How many years does it take for a big annual event to seem “normal’, or even routine? Who knows, but the 4th Boonville version of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival came and went in a manner quiet in most every way but the music.
This seems somewhat surprising given that the population of the town multiplies by at least a factor of five, likely more, on the third weekend of June. Yet when I asked a law enforcement official who was sipping coffee just across Highway 128 from the fairgrounds, “How are things going at the festival this year?” he just smiled and replied “What festival?”
The climate was perfect, clear and breezy and pleasantly warm in the day and pleasantly cool at night. The number of attendees appeared by common perception to be smaller than last year, but not that much smaller.
The shows ran efficiently from Friday evening though Sunday, many were very good and a few put on wonderful shows that, for aficionados of their musical genre, were called historic by some attendees. The food was tasty and healthy, both in and out of the venue (although I feel it's good to support the many vendors of flavors from around the globe, I also tend to sneak out for tacos from the folks who cook them up so well in front of the market or Redwood Drive-In). Beer was cold and sold. Garbage was picked up and recycling was recycled, religiously, by the 150-odd SNWMF staff and over 200 volunteers.
You can walk right up to the front of the stage to check out a band — not recommended or even possible at most rock or festival shows — and the boogeying (or “skanking,” the term for reggae dancing) masses will part politely. People just seem to behave better than just about any similar-sized gathering short of perhaps high mass at the Vatican, while having a heck of a lot more fun.
On the SNWMF website, comments from attendees overwhelmingly express gratitude for the event, with comments ranging from “best gathering in California each year” to “cleanest bathrooms ever!” A lot of them are nice to look at, too. “If I were a dirty old man I’d be very happy just walking around here,” a middle-aged woman was overheard to remark at the stream of young and beautiful people ambled by. “As it is, I’ll just pretend I’m a happy lesbian cougar” (this latter may have been Boontling being spoken).
It's easy to wonder how much of the bright clothing and other finery on display is everyday wear for many of the attendees and how much is special effort for this special weekend. No matter. There are lots of dreadlocks on heads of all races, although much of those are what authentic black Jamaican rastafarians call “fashion dreads.” But regardless of pulchritude and style, again, what is most striking is the level of courtesy and the smiles per capita.
A dear longtime friend and veteran of many years of the Reggae on the River festivals — the wonderful pre-internecine warfare ones — vowed, looking around at the happy polite masses and village-like setting, “I‘m coming back every year — this is just how it used to be, with people of all ages, colors, everything, and nothing but good vibes.”
“I went to this festival up in the Sierra foothills before it moved here to Boonville, and thought, “Why don’t we have something like this at home?'” said local Bruce Hering, resplendent in his traditional patriotic Uncle Sam-with-peace-flag uniform (and with Mrs. Sam — Aunt Sam? — accompanying him).
As head promoter Warren Smith told us in these pages two weeks back, he and his crew are very happy to be here as well, and hope and intend to stay, even though it's something of a high-wire act they undertake to pull off the whole event. They would prefer and will maybe need a bump up in attendance, and thus far matters of ill-timed heatwaves and worse-timed economics have made that an uphill struggle.
Smith also reported that it gets harder each year to present a top-notch lineup of musical acts from all over the globe for various reasons. Visas and green cards for musicians from all over the world, but especially from areas like Jamaica or Africa, are ever more tentative and seemingly revoked or denied at petty governmental whim — even for “nonpolitical” acts.
Some bands, or their managers, react to a more competitive concert circuit by squeezing promoters for more expenses than ever. The promoters wind up doing last-minute juggling acts to keep a solid show on both stages. But one would not guess all that from what shows up on the main “Valley Stage” and the more intimate “Village Stage,” and how they perform.
From locals to legends, they all seem to show up on time — far from a given in the music promoting world — and play with gusto.
This year's final lineup was heavy on the reggae, especially the older, vintage brand which was birthed in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a sound that, like classic Motown or jazz, is timelessly appealing to many, including myself. But I have wondered if the focus on this wonderful music at SNWMF, and general avoidance of the more contemporary “dancehall” sound that has been controversial due to too-common strains of homophobia, misogyny, and drug-related violence, has limited the festival's appeal to some of the youngest fans.
Not that there are not plenty of very young fans at SNWMF, seemingly enjoying themselves to happy extremes. One does not knowingly expect to sleep much in the camping zones, for one thing. I missed Friday evening's appetizer show featuring of Senagalese Superstar Baaba Maal, but I’ve seen his stirring stage show multiple times and it is always entrancing. Others I regretted not catching were longtime reggae roots singer Johnny Clarke, and the new multinational collective Playing for Change — an “internet sensation” whose Youtube video of them charmingly singing the old chestnut “Stand by Me” has been viewed 20 bazillion times.
But I knew the veteran Jamaican instrumental band known as The Soul Syndicate would be back Saturday to support multiple reggae singers, and so made sure to be front and center for that. This set of performances were among those some fan(atics) were calling legendary. The Syndicate itself dates from the mid-1970s and is ranked among the finest reggae bands extant. Having played on many hit and cult recordings from that time onward, this was a chance to see them onstage with singers they had originally propelled to stardom. Thus a “toaster” or chanter like Big Youth, now into his sixties, could create joyful pandemonium with his rhythmic rhyming and hamming it up; it has been argued that the earliest Jamaican “deejays” or toasters were the very first rappers, with their signature chants over reggae rhythms finding their way to New York and beyond in the early 1970s and transmogrifying, for better and worse, into hip-hop.
Here was the smiling joking wriggling man himself, famous gold teeth and all. Next, Ken Boothe, a sweet-voiced singer of even older vintage sang tune after tune, originals alternating with American chestnuts. He was somewhat jarringly and loudly followed by a (much) younger Italian-born reggae singer named Alborosie, who blended in more of a hip-hop or “dancehall” flavor but kept some melody in the mix and had the crowd calling for more from a new face.
It was back to veterans for shows by the “Cool Ruler” Gregory Isaacs, one of reggae's biggest and most volatile singers whose voiced seemed worse for wear but he still put on one of his better shows of recent years. “Roots reggae” singer Don Carlos was solid as well. The Australian electro-reggae-funk group Fat Freddy’s Drop closed with a hypnotic if somewhat (intentionally) repetitive set, and the returning group of athletic fire dancers kept things warm for those who did not brave the blast of the dancehall where records were spun at a body-shaking roar into the wee hours.
Sunday opened with perfect climate for a visit to the Hendy Woods swimming ponds, the river flowing as nicely as I've seen in some years. We got back to see Queen Omega from Trinidad open with “Amazing Grace” and then rock the crowd with a pan-Carribean blend. Another veteran Jamaican singer, Jimmy Riley, seemed genuinely overjoyed to give his first show on this coast in many years, and that spirit was contagious.
Although he died three decades ago, before many reggae fans were born, Bob Marley is still and will always be the most iconic figure in reggae and his songs are covered ad nauseum at times; but Marcia Griffiths, both a star singer in her youth in Jamaica and a member of Marley's backing vocalist the I-Threes at his peak years of fame in the 1970s, was presented as reggae royalty and certainly is one artist who can pay tribute to that international icon “without apology,” as she put it. She's been a singing star in Jamaica since 1964; how many youthful fans used to turn out and dance and cheer for, say, the elderly Ella Fitzgerald in her final years?
Finally, the blessing of two stages running simultaneously — which can leave lesser-known but talented and innovative acts such as Sarazino, Rubblebucket, Roots Underground or the wonderful African kora master Youssoupha Sidibe playing to a relative handful — presented a dilemma as evening came on; yet another great oldtime reggae singer, Vernon Maytone, was backed by the “hardest working band in reggae,” the Soul Syndicate, but after a few tuneful offerings from him we had to run over to the big stage for a very rare appearance by the most renowned drummer in Africa, Tony Allen.
Allen cut his teeth as bandleader for the legendary Nigerian musician and provocateur Fela Kuti — Africa's Bob Marley, at least in renown — and has been a solo bandleader since, but rarely tours and this was one of only a handful of shows in this country. His polyrhythmic stew was hypnotic and funky at the same time, the musicians superb and supercharged, and his set sped by too fast (in fact, one complaint was that some of the slots seemed too short for artists of such stature). Witnessing his one, non-indulgent but limb-boggling drum solo was for me something like seeing the legendary Elvin Jones, anchor of John Coltrane's most renowned group.
That was basically the roster for me. Walking the town late Sunday night as the final groups played, I had to admit that it's undeniably noisy downtown while the festival is in full swing. I wondered how many locals leave town on this weekend each year? All through town, cars line both sides of 128, some of them serving as campsites, but I only saw one tow truck in action.
Late at night there can be a few rather shell-shocked folks wandering around, looking lost. But I'm used to that, having lived for years in the Haight-Ashbury. They did seem harmless, more in need of direction and sleep than anything else. But I could have been projecting. Selfishly speaking, though, I tend to hope the Boonville locals continue to find the event not too onerous at a minimum, and enjoyable — or at least profitable — otherwise.
At a minimum, SNWMF contributes to at least eight local nonprofits, from Pop Warner football to senior centers. And business did seem to be booming at some places in metropolitan Boonville, and not just at the taco stands. Almost all the artists are not too blatantly “political,” unless constant messages of “peace,” “love,” “unity,” and the like, with a recurring sub-theme of free use of certain herbs, is what one calls politics.
Notably absent was any mention of the name Obama, in contrast to last year — whatever that might or might not imply. In any event, strolling along next to the Sunday afternoon Carnivalesque parade sparked by the energized drum troupe Loco Bloco, with Uncle and Aunt Sam right in the middle, it seemed that politics were blessedly beside the point, and that peace, love, and unity, however tenuous outside the gates, might be both radical and rational concepts and practices. Or so one can dream.