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Fairgrounds Music Fest Returns

The third weekend in June is upon us, and for the past decade in Boonville that means the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival kicks off in the fairgrounds Friday evening and runs through Sunday evening. We spoke with festival producer Warren Smith about this weekend's festivities and some of the vagaries of putting on a world-class world music gathering year after year. Smith is a veteran musical promoter since the 1970s whose Epiphany records label also released some classic reggae albums. He and his wife Gretchen have produced the “SNWMF” for two decades now.

This will be the 21st year for the Festival, with a decade in Boonville. So, by now things run very smoothly for you here, right?

Yes, and it's certainly different from how it used to be in the previous two places in the Sierra foothills, where we got our name but where we had continual trouble with both local criminals and authorities. Now we know everybody we work with well, and I don't think any key person has changed since we moved here. We love it here and feel welcomed by almost everyone. Anyway, although I don't really keep track of the years, we have now been in Boonville longer than we were anywhere else.

And you've sold out the tickets some days in recent years too?

Well, we can hold 5000 people maximum, but technically we have not sold out anytime yet. Although last year on Saturday it might have been at full capacity. This year I expect we may have a somewhat smaller turnout as we have less of the big 'pop' kind of acts that draw younger crowds, plus there are more and more festivals doing that sort of music. Reggae on the River has a very good lineup this year as well. So although I think the festival attendee population is growing overall, there is a lot more competition out there nowadays too.

But in some ways your festival has always been focused more on what might be called connoisseurs of roots music. Is it a growing challenge for you to find a full roster of acts, given that many of the classic roots reggae artists you have always favored are getting older and fewer?

I'm afraid that's true. But that has kind of been our response to the competition in recent years, to dig deeper into those roots, instead of trying to match that whole pop thing that goes on. We do have Rebulution on Sunday, which could be said to be more of a pop reggae act, but frankly they are a local band so that was kind of important to have.

This Friday, before the official festival actually starts, for the first time you're hosting an afternoon panel discussion on the 'state of reggae.' What is that about?

Well, it was brought to us by Lloyd Stansbury, a Jamaican music industry attorney who lives in Florida. It will feature music business people with longtime involvement in the US reggae scene and beyond, basically looking at the problems presenting the music in this country. Some of it will focus on this whole 'reggae revival' movement, which is trying to bring back some of the original power of the music from the 1970s and early 1980s when we just had one great group after another — the Mighty Diamonds, Heptones, Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals — I mean the list goes on and on and on, and I think for most longtime reggae fans that's what they're still playing. Then in the 90's dancehall music came in, with a harsher sound and certainly mostly coming from a different mental or spiritual place. I think that lost a lot of people t the reggae scene, and there was a real craving for more of that old roots feel. But I haven't heard a new Toots or Diamonds yet; I'm not hearing the really well-written songs, like Dennis Brown and Leroy Sibbles or Marley, where you could really hear and feel what they were saying. A lot of people now will just toss a couple of verses on a rhythm and put it out there. My question would be, how many songs can you really remember from recent years? Versus, from the earlier reggae, when geez, we could be here for days naming all the classic tunes. I just don't think they have the staying power now that they used to have.

I've long thought that reggae has had some kind of 'identity crisis' for 30 years, almost since Bob Marley died and dancehall music began. But you do strive to bring the best of the newer acts to play.

Yes, such as Raging Fyah, and I think this will be one of their first American dates, and we've had Proteje, and tried really hard to bring Chronixx this year but couldn't quite get them here. But we've got Tarrus Riley, maybe the most popular and respected of all the new acts, and he's a great entertainer and a great guy too. Plus some others that are among the best of all from the new scene.

Friday evening you've got three acts that it's safe to say many serious fans are most excited about — Seun Kuti, the son of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti, who tours with some of his father's original Egypt 80 band members, and Clinton Fearon, from one of the greatest reggae roots bands, the Gladiators — plus Adrian Sherwood in the dancehall. Sherwood is one of the most innovative and respected of all reggae producers and deejays, with a longtime cult following of his On-U sound system.

Yes, I know that's going to be one of those times where both stages are cooking and people will want to be running back and forth.

Saturday, you have legendary drummer and bass team Sly and Robbie backing up a list of greats.

Yes, they will back Bob Andy, Bitty McLean, and Mykal Rose, who of course was lead singer of the great Black Uhuru before his long-running solo career. And they will do a set on their own first. We're a bit worried about John Holt, who has some heath problems but hopefully can still make. And then there are the Tamlins, a fantastic harmony trio, and U-Roy, the original deejay who was himself sick last year but is eager to come back this year. And we're excited to have Hollie Cook come back, as she was so well-received last year.

Bob Andy is a living legend among roots reggae fans and his set a few years back was one of the greatest musical events I've seen, so it's wonderful to have him returning. He's such a wonderful man as well — sitting and 'reasoning' (talking about serious topics) with him that time was a memorable confirmation of what the best reggae spirit can be about. On the other hand, have you had any problems with acts acting badly this year already?

Oh, a bit of that, like somebody demanding first class tickets and to bring somebody else along at the last minute. That kind of thing can be a deal breaker for us. Then there's somebody demanding $250 of hard liquor for their dressing rooms, and we don't really condone hard liquor at the festival at all, so we just cross it off their list. The funny thing is, the folks who tend to make these kind of demands really tend to be younger acts without that much of a following. The veterans and bigger stars tend to just be professional about everything — with the occasional exception.

Speaking of veterans, you have two of the most foundational reggae figures kicking things off on Sunday morning, Carlton and the Shoes and Derrick Morgan. That will get the real old school fans up early.

True, and on the big stage we'll have something truly new and different, Jambanai, from Korea, who play what might be called some form of heavy metal, but very unusual — kind of like Jimi Hendrix meets John Cage. They were a huge hit at the South by Southwest and WOMEX festivals, and this year will be at Glastonbury and even open for the Stones. We have their only American dates! Zvuloon Dub System has some great music on record and they are out of Israel. There's also Ester Rada, also from Israel, but is Ethiopian and will be very interesting.

On Friday, you always open with a sort of invocation by the Pomo Indians — why do you feel it important to present Native Americans each year?

Well... of course, they were here before us, and in some way these are their sacred lands. We really appreciate their blessing, and we try to reach out and look back in that respect. And maybe ironically, while I tend to be a bit "Anti-American" in hiring too many domestic acts — we are a 'world music' festival, after all — but I'd say that the First Nations people here in the United States should be an exception. I guess it's the least we can do.

In past years, some locals have complained about noise levels close by, some trespassing on neighboring property, and parking constraints, but some of that seems probably unavoidable in such small town and you do have a strict curfew. And the sheriff has said that in fact this festival has tended to have less problems than some of the other large events in the fairgrounds. 

Yes, our curfew is midnight and it is very strict, other than for the enclosed dancehall. We measure that to the second as it really costs us to go over it. Otherwise, we expect our attendees to be respectful of the community and work with the local legal authorities to minimize impact, and pay for extra security. It's a very 'green' event onsite and a family event too, with kids' entertainment and activities throughout the weekend. Other than a very few unfortunate incidents we've had a very peaceful, enjoyable event each year.

Yes, both the cops and the medical people tend to tell me it's even boring in terms of having to deal with troubles. As for climate, though, your first year in Boonville had an intense heatwave, which hurt attendance in subsequent years as people assumed it was way over 100 degrees every June. There was the year with all the fires and smoke. But since then it's been nice pretty much every year.

Yes, and it's looking good for this weekend at this point. We are hoping for nothing too extreme. In fact, what we try to tell people coming from afar is to bring warm clothes for the evening!

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Full disclosure: AVA writer Heilig has been drafted this year as a festival emcee. For all details about the festival, see

(Steve Heilig is a longtime reggae and world music journalist, promoter, radio deejay, and enthusiast. While still in school, he began his music writing career with an interview with Bob Marley. For two decades, he was a critic and columnist for The BEAT, a leading world music publication, for which he interviewed such figures as Carlos Santana, Milton Nascimiento, Alton Ellis, Lee Scratch Perry, Gilberto Gil, Ijahman, Femi Kuti, Bob Andy, Burning Spear, Thomas Mapfumo, Mickey Hart, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, Baaba Maal, Jimmy Cliff, Bunny Wailer, and many more. He was also a volunteer and then staff member at Reggae On The River for many years, helping manage things backstage and onstage. He has attended and covered the SNWMF since the beginning. He's played drums for a number of relatively unknown musical outfits, although once very nervously sat in with the late Latin percussion legends Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente in funky restaurant in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. In his more mundane day job he is an medical ethicist, editor, epidemiologist, environmentalist, and health policy wonk.)

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