It all started with a post on Facebook for my friends who couldn’t attend the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. It was mostly about the ticket prices and scarcity of camping and lodging accommodations. The camping had been sold out for nearly a week in advance and lodging outrageously priced. So I was posting photos on Facebook for my friends where one of them saw a red dress on a mannequin she just loved.
The picture of the dress was posted on Friday afternoon. By the time I saw that somebody had not only “liked” the post, but also commented that she “loved” the red dress, I assumed that it had been swallowed up in the vast, ravenous maw of women shoppers who descended on the Festival’s countless vending booths every day. Moreover, I couldn’t remember which booth it was. The little red dress, it seemed to me, was as fragile and transient as a single red poppy underfoot in the line of march of a great marauding army.
Army is a fitting metaphor for the legions who attend the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. Castoff and surplus military uniforms have become as symbolic to reggae music lovers as the red-green-yellow banners so ubiquitously representative of the genre. Maybe it's because much of the music comes from war torn countries where even children are recruited into mercenary service. The martial camo has become so prevalent that it is currently de riguer and available not only in smartly tailored tunics and cargo shorts, but in everything from underwear to formal evening gowns, too. It is the uniform of the revolution, as it were.
These uniforms are not cheap. Nothing is. Even a trifling souvenir, such as a bar of scented soap, costs $10. So after paying for camping or lodging and the expensive tickets, festival goers may then find themselves short of ready cash when they encounter the vending booths — and they must also pass through the gastronomical temptations of the food court before they get to the pricy clothing and jewelry booths. In anticipation of this problem the Boonville Fair Board — the event is housed at the Boonville Fairgrounds — has thoughtfully installed an ATM at the main entrance, which, sources tell me, turns a pretty penny.
Financial difficulties, of course, may be solved by growing ganja — which is another essential aspect of the reggae music scene — and it is perhaps no accident that venues such as Boonville and Garberville are chosen for the big festivals because of all the ready cash available in the local underground economy to which these two communities are central. To pretend that these festivals are not commercial enterprises, and that the marketing of the requisite clothing is merely incidental, is like pretending that growing marijuana is a holy calling, involving self-sacrifice, and that the fortunes in US currency buried behind everyone’s garden are purely incidental to selflessly answering the needs of medical patients — which is to say it is the universal practice, the prevailing norm, the unquestionable and unshakable belief of everyone involved.
The scramble for these moldering surplus dollars — which we understand may be a bit on the decline these days — can be blamed on the signs posted up and down Highway 128 this year. Some of the downtown businesses — one in particular — felt the accumulation of cars from festival goers hampered the easy parking their regular customers have come to expect. The signs threatened anybody who left their car parked overnight with the trouble and expense of being towed. (Although a cop we spoke to said it probably wouldn’t be actively enforced.) It appears CalTrans has become involved in this project. In preparation of which, only last week, the fleet of tow trucks from Starr Automotive of Philo underwent an inspection by the California Highway Patrol at the Fairgrounds parking lot.
Yes, the performers love coming to NorCal, too. They love it so much they incorporate their love into their lyrics. Early on Friday evening, Kabaka Pyramid on the Village Stage was singing, “California, Califor… Califor… Califorrrnia…”
This call brought a horde of dreadheads from the food court, gulping down their treats and crowding into the shade under the redwoods, wiggling, bouncing, and writhing to the beat.
“That’s easy, that’s easy,” the singer said, reverting to public announcement mode — common in reggae music. The singers often digress from their scripted lyrics to encourage audience participation.
“Everybody, now: sing with me. We want to feel that original vibe — Celebrate!”
A weak chorus from the audience responded: “Celebrate…”
Boom Boom Boom.
“Louder now — Celebrate!”
Boom Boom Boom.
It became a chant, and more revelers flooded in. But soon, people lost themselves in the distraction of lighting joints or entranced dancing, and the chant died out in a smattering muddle. A roving pack of young men entered the grove, the leader in a drug-induced trance of some sort, judging by his eyes; he kept going up to strangers and gluing his lips to their faces; some people indulged this spontaneous intimacy; most, however, dodged, or shrank, or scrambled away from loverboy’s puckered assaults. His companions, at times, had to pull him off and physically restrain him.
The singer reverted again to public address, this time to make some unintelligible (to me, anyway) political comments, which reggae performers have a penchant for. The music kept up the beat and I wandered away to the food court to sample a Jamaican shish kabob, smothered in barbecue sauce and a pint of the new Sierra Nevada Summerfest beer. The food was from LA; the beer from Chico. Both were excellent.
After lunch, I stopped at a booth called Love From Kenya and bought a sea turtle replica made from flip-flops that wash up on the beaches near Nairobi from the Indian Ocean, and places like Zanzibar. I met the proprietor of the booth, Sonia, who told me her family collected the flip-flop flotsam from the beach and glued ‘em together to make little animals like elephants, giraffes, zebras, sea turtles.
A woman went by wearing a familiar-looking red dress. In fact, many of the women I’d seen shopping earlier in the day wearing cutoffs and tee-shirts, were returning as the sun went down in rastafarian evening clothes.
I sat on the grass in front of the Main Stage amid the flowing skirts, the vibes from the bass rippling my cup of beer as if a herd of brontosauruses were dancing around me. Billows of smoke wafted from in front of the stage and I assumed it was a prop, a special effect to catch the sweeping and flashing colored lights, but it smelled like the real thing — ganja!
As it got dark, all kinds of neon articles like hula-hoops, bangles, tiaras, and even shoelaces appeared glowing rhythmically on the dancers. I went back to the food court for dinner and tried a curried lamb and rice dish served up by a guy from Watsonville who wore an Indian turban. The lamb was superb. I couldn’t stay awake for the fire dancers. But next morning, a group of teen girls were at the neon booth scraping together their money for neon lighted hula-hoops, bangles, tiaras, shoelaces and such. As I passed this booth lighting a cigarette, a young woman came rushing from the adjacent I-Tal Hemp Wick booth — Kathryn — to succor me with a hemp wick, scolding me mildly that the hemp wick would preserve my health from the poisonous vapors of my Bic lighter.
On Saturday, the crowds were much larger. They were moving in massive numbers to and from one stage to the other, for no apparent reason. Local deputies patrolled back and forth, in pairs or trios — Deputy Craig Walker looked especially grim as he passed, and I found out later that a six-year-old child had gone missing for a few hours. One of the performers later announced that the kid had been reunited with his family. I passed a ten-year-old aggressively swinging a pair of neon balls like a weapon at the milling crowds. His tattooed parents stood complacently nearby and smiled approvingly at the antics of their obese imp.
The band on the big stage had a chorus of women singing, as best I could make out, something like, “Honky fat kids… Honky fat kids… Honky fat kids…”
The kids weren’t all bad, though, and I especially enjoyed the Loco Bloco/Kidz Parade. As the parade formed up in front of a couple of towering personifications of the Sun and Moon, a wee little buccaneer stood at the head of the procession with a shiny cutlass and a tri-corner hat, ready to lead the parade. As the drum beat started, I looked down to set my camera to record a video, and when I looked back up the tiny swashbuckler had been replaced by Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg! Hamburg, as Pied Piper, led the children off and I focused on a trio of little drummer boys and girls. I posted the video on my facebook, for those of us who haven’t seen our estimable supervisor in a while. He seems to have aged perceptibly — his once-dark hair, now an iron gray.
I retired early on Saturday night, but was awakened around midnight by what sounded like a CD that kept pausing and skipping from the Main Stage. It was a medley of traditional reggae tunes, but the pausing and skipping — interspersed with harsh gangsta-rap political commentary — was not conducive to sleep. I like reggae music overall, although I’m certainly not well versed in the genre — not enough to understand the current controversy as to the future of it — but if this is the direction it's taking, I think I’ll stick with my old-fashioned folk music preferences.
Sunday morn I had a breakfast burrito at the concession run by the Anderson Valley Grange, and Laura Baynham joined me at the table. She had been working for days to prepare the burritos — which were marvelous — and had also done duty at the MASH, the “Jah First Aid” station near the Village stage in the back of the Apple Hall. After breakfast, I sauntered down there for a report on festival casualties. It was a little like the MASH TV series, and my first encounter was with an obliging fellow who reminded me of Radar O’Riley who, when I told him my business, went and got a Major Burns-like supercilious grouch. This guy told me I was out of line in even coming there. He said it was a violation of the Hippocratic oath to give me any information, whatsoever.
“You’re supposed to be a journalist? — Ha! You’re breaking the law by even asking that stupid question,” he sneered.
My question had been, “Have you had a lot of people come in with injuries?”
“The Hippo Oath makes it illegal for you to even ask such a question — I should report you!” he snapped.
“Do that, why don’t you?” I encouraged him. I recognized the character as one of several locals who deplore our beloved community newspaper, so I went over his head, asking if I might possibly speak with Colonel Potter.
He strutted off to get Dr. Lee Leer, who was as genial as Capitan Hawkeye Pierce. I explained to Dr. Lee that I hadn’t asked for any names or personal information on anyone, let alone any patients, and that Maj. Burns had misrepresented me by insinuating that I had.
Dr. Leer waved Burns off, saying, “No no, hardly any action at all here this weekend — so far. The usual sprained ankles and such, of course, and a few over-imbibers — having over-imbibed various substances — who needed to be calmed down and rest; but, really, it’s been slow — boringly uneventful, in fact.”
I thanked the doctor and went back out. I passed the yoga session and saw that the clothing booths were opening up for another day’s business and there it was! The Little Red Dress, still hanging on the same mannequin.
“How much is that red dress?” I asked the proprietor, Gaby Hguidjal (pronounced gee-jole), better known by his nickname, “Skills.” He said the dress was $65 and made of brushed chiffon — “you don’t ever need to iron it, mon, just pull it from your luggage and put it on. Would you like to buy it?”
“No no,” I declined. I didn’t have $65, for one thing. And, anyhow, I know better than to buy clothing for other people. But it seemed a reasonable price for a chiffon dress. The label “Skills” was embroidered over the breastbone in small black letters and there were red-yellow-green beads on the shoulder strings.
Further inquiry revealed that the gown was designed by himself and his wife Ulando (Deloris), both from London, and that they had started the clothing line, Planet Skills, in 1993. Skills gave me a copy of the 2014 Reggae Festival Guide, showing me an article written on the business by Kathryn Gleason. So, as it turned out, my Facebook friend could order the dress if she wished from Planet Skills online.
The article was about 800 words of ad copy masquerading as disinterested editorial. Large blocks of direct quotes from the interested party, taking up most of the column. It’s a formula that has pretty much despoiled news reporting throughout the country, and has until recently been justly condemned, derided and dismissed by the counterculture. But counterculture members see nothing amiss when the same formula is applied to their own business interests; hence the resentment by certain local members of the counterculture — like the Major Burns medical character mentioned above — towards our otherwise beloved community newspaper, America’s last.
On my way out I saw Deputy Walker and he reported that it was a good year — so far — only one ungovernably intoxicated individual on Friday, and a local Fairgrounds employee who came to work tweeked and carrying a substantial supply of meth to keep on tweeking. The drunk and the tweeker got a ride over the hill — Dr. Lee and his staff having taken care of the other cases of “over-imbibing various substances.”
Everyone agreed, in a sort of unofficial way, that attendance was down from previous years, maybe only about half of last year, when the Marley brothers were here. This should make at least one downtown business owner happy (the one behind the no-parking signs). It is unclear as yet whether the no-parking signs had anything to do with the low turnout. It could also be that ganja prices are low, and growers are reluctant to dig up their cash reserves to see performances by the changing face of reggae music.