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Reggae on the River

I told the mighty editor last Tuesday morning that I’d been to Reggae on the River, and he gave me an incredulous guffaw as if I’d confessed to joining a Robert Bly men’s circle. His bafflement increased when I added that I’d had a pretty good time. It’s true that over the past six years I’ve watched the annual outflux of my Petrolian neighbors to the Reggae festival on the Eel without undue feelings of jealousy. Indeed, without any jealousy whatsoever. I thought of the 100°-plus sun baking down on the porta potties and savored all the more intensely the tranquil quiet of a lower Mattole stripped of at least half its inhabitants.

But this year found me at southern Humboldt’s main annual event. I’m not, it’s true, a major reggae fan. And since my own religious inclination is toward a modest form of ancestor worship crossed with animism I’m not hot for Rastafarianism either. So it’s all a matter of degree. If it came to a choice between Calvinism and the doctrine of eternal damnation against smoking ferocious amounts of marijuana and worshipping the King of Ethiopia, I’d probably be up there bellowing JAH! along with the best of them.

After 18 years the whole event is efficiently run. Veterans said the No Dogs ban instituted a couple of years ago is a blessing. It seemed so to us. The security teams did their jobs — wrist band inspection and a bit of you-can’t-come-in-this-way with politeness and without Prussian officiousness that seems to swell in the mildest bosom, once a security tag is pinned to it. Relying on private provisions I didn’t eat the food, but watched plenty of people shoveling trencherloads of it into their mouths without visible discomfiture. Any camp site occupied by several thousand people (supposedly 15,000 tickets were sold, though I would have guessed the attendance at around 8,000 to 10,000) is going to generate plenty of trash, but Saturday’s mess was efficiently cleaned up by Sunday morning. By Sunday evening the stench from the portable lavatories seemed to be getting the upper hand over the aroma of de divine herb, but I was gone before it gained absolute victory. I assume festivals of this nature don’t last for more than three days for the simple reason that this is the longest period possible to avoid going to the john at all.

As for the heat, veterans said this was one of the cooler ones. All the same, only mad dogs (not admitted) and reggae lovers go dancing at noon in 95° sun. The safest place to be was down by the river, either around the deep pool at the upstream end where decorous nudity was the semi-norm or in the more restrained tented suburbia of the lower stretches.

As for the music, I liked the Hedzoleh Soundz, a group from Ghana with splendid lead horns, exactly as my mother photographed their West African grandfathers 65 years ago. Like most everyone else I liked the bits of the South African Lucky Dube, that I heard between the bout of drowsiness that are, in part, the consequence of day-long potations of rum and ginger ale, an integral part of my own religious observances. And though Bunny Wailer, who closed out Saturday night, began badly with a torrent of Rasta-babble, he finally shed his priestly vestments in favor of a trim white uniform and sang some good songs, while his team of three male dancers looked as though they were yearning to break free and start breaking into a soul routine. The corset of reggae rhythm gets awfully tight after a while and one’s nerves begin to scream for blues, for rock, almost anything else. High Life lasts better. The oddest act was that of the Mighty Sparrow, who told a couple of appalling jokes, sang a dirty song about white wimmin and de cannibals, and clearly forgot he wasn’t singing to raucous Trinidadians in Sparrow’s Hide-Away. We’d gone before Toots and the Maytals and Burning Spear closed out Sunday night. On one report Burning Spear wasn’t so hot and Toots was great.

A doped-out crowd is amiable, but it certainly lacks political energy. Saving Headwaters was the running slogan, and indeed the sign on the hillside, but the enviro talk was mushy and I gave up listening to it after hearing a speaker refer to the trees as “the spiritual elders of our community.” Maybe a kind of syncretic religion will gradually emerge from the Reggae events down the years, a blend of tree worship with obeisance to Haile Selassie, sanctified by de herb, not to mention de LSD. Well, it beats tree worship and obeisance to Bill Clinton.

For many of the locals the spiritual meaning of the festival is expressed in the hope of making large sums of money in a brief period of time, in the bracing unity of the cash nexus. The going rate for an eighth of an ounce of marijuana was apparently $80, which adds up to $10,240 a pound, nice going in today’s soft market. Many a youthful entrepreneur could be described taking the first tentative footsteps into commerce. Kyle Smith, youngest son of my neighbors Greg and Margie Smith, made up scores of Guatemalan type wrist bands and sold them so briskly that he raised $100, a colossal sum which, after paying off his suppliers, enabled him to buy a fine blowpipe from Borneo, with iron-tipped darts. A deadly thing. I wouldn’t care to be one of the Smith’s turkeys at this hour.

It was fun and I’m glad I went, even though I spent Monday listening to a mix of Monk and Wagner.

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