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Festival Time Is Here

The third weekend in June each year means music festival time in Boonville, in the form of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. The SNWMF is so titled as it began 23 years ago in the foothills of those mountains, and came to the county fairgrounds a dozen years back. After a couple of challenging debut years, featuring first a withering heatwave and then the year of countless lightning-sparked fires and dense smoke, things settled down into a relatively — compared to, say, alcohol-themed events — three nights and two days of music from around the world.

Warren Smith and Gretchen Franz have been partners in producing the festival since the start. They live together in the Sacramento delta but migrate to Boonville before the actual festival weekend to coordinate a crew of dozens of key partners, staff, volunteers, food, clothing, craft and other vendors, and especially many musicians and their own entourages to make the event run (mostly) like clockwork on two stages. The stages shut down at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights and 10pm on Sunday, with a bit of striking fire-dancing following that for the diehards. There's also a family and kid's zone and late-night dance hall in the big barn where livestock and other agricultural products are usually showcased. Up to 5,000 tickets are allowed to be sold, but generally less than that attend over the weekend, making this endeavor a relatively small gathering and as much or more a labor of love over profit.

In an ever-growing roster of music festivals around the nation, SNWMF is widely known as a longstanding lower-key, high-quality, family-friendly event, where veteran Jamaican reggae figures not heard for decades come out of retirement to play and mix with legendary headliners, international figures from around the planet, and up-and-coming hotshots all mix it up. Attendees also come from far and wide, and some have met there, married, and bring their children back each year (I "officiated" one such wedding at the festival last year). The food on offer is likewise a multinational mix and a draw in itself for some.

Smith, juggling phone lines as he dealt with endless details of getting bands from far and wide into the country and to Mendocino County, took a few minutes to chat about this year's event.

AVA: So, anything new and different to report for this year's show at this point, or do you pretty much have it all down to a science by now?

WS: Well, yes, we hope so, although it's not a very exact science in some ways. But one of the nicest parts by now is that everybody knows just what to do now when they get there — including the audience.

From my perspective, the lineup this year is somewhat even more reggae-heavy than usual, right?

Probably so. We work for the best overall roster we can get. We have some real treats too. Beres Hammond is a huge hit for many reggae fans, and it has been a long time since he's come, probably a decade or more. And we have Toots and the Maytals, who hasn't performed anywhere for years. A few years ago Toots was playing at a club and somebody threw an empty vodka bottle — we think it was Absolut — and hit him on the head and messed him up. It was an awful thing for such a legend. But he is finally better and this will be his "return" show. For me this is especially great as it is now over forty years since I did my first show with him, which kinda tells ya how old I am. That was 1975, at Winterland in San Francisco, July, with Toots, Dennis Brown, and Inner Circle featuring Jacob Miller.

Toots Hibbert (Photo by Lee Abel)
Toots Hibbert (Photo by Lee Abel)

Many would say Toots invented the word for the music, with his song "Do the Reggae" in the 1960s. And you are in fact going to introduce him onstage Saturday night, which is not something you do much.

Right. And hopefully I won't get too much stage fright up there! Anyway, other reggae stars will include Israel Vibration, Richie Spice, the "bad boys of reggae" Inner Circle, and many more. And we'll have another special return show for Zulu Spear, who were big in Northern California a couple decades back but kind of disappeared for quite some time. The way we have to schedule things, though, they'll be on when Toots is on the bigger stage, so people have to make some tough choices sometimes…

Yes, but those really interested can go back and forth between stages and catch part of each acts' sets. I do that all the time. It only takes a few minutes walking and it's good exercise with lots of good scenery along the way. It seems like almost every year you get some last-minute cancellations and have to fill a slot. This year it was singer Cocoa Tea who can't make it.

Ah, that was really tough. Cocoa was ready to come, and the reason he couldn't make it was that, although he had a visa, they said he needed to get a special waiver since he was cited 18 years ago and fined $150 for having a joint in Barbados — they said he needs to show he's been "rehabilitated." I tried to get that expedited but they would not do it. He lost not only our show but headlining gigs in Miami and such, all for that long-ago thing. Such a waste.

Yes. But you got Leroy Sibbles, lead singer of the legendary Heptones, to fill that slot. He also plays the signature basslines he invented for classic Studio One early reggae tunes and last time I saw him, gave a real history lesson.

Indeed. The Sunday closer is Alpha Blondy from West Africa, probably the biggest African reggae star, in a return performance. And the debut of Ceu from Brazil, a great vocalist who has an awesome band and puts on a super show, with reggae elements in what is really more jazz. On Friday night we have Don Carlos, Pablo Moses, and Lee Scratch Perry, which is about as solid as can be, reggae-wise. Plus Jah Shaka in the dancehall with a little showcase in there featuring some of the breaking artists getting a short set with Jah Warrior Sound System — that went over really well last year. And of course some other bands that get people dancing and smiling.

It also seems that Mother Nature may smile on the festival too. I've seen predictions of a cooling trend late in the week and really nice temperatures for the actual weekend.

Yep, and we even see rumors of a possible light sprinkling of rain Thursday night, which could be nice.

And some actual water in the rivers!

Well, it’s always kind of dry by the time we get up there, but it's looking good now and we're all looking forward to it!

(For the full musical lineup and all other details, see PS. Steve Heilig, aka MC Rico, is one of the onstage festival hosts.)

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