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.

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