Music Never Dies
by Steve Heilig, June 28, 2017
Ahh, those Anderson Valley mornings. At the Mosswood before things heated up it was calm and happy, the smiling lovely staff providing truly wonderful coffee, and there were open seats out front. I plunked my oat scone and cup down with my newspapers and sat. Before I got a good gulp down a guy sat next to me. He had no festival wrist band and looked like he might be a local (whatever that looks like). But before I could either ask or bury my face behind the daily catastrophes, he said:
"Did you hear about the UN?"
Uh oh, I thought.
"They took my truck and my storage unit in Venezuela and Katy is trying to sell my stuff up here too..."
What the heck, I thought, might as well learn about some international intrigue and who the hell Katy might be, and engaged him in a "conversation." It seems legendary rock promoter Bill Graham still owed him tons of cash, and the international cabals were after him, and so forth. I waited for something about vaccines or chemtrails while I sipped and glanced at the news but eventually lost track of his many trains of thought until he said "My family owns that place down the street but they won't let me near it."
Gee, I wonder why, I thought. But I love sitting out there in the mornings and seeing the parade of people from all over, many if not most visiting the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival at the fairgrounds. Sunburnt revelers, farmers legal or not, beautiful women, happy kids, hungover partiers, euphoric music lovers, whole families, world travelers, grizzled road veterans, incognito jillionaires, exhausted staffers and volunteers, internationally renowned musicians, you name it, they pass through on the essential morning search for coffee and baked goods. And the temperature was still at a very pleasant moderate level. Even the seemingly fairly high concentration of the questionably sane, both domestic and imported, becomes not only tolerable but worth a listen - for awhile.
"Music Never Dies," read the shirt of one of the veteran reggae photographers prowling the stage. The 24th annual version of the festival would seem to serve as evidence of that. Among the SNWMF crowd each year is a cadre of veteran reggae fanatics and scholars, some of whom are DJs who spin records in-between acts, and/or radio DJs, and/or just collectors of obscure Jamaican records. It's a kind of reunion each year, as this event has long been known for bringing old school reggae acts who have appeared few or no other places in recent decades. Conversations among this group can be both erudite and nostalgic. "Is our kind of music dead yet?" was one ongoing lament heard. The debate about the state of reggae is now itself decades old, and not just due to the extremely challenging economics of the music industry in the digital age. Certainly "roots" reggae, which arose and some would say peaked four decades ago, is now something of a cult phenomenon. The fact that there is a longstanding and somewhat ill-defined "revival reggae" movement proves the point. And classic artistes are ever harder to bring to the stage, even if they are still with us. This year there were really only a couple on the roster. Is this like a previous aging generation turning out for, say, Frank Sinatra, albeit with differing refreshments of choice?
Not quite. Beyond the themes of romantic love, roots reggae, besides having many irresistible rhythms and melodies, speaks lyrically of what might be called human rights, economic struggles, and the unique philosophies of Rastafarian spirituality. Even if one does not fully subscribe to or even understand all that, it can be a compelling alternative to the materialism and hedonism of mainstream rock and disco and other types of music. It continues to draw a fanatical all-ages group of listeners worldwide, and not just due to the link with pot. The SNWMF may not be a huge event like, say, Outside Lands or Coachella, but a few thousand loyal fans vow not to miss it - and some other similar reggae-themed festivals - each year. It's a tribute to the lasting quality of real reggae and other authentic sounds. There is a reason Jamaica has been called "the loudest island in the world" and it is not due to volume, but the spread of the reggae sound internationally. I once found a Bob Marley cassette in the Sahara desert, and his "Exodus" album has been called the best album of the century by TIME Magazine. Smoke that, Sinatra.
"Roots music reminds us of things we are supposed to remember" read the festival program."It's about love and freedom and the human heart and soul." So, when an artist like Tarrus Riley or Third World (celebrating their 40th year as a band) or Ranking Joe or Lee "Scratch" Perry (82 years old) or Barrington Levy or Chronixx or even Capleton launch into a signature tune, old or new, and the mass of people aged from their teens on up sing along with gusto, it is indeed something to hear. Onstage, yes, the band can hear that chorus roar. It's inspiring whether you know the song or not. A couple of times my hair stood on end. Mass joy is contagious stuff. There were many other non-reggae acts from around the globe bringing that spirit as well, from Haiti, Korea, Africa, Latin America, New Zealand, and more. At least three of the reggae acts were the offspring of roots music icons, and one called himself a "grandson of reggae." Music never dies, indeed.
Alas, on Sunday, the festival's final day, things got a bit too tropically authentic. Seeing the projection of temperatures spiking beyond any comfort level, we escaped early to the coast over the crumbling but beautiful Manchester road for a lovely morning in Point Arena, and by the time we turned back inland on 128, the car thermometer ticked up like a clock from 70F at the coast to 105F in Boonville. It had became an oven in the fairgrounds. The medical zone became a full house of overheated humans lying down with ice and even lines into their arms for rehydration. Even some staff and musicians went down. Ambulances out front waited for the possibility of transport over the hill - fortunately not needed.
Inside the fairgrounds things were relatively sedate, the heat forcing folks to seek shade even when rousing bands were onstage. A hardcore cadre of stalwart dancers braved the direct sun throughout the day anyway, though, and in the late afternoon the rays slant in from coastwise and hit them right in their eyes. People cluster in the shade on the north side and slowly migrate over as it moves. True troopers. On Friday evening and Saturday it had been plenty warm but tolerable, so in that aspect at least, we'd lucked out. Three days of that heat could have been lethal. But it seems everybody survived, and the three cops standing around as the festivities wound down confirmed they'd had no problems at all, all weekend.
After partaking a bit of the new "silent disco" in the big barn, wherein everybody gets headphones to tune in via wifi to the DJs spinning yes, roots music and it looks like a mass of fireflies bouncing quietly in the darkened hall, we crossed the street to Lizzby's where the taco stand was still set up out front, bless them. An adorable little girl took my cash and we had a bilingual counting lesson while she made change. Then it was quiet while we sat back and waited for our tamales and tacos. No cars passed by and few lights were on; the stars winked above. For one extended weekend, we'd had a break from the slow-motion national nightmare. Blessed be the music makers. May they never die.