Obviously Marley is just the most visible public representation of reggae, the music's enduring worldwide icon. It is striking to see his messages of struggle, spirit, unity, and yes, ganja live on in a multiple-generation gathering decades on. It's not your average all-American gathering. The words of so many reggae songs are serious messages and questions, like “What is the future of the human race?” — not what one tends to hear pondered in the dominant hip-hop/pop tunes of our time. If you think about some of the likely answers to such questions, things can look dark quick. Most SNWMF attendees are clearly there for a good time only, and they get that. For this one weekend, anybody who makes the trip to Boonville can get a whole year's worth of not only music, but smiles, hugs, good and sometimes wackily fascinating conversation, tasty healthy food, equally good libations, fine views of the surrounding hills, and probably much more that, like Marco Polo, I will omit. Because you really had to be there and might not believe it if you weren't.