A squadron of gunships came thundering down the Anderson Valley Sunday morning, flying low and fast, in combat formation, racing over the treetops just ahead of their sound-signature.
In military parlance, this was a cavalry patrol. Probably en-route to some staging area for interdicting marijuana grows this summer. The effect of on the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival was purely incidental, I’m sure. But though the big CH-53 weapons and command platforms didn’t strafe the crowds or disburse a flurry of leaflets, the message was pretty clear.
These musical protesters were in America, enjoying the rights of free speech, but the force to silence them was present and ready. Or maybe the aircrews, having been deployed to Muslim countries for so long, just wanted a glimpse at female flesh — which was also prevalent, despite the unseasonably chilly weather.
The protest had been pretty strong the night before. Reggae music is by its nature revolutionary. The uniform of that revolution is a mix of camos and the red-yellow-green tri-color flag. Most of the lyrics propound revolutionary change in the way governments — mostly NATO governments — treat the rest of the world. The Rastas want peace.
But on Saturday night, the words of protest became more strident as Linton Kwesi Johnson took the main stage and sang and spoke about the struggle over the past 40 years and more.
Did the protest cause any disturbances?
No. On the contrary, this year’s festival was by all accounts the biggest and most peaceful yet. As of late afternoon on Sunday, Resident Deputy Craig Walker reported that there had been very few arrests, and those were for minor offenses at that. Another feature he noticed was that this year there were very few of the penniless vagabond types who appeared at previous festivals and tended to linger, much to the displeasure of locals.
To be blunt, the average reggae festival-goer has very little to protest. Anyone who can afford the trip, starting with gas prices at nearly $5 a gallon, $70 per night to camp in a field of weed stubble, $170 per three-day ticket, $8 for a cup of beer, $10-$20 for a plate of food, and ending with an array of the latest reggae fashions and accessories, the typical rasta dude or dudette must have at least $1000 in disposable income for the weekend, and that doesn't include that single most necessary component of reggae music enjoyment: primo Mendo ganja.
“This is not the economic demographic of the Occupy Wall Street movement,” one cynical fellow said to a group of rastamammas who were sorting through some kidswear. “All these people have lots of pocket money, nice cars and homes, even health and dental insurance. They imagine they are forging an alternative culture, but they are merely promoting the old one in a new, more fashionable guise.”
Having said this rather too loudly, he was condemned, derided and dismissed in predictable terms.
The verbal reflex was, “You’re a fatalist!” And, “We don’t need that defeatist attitude, dude!”
The speaker, whose middle name must have been Trouble, launched into a pained rebuttal.
“Why is it that when someone employs the principle of cause and effect in the realm of physical phenomena, no one cries ‘fatalism,’ but the instant someone applies it to human cultural phenomena this accusation leaps forth? Why is it that an admission of our inability to control the weather brings no charge of ‘defeatism,’ whereas the reproach is promptly leveled at anyone who recognizes man’s inability to control the course of civilization?”
The consensus of free will and omnipotence was rampant at the reggae market place. Everyone seemed to be all but saying, “If we can just dress our kids in these darling little red-yellow-green smocks and cute little camo shirts, then they will grow up with a better understanding of the inequalities in the world.”
“Of course these people learned this nonsense in school,” Mr. T pontificated to the crowd, many of them being of college age. “Educators, high school principals, commencement orators and all the teachers, never seem to tire of telling the world that its salvation lies in education. Naturally, one does not expect meat packers to preach vegetarianism, and it’s reasonable for educators to advocate schooling. The fact is, however, that education does not, strictly speaking, have any effect on culture at all — because it is a part of culture. Education, whether in the classroom or out on the fairgrounds at the World Music Festival is one of the processes of culture, and it is therefore fallacious to think of it as acting upon culture from the outside. Rather, it is the other way around: Education is the means of transmitting culture from one individual, one group or one generation, to another.”
The reaction of the many sincere, altruistic and conscientious people gathered round was, “Why then should we even try to better our lot if we have no control over our culture? Why not just sit back and let evolution take care of everything?”
“In the first place,” Trouble said, “we cannot just sit back. While we live we are confronted with our culture and must come to terms with it. Besides, even just sitting back incubating a case of dementia praecox is ‘doing something about it.’ So is committing suicide. Obviously, we can’t avoid reacting to our culture. What I’m saying is not that it is futile to try, but that what you do and how you do it, and the purpose for which it is done, is culturally determined. Our ancestors once thought they could control the weather by doing rain dances, and those who questioned this practice were called fatalists and defeatists; and in some cases treated even more harshly than name calling. But we do not think our advanced knowledge of meteorology useless, even though we still cannot control the weather; because we can deal with it more advantageously by being able to predict it.
“So it is for culture. We cannot control its course, but we can learn to predict it. So far, culture has been evolving as a blind, bloody, brutal, tropismatic process. Our ignorance is still deep-rooted and widespread…”
The music started up and the dismal lecture was drowned out, the women started to dance, joints were passed round and everyone cheered up immensely.
Out on the street I came upon opportunities for salvation.
First, it was the fellowship at the Live Oak building with a table set up to give away those little New Testament bibles. Like a shill at a carney, the pastor had a couple of pieces of cardboard asking passersby which was bigger, the red or blue? This was followed by some comments about the parlous state of world affairs and the salvation of the mark’s immortal soul was brought into question. The bible was given out with an invitation to Sunday services. Then, down the street at the new church by the Senior Center, the preacher down there, not to be outdone, was giving out free bottled water. “God bless! Free water! See you at church tomorrow!”
Both faiths boasted an increased turn-out on Sunday.
Hector Andrade was doing a terrific business at his taco stand on the corner of Guerrero’s Tire Shop — by the way, the Guerreros no longer rent the property. The health department shut him down for a few hours, but it was only to put up some plastic sheeting they required between Andrade’s huge wok and barbecue and the food prep area.
Several other businesses were getting lots of customers as well, with employees generally getting all the hours they wanted. One county employee, Deputy Walker, said he only got five hours of sleep all weekend. As I was chatting with him a young woman in a scanty skirt and bikini top came to complain about how she’d been treated at the gate to the festival. She said she’d been manhandled by a security guard at the gate, and literally thrown out of the gate, tearing her clutch and losing both her slippers.
“I haven’t been drinking or using drugs of any kind,” she said. “I’m dehydrated and haven’t eaten — all my stuff’s inside at the camp, even my ID. I just wanted to get to my camp and get my things.”
Deputy Walker told her to take her story to the people in charge at the fair office and if they didn’t help her, he would escort her in to get her belongings. She minced across the hot asphalt on her bare feet, and was soon being ushered in to collect her things.
But it is understandable that the crew, many of them volunteers, could get exasperated with the many shysters trying to get into the festival without paying the high ticket prices.
My own experience with the staff was rather chilly until I met the courteous, patient and thorough Felicia — having narrowly avoided a bureaucratic encounter with a certain Karen, the imperious matron of the front gate who, a volunteer warned me, was not anybody to trifle with. She could sniff out a deadbeat at a hundred yards. Considering the nearly 7,000 moneyed revelers arriving in such a small town, it’s remarkable that incidences of violence and lawlessness were so scarce.
The locals were all looking for a way to make a buck off the visitors, and I heard that the going rate was $20 for a parking spot anywhere near the fairgrounds. A young woman carrying two big jugs of water from the market back to her camp at the brewery inspired my own capitalist tendencies and I offered to carry the water for a beer, a deal she readily accepted, saying her arms were nearly numb from the three or four blocks she’d already gone. But the big deal was to rent out camping space in your yard for anywhere from $75 to $100 a night. The problem with this idea, of course, is: No Bathroom; and every port-a-potty service in the area was maxed out.
Sewage is an issue, an ugly fact of life. Right by the men’s restroom at the fairgrounds, there were two big septic tanks set out on the blacktop. I was standing there asking a nearby food stand about their business when a rastaman came along drawing a wagon with two huge chamber pots on board. Like a man handling nitroglycerine, he emptied the tubs into the tanks.
As I was leaving for the day I ran into my friend Arlene, who, having noticed I had my pen poised over my notebook, asked if I would like a comment.
“This is the first one I’ve been to, in all these years,” she said. “And I’m enjoying the hell out of it!”