Reggae On The River: The Magical Years

The fabled Reggae on the River festival has been through more trials and tribulations than your average 30-something native Californian, with a real rough patch in recent years due to disorganization, in-fighting, and financial struggles. The result has been an extended identity crisis. But considering some near-death experiences over the past decade or so, the faithful strive to keep the faith, revive it, and keep it going (Reggae Fest Seeks Rebound After 2018 Losses, AVA, May 8). After all, the ROTR “brand” was for decades “the world’s greatest reggae festival,” even if it’s been many years since that was truly accurate.

But for a long time, it was true indeed. Started as a fundraiser in 1984 to rebuild the burnt-down Mateel Community Center, sort of a ground zero for the far-flung “redwood nation” of back-to-landers, herb growers, and music lovers who’d moved to Northern Mendocino and Southern Humboldt counties starting in the late 1960s, ROTR soon became by far the largest event of the year there. It went from one Saturday to two and then three, starting on Friday nights. At its peak over 15,000 people gathered on the first week of August on a baking bend in the South fork of the Eel River nine miles South of Garberville, the not-so-big biggest town around. World-renowned musical stars from around the globe ventured to this unique setting and left vowing to return if they could. Many did, time and again.

From the start, ROTR was presented by a large crew of staff and volunteers headed by Carol Bruno. With her husband John and many more locals, they created an entire town in the forest and on the riverbank. Over the decades it came to seem “normal” at least in some ways, but really it was astounding. Only those who really knew it firsthand understood how complex and big the festival workings were. Carol knew, and presided over it all, smiling through challenges and madness that would have driven most people screaming into the redwoods, never to return.

I began as a fan, then a journalist, then a volunteer, and wound up actual staff, “Chief” of a backstage crew. Alas, the infighting heated up, both the crowds and the music became less wonderful, and I quit in 2007, just as it all melted down into the struggles that have seemingly persisted to some degree ever since. But “it was fun while it lasted” doesn’t even begin to convey how great that whole week each August was for me and so many others, for almost two decades, working and playing long long days into the night, camping in Richardson Grove’s big trees, cooling in the river, making lifelong friends, playing music on KMUD radio as a guest, even talking to the Garberville Rotary Club lunches. But of course at core it was about the legendary musical lineups hitting the stage all weekend. Just as evidence, here are just a few of the most memorable musical moments I can recall:

1990: South African reggae star Lucky Dube, largely unknown here, utterly transfixed everyone with a rousing, razor sharp and transcendent show. He returned to ROTR later but was tragically murdered in a car-jacking a decade ago. Live, he was legendary and never to be forgotten. This was the last one-day ROTR.

1991: Trumpeter High Masekela, also from South Africa, joined “reggae ambassadors” Third World for a memorable jam and joyous rendition of his biggest hit “Grazing in the Grass.”

1992: One of the years where one after another, artists who would be headliners anywhere else took the stage one after the other - Toots and the Maytaks, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and for good measure, Zimbabwean legend Thomas Mapfumo.

1993: The hottest year ever, reaching over 113f, so that emerging West African star Baaba Maal, after his relentlessly stirring set, collapsed backstage and said “Take me back home so I can cool down!” Add returnees Jimmy Cliff, Lucky Dube, and Third World, plus reggae queen Judy Mowatt and Haiti’s Boukman Eksperyans.

1995: The debuts of #1 U.K. reggae band Steel Pulse And Nigerian juju master King Sunny Ade, plus Jamaican roots stalwart Sugar Minott and the Africa Fete package of great African and Caribbean artists.

1995: Alton Ellis, one of the few greatest seminal Jamaican singers, poured out his heart even though ailing.

1996: Mysterious spiritual reggae singer Ijahman Levi lived up to his cult reputation and more, and Jamaican idols Beres Hammond and Luciano made their debuts to powerful effect.

1997: Another all-superstar year - Toots, Spear, Dube returning - with the debut of original Wailer Bunny Wailer, calypso legend Mighty Sparrow, Nigerian Star Sonny Okusons, who wept onstage at the death of his countryman Fela Kati, and a searing reggae debut by Joseph Hill and Culture.

1998: West African superstars Alpha Blondy and Baaba Maal, Jamaican roots legends The Congos, and the “Spirit of Unity” tour featuring Dube, Hammond, Steel Pulse And more.

2000: Friday night shows debuted with an astounding show by newcomer Femi Kuti and his ultra-tight band and those entrancing dancers. Bunny Wailer closed the festival with his hourslong “history of reggae” extravaganza.

2001: Congolese superstar made sweet magic on Friday night, and closing on Sunday night, Luciano climbed to the top of a lighting tower, still singing and terrorizing Carol Bruno, who said “I just can’t watch” and fled backstage.

2002: one of the years of too many superstars to list.

2003: Culture returned for a legendary set, so did Israel Vibration and the Roots Radics, plus Toots, Cliff, Third World, and African stalwarts Bembeya Jazz.

2004: Steel Pulse, Bunny Wailer, Congolese all-star group Kekele, and the Easy Stars full reggae version of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

2006: The fest moved on river curve south to Dimmick Ranch, presenting Sly and Robbie and Don Carlos’ Black Uluru showcase, the mighty Salif Keita from Mali, and closer Bunny Wailer yet again. Sometime far after midnight on Monday morning, with all crew chiefs invited by Wailer to join onstage and sing along, I had a spontaneous revelation that it would get no better than this, that the magic moments were becoming rarer, that the “unity” theme of the festival was no longer really in effect, and that I should and would retire from ROTR before I ruined my memories. And so I did. 

Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, who coined the term “Reggay” in Jamaica in 1968, testifies at Reggae on the River sometime in the 1990s.

Carol Bruno died recently, after a prolonged decline in her health. She was a pillar of the SoHum community, and far beyond, with many challenges in her life but her spirit intact. Mourning for her has been widespread and deep. She was one who would look you in the eye and say “I love you” and there was no doubt that she meant it. One of the last times I saw her was in Boonville at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, where I had taken the role of a stage MC, bringing bands on and offstage. Carol and John were honored guests, reggae royalty really, and we put seats on the side of the stage for them to use - not something done for almost anybody. Carol was frail, but we wanted her to see up close her friends in the veteran group Third World. After I announced the band and they launched into one of their signature songs “96 Degrees in the Shade,” I walked over to Carol, took her hand, and said “This one’s for you.” She smiled that smile, and I had to walk off behind the stage to compose myself, all choked up. The band dedicated their set to her.

John & Carol Bruno

Carol Bruno, thank you for everything. This one’s for you too.

10 Responses to "Reggae On The River: The Magical Years"

  1. chuck dunbar   May 15, 2019 at 3:04 pm

    Nicely done tale, Steve. Thank you for the memories.

    Reply
  2. John H   May 16, 2019 at 8:21 am

    In 2001, I was so very lucky to be invited by Brian Elie to join the backstage staff at ROTR, and volunteered for 3 years, creating lifetime memories. What a brilliant scene! What amazing music! What gorgeous people! What a marvelous thing, to be able to serve such powerful and world-class performers!
    I’m sad to read about the decline of this magical event, and I can only hope that new management can bring people together and make this one of the worlds finest Reggae festivals once again. Blessings-

    Reply
  3. Linda Aragon   May 16, 2019 at 11:01 am

    It truly was magic and unity was the word…

    Reply
  4. Nansi   May 16, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Thanks Carol and all the ROTR family for the 32 years I worked as coordinator for this one and only Reggae fest…
    Gone …but we will never forget..

    Reply
  5. Kaati   May 16, 2019 at 11:27 pm

    You got me all choked up. Thank you for this. Kaati/Reggae Festival Guide

    Reply
  6. Lee   May 17, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Steve, thanks for this. Thanks for remembering our beloved Carol and her “I Love You-s”. Thanks for shout out to Lucky. I remember the heat of 1993, but didn’t know it was THAT hot. The Magical Years indeed! I’m consoled for the losses by the fondest of memories, and a few photos that tell the story.

    Reply
  7. Shyla   May 18, 2019 at 8:51 am

    Oh. Thank you. Thank you for the gentle reminder of wonderful memories. Carol was truly an angel.

    Reply
  8. Burton   May 19, 2019 at 8:25 am

    My favorite time of the year for many years! Respect!

    Reply
  9. Patrick Reynolds   June 15, 2019 at 2:21 pm

    It was an absolute gift, being able to see this event at its peak. (Some think that was Reggae Rising; I disagree. ROTR 2000-2005 was the business).

    I was on the Mateel side of the fence; I was told later in life that the Peoples crew thought I was a fed (I found that f’n HILARIOUS), but I’ve kept strong friendships with those that I had worked with and bled with to keep that party awesome.

    High Times is doing a fantastic job at alienating the locals. The Volunteer People were replaced by another outfit…and not because the bid was better, either. Security was outsourced to a different company. They haven’t asked Mike and I to do Stuff Zone this year…so I’m assuming they’re finding their own internal infrastructure for that crew. The vendor booths are too expensive for any average Joe; a 20×20 for food is more than your average American makes in a year.

    They haven’t contacted any local, legitimate farm for Cannabis…yet they have announced that there will be a Cannabis Area…which now takes up the shaded area we used to camp all our volunteers in…and is about the size of the concert bowl itself.

    There’s word through the pipe that my name is getting thrown in for the Board next rotation. I’m not gonna pursue it, but if it DOES happen:

    I’m going to fight to keep both the Mateel and Reggae in the hands of the community in Southern Humboldt. 18 years I’ve put into that place; the Hall and French’s. I could literally shed tears at how much its changed in the last two decades. No more Mateel Meal; no more 2 shows a month. No community outreach. No Feet First or play productions.

    You can bet good ol’ Fatman here is gonna rock the boat.

    #ForTheFam

    Reply
  10. Christina RV   October 25, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Thank you! Many wonderful memories of Reggae on the River-The Magical Years.
    My summer vacation and yearly spiritual rejuvenation. I witnessed the decline but returned year after year hoping for a rebirth.

    Still, Reggae on the River is always in my ❤️ thank you again, forever💕

    Reply

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