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The Sounds Of Sierra Fest

"As this is a world music Fest the miles of traveling between stages thru the international food court totally made me thankful for feeling like I visited Brazil, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Israel, and a lot of other places. Without leaving Boonville".

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"You can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can't please all of the people all of the time" - or so the old saw goes, usually attributed to one President Lincoln.

Honest Abe didn't say exactly that - he said "fool", not "please" - but it certainly does apply to presenting a major music festival with dozens of artists from around the world. And it especially applies when much of your loyal attendance are true fans, even fanatics, of their chosen music. And in the case of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, the most rabid aficionados are the reggae fans, for this event is renowned for bringing many old-school musical figures to the stage, some of whom have not been seen in decades anywhere, and more who make their California or American debuts. I've met fans at the festival who have flown thousands of miles to catch a single act.

Many real SNWMF fans spend much time on the festival's website, which is packed with information about the artists performing and much more, and features a "Phorum" where people can post questions, comments, requests, gripes, raves, and endless debate about all things reggae and other types of sounds. It can get contentious and/or funny there, but mainly it is a tribute to the high quality of both the music and the festival overall. Even the complaints are mainly there as the SNWMF musical standard has been set so high over the past 21 years. SNWMF fans have been spoiled, and it seems many see the festival as a highlight - even the highlight - of their year.

So the pressure's always on to make it really good, and to try to present as strong a musical lineup that will appeal to the broadest crowd of attendees - while not diluting too much the SNWMF "brand" (horrible term, that) of featuring "roots" music - soulful, non-commercially-motivated, "conscious" (spiritual, political, non-sexist or homophobic, etc) groups and genres. As festival honcho Warren Smith related in the AVA a couple weeks back, that gets tougher each year as the veterans age and even die, the festival strives not to bring artists back again too soon even if they are very popular, and a growing list of other festivals compete for "talent." And thus perhaps it was not entirely surprising that the attendance seemed to be down this year.

This year, I'd say the festival scored about 90% in terms of music (full disclosure, again - I served as a stage MC this year, but had nothing to do with the bookings). In fact the only real dissent I heard and saw was about two of the three nights' headliners - otherwise the approximately forty bands seem to have gone over very well with all concerned. But the two exceptions were headliners, and thus most visible and most debated. Saturday's closer Shaggy, a superstar dancehall reggae singer/toaster of the 1990s, was a controversial headliner from the start - months before the show, online comments like "Shaggy? LOL" appeared, with true, (older?) reggae fans wondering what he was doing as a headliner, if at the festival at all. His actual appearance did nothing to resolve the conflict. People jammed both the front of the stage, cheering, and the exits, jeering. Shaggy's oft-crude demeanor and language was not all that rude by dancehall standards but struck many as out-of-place and insulting. Descriptions like "just freaking horrible" and "nightmare" surfaced; one wrote he had a "message of adultery, denial, blame, womanizing, and chauvinism," and another said he was an "Egotistical, out of touch, insulting asshole." To me he seemed like a creepy aging none-too-bright roue who was well past his discard date, or as one comment went, "What's next year? Vanilla Ice?" I agreed with one of the milder online evaluations: "He was boring. Just not interesting. It's the same schtick. Which is a shame cause the man has done great things". But it seemed many others dug it, and one wrote "Apparently the super moral H.A.D. (Hippies Against Dancehall) Organization was in the audience." And "Seemed that the younger 'broham' crowd liked it."


Culture clash! But on a more tolerant note, another witness wrote "One of the truly beautiful aspects of this wonderful Festival, is that you can experience a wide variety of artists who encompass the entire spectrum of the world of of Reggae, Ska, Rocksteady & World Music. Shaggy is just one part of this wide world of Reggae music. Like all reggae artists, he puts his own particular stamp upon it." So there it is.

The divide over the Sunday headliner, Rebelution - a California reggae group featuring one Mendocino homeboy - was less extreme, but a common sentiment was that however good they might be they just did not deserve the top slot. "I would be impressed if I was 15 years old" was one comment; but another was "awesome, best set of the festival!" Some saw them as "bland" but the extremely enthusiastic mostly-young crowd would certainly differ, and loudly. In any event my experience has been that most of the more veteran acts don't really care much about the order of the bands hitting the stage - they just want to play, and even to finish early and move on. And in any event, at this festival, if one doesn't like what's happening on one stage, the other one is a ten-minute walk - through a tempting food and drink gauntlet - away. The musically committed put miles on their sandals over the weekend.

So: Music appreciation is subjective, although many if not most humans tend to view their own preferences as objective. That profundity shared, the rest of the music appeared to be almost universally appreciated - with the possible exception of this years ringer - Jambinai. This quintet from Korea was described as "post-rock" and also, by Smith, as "heavy metal meets John Cage." After last year's raved-about set by another Korean band, Windy City, Smith brought another, even more challenging act over for an exclusive two sets. Mixing traditional Asian instrumentation with blasting guitar, drums, and electronics, they started low and slow and built to a roar. Some attendees watched and listened for a bit and split; others were mesmerized. "I was truly captivated, jaw hanging open for the full time they played" reported one listener online. "There's a chance that I was even on the verge of tears while they played their final song... Possibly sniffling.... And I'm not usually one to get emotional for music, especially a band I've never even heard of!!"

As for the other "world music" highlights, they were many: Sambada from Brazil opening the festival with propulsive joyful drum-laden tropical sounds, the striking Ethiopian/Israeli chanteuse Ester Rada evoking a funkier Billie Holiday; Ozomatli blowing up the whole crowd with their signature latin funk; Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 doing his legendary father Fela proud with propulsive, powerful Afrobeat; The B-Side Players's pan-Carribean dance music, Candelaria's irresistible Colombian Cumbia-based blend; Cultura Profetica's sweet Puerto Rican-flavored reggae; the Zvuloon Dub Systems Israeli world-reggae; and even more.

But the festival's foundation is roots reggae, and as usual the menu did not disappoint (unless, again, one is entirely spoilt, or couldn't get past the aforementioned headliners). Friday evening's Village State appetizer was superb, with Clinton Fearon Josey Wales, Cuck Fenda and Kabaka Pyramid dishing up a whole smorgasbord of reggae sounds, and Wales, a good-kind-of-dancehall veteran not heard here before, joined British reggae super-producer Adrian Sherwood in the dancehall/barn to keep things going until the wee hours. Saturday's big stage featured a nonstop marathon of Jamaican greatness, with an undisputed highlight being toasting (precursor of rapping) legend U-Roy, all of 70 years old and who called in sick last year, back in superb form with an amazing backup singer to complement his humorous/serious admonitions. The Tamlins showed why the "harmony trio" format has been so crucial to reggae, since at least the earliest Wailers days in the 1960s; Bitty McLean and Michael Rose, backed by the most famous drum-and-bass Jamaicans of them all, Sly and Robbie, were superb; newcomers Raging Fyah gave notice they are a force to be reckoned with; Morgan Heritage presented anthems of unity and strength; singer/songwriter legend Bob Andy tugged on everybody's soul; UK reggae veterans Black Slate reunited and closed down the Village Stage in powerful form; Barrington Levy turned the whole big arena into a joyous dance hall; Tarrus Riley, perhaps Jamaica's biggest star of recent years, showed why that is so; early legends Carlton Manning and Derrick Harriott were a feel-good Sunday opening one-two punch (albeit both a bit sore of throat due to dry air, dust, and secondhand smoke); and again, more more more.

With such an embarrassment of riches, you'd think reggae would be thriving, but the festival featured, for the first time, a press conference on "The Status of the Reggae Music Business in the USA" on Friday afternoon. Spearheaded by Jamaican entertainment attorney Lloyd Stanbury and featuring other promoters including Warren Smith and even Bob Andy himself, it was well-attended and went on for two hours of earnest, informed lament and debate about why it has continually become more difficult to make a decent living in the reggae "business" - and that includes the artists themselves. Many questions, few answers, but a good start on a topic which seemed to resonate with too many there. Bob Andy's lament to the effect that record labels will spend "millions" to avoid paying him "thousands that I am owed" sounded all too familiar to reggae veterans. A new generation who feels music should always be "free" online doesn't help; nor does the decline in quality of the music itself, as perceived by many (and again, described by Smith in his AVA interview two weeks back).

Out on the stages, lawns, pathways, and campgrounds the rest of the weekend, though, it seemed that pretty much all was bliss. And all will likely be back next year for more, regardless.

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