“All kinda people come a dance” – Sugar Minott
My first musical experience at the Anderson Valley Fairgrounds came in 1971. I was part of a pickup band of musicians camping at the mouth of the Navarro River who somehow found themselves on a tiny stage surrounded by an unruly crowd of boozed up locals who, for the moment at least, seemed to tolerate us longhairs. It was quite frightening to be in the midst of the drunken crowd as it surged unpredictably while random fights broke out. It was the beginning of that post-Woodstock era when outdoor concerts were marked by gross intoxication, trash, and flying projectiles.
And now, 52 years later, I’m back in the same place feeling a completely different vibe. Tranquility. It was opening time and I’m sitting at a picnic table, eating a delicious plate of Jamaican food (oxtail with rice and peas), watching the crowd stroll in. “This is the best place for people watching,” said the woman next to me. It was a quirky pop-up fashion show with every conceivable type of headgear, from African fulani hats to bunny ears, every type of fabric, every conceivable pattern and color combination. People from all demographics were represented. Particularly noticeable were the many young families, with their wildly bedecked strollers and baby wagons. My friend Carter joked “It’s a reggae fetish t-shirt contest!”.
Through the weekend I witnessed no belligerent behavior. No trash underfoot. No flying projectiles. More than one person told me that the best thing about the fest was their feeling of personal safety. One visitor from Australia told me that what she liked most was the no dogs policy, which made perfect sense as we gazed out at the grassy acreage full of kids chasing each other.
It was the return of the 26th version of the Sierra Nevada World Music Fest, the crown jewel of the many festivals devoted to niche musics in Northern California. SNWMF has been a summertime fixture here since 2008. It’s the brainchild of the late Warren Smith who, from the 1970s, had made it his mission to bring remarkable, authentic Jamaican music to the U.S.A. Jamaica’s homegrown music had been ignored in the British colonial era, oppressed to the degree that recording technology didn’t even arrive on the island until the late 1950s. This was coincident with Jamaica’s emergence as an independent country in 1963, and music very quickly became the entire expression of the nation’s new identity.
Jamaica turned out to be a hotbed of musical talent. Within a decade its extraordinary musicians created three musical genres soon known worldwide: ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Five decades later these infectious beats continue to influence almost all of today’s pop genres. But, to me, an even more profound aspect of this music was its lyrical content. Up until the mid-70s Jamaica’s literacy rate was around 20%, and so records soon became Jamaica’s unofficial national newspaper. Since there was no corporate music industry governing content, recording artists were free to talk about anything they wanted. Many records excoriated Jamaica’s history of slavery and colonialism, or directly confronted current social evils.
A more significant long term effect of this artistic license was that it gave voice to that long suppressed underclass of Jamaican people who adhered to the spiritual beliefs often referred to as Rastafarianism. A powerful blend of African spiritual practices and the Old Testament, this endemic spirituality gave reggae music its sense of purpose, propelling Rasta artists like Bob Marley and Burning Spear to international stardom. Years later, this Rasta Livity (practice) informed almost all the music heard this weekend at SNWMF, forming a communal bond with the many attendees who, to varying degrees, shared its values.
As usual the festival presented a curated lineup comprised of original “foundation” artists (Burning Spear, Johnny Clarke, Derrick Morgan), established kingpins of the current scene (Luciano, Tarrus Riley, Beres Hammond) and up-and-comers (Protoje, Kabaka Pyramid, Kumar and the Original Fyah). Most of these artists, particularly the younger ones, performed the kind of “arena reggae” established years ago by Bob Marley. Their sets were very professionally delivered in a smooth style tailored to the international audience. There were a lot of dancers filling the eastern thirty yards of the Anderson Arena. For the rest of the crowd the music provided pleasant ambience as they ate, socialized and socialized some more.
I’m not saying this dismissively, the music was really nice. One of the wonderful things that Warren Smith established was a tradition of bringing forgotten artists back into the limelight. Many of these performers had fallen onto hard times – there’s no Social Security in Jamaica (one artist told me that he was grateful for the invitation because it finally allowed him to buy a used car). I particularly enjoyed the performance of Derrick Morgan, whose first hit record was in 1961. Now 83, blind and wheelchair bound but with voice and stagecraft intact, Derrick connected immediately with the audience, bringing great joy as he rose partway from his chair while singing “Conquering Ruler”. I also enjoyed watching Norma Fraser, who also had her first Jamaican hit in 1961. A lively septuagenarian now living in Oregon, she delivered a very spirited set of rude boy classics like the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”.
For me, the best performance was delivered by the 70s hitmaker Johnny Clarke, especially his biting rendition of the apocalyptic "None Shall Escape". But there were many other candidates. I should also mention the renowned Malian griot Bassekou Kouyate, whose performance was rated by festival MC Steve Heilig as being “in the top ten of the hundreds I’ve seen here”.
When I asked people what they liked most about the Festival the most common response was some variation of “the people”, or, “the community”. The majority of these folks had been coming to SNWMF for years, many from out of state or abroad. The festival had been in abeyance for five years, and appeared unlikely to return due to the untimely death of the festival’s founding visionary Warren Smith, concomitant with the huge national trauma caused by the COVID pandemic. It all seemed to be too much.
Thus it was a very happy surprise when Gretchen Smith and her team announced this year’s return to Boonville. The audience also had gone through some very hard years, many experiencing declines in their economic and health status. And so the rebirth of the Festival also represented a collective rebirth, and a return to the ideals represented by the music. That’s what it felt like to me anyway. And to everyone else I spoke with, like veteran observer Larry Hacken, host of Mendo’s longstanding local reggae radio show Heavyweight Sounds (KZYX-FM): “A Beautiful time. Like coming home to family. Impeccable musicianship and artistry. You couldn’t ask for more. People are happy. It’s paradise.”
(Dr. Michael Turner, a retired Mendocino County physician aka Dr. Sapatoo, is a longtime reggae fanatic and co-author of “Roots Knotty Roots: The Discography of Jamaican Music.”)