This year marks the 25th annual version of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, and its 13th year in Boonville. Begun in 1994 in the foothills of the mountain range it's named for, the organizers felt compelled by lack of local support and a predatory criminal element to move to another site in the mountains in 2001, and after five years with some similar problems, to Boonville in 2006. The first two years here were marked first by barely bearable heat, and then the infamous year of the lightning and fires, which brought an "Apocalypse Now" feel to the event.
Since then it's been mostly smooth sailing, albeit with one furnace-like flashback last year, on a 106-degree Sunday that saw fans, staff, and even artists prone in the medical zone. But undaunted, the three-night festivities returns June 22-23-24, bringing musical artists from around the world on two stages plus a big barn of booming disc jockeys, a wide array of international food and local drink, and a come-one-come-all family-friendly scene for a lucky and loyal few thousand fans, many of whom attend every year and some of whom debate the merits of the musical lineup and more on the festival's website prior to and after the event.
Warren Smith founded the festival after a relatively brief career in finance which was derailed in the 1970s by his love of classic Jamaican reggae music. He started his own reggae label, Epiphany, in 1975, and then after years of promoting concerts by some of the biggest names in reggae, he was drawn into co-producing a festival called the Gathering of the Vibes, with a hybrid Grateful Dead/reggae focus. After three years his partner dropped out and he needed a job, so made his own up in starting SNWMF. Reggae on the River had been running for a decade and was something of a prototype, although Smith envisioned a somewhat smaller event, with even more of both the classic roots reggae from Jamaica and artists from Africa, South America, and Asia.
And that's what he and his Epiphany Productions, run by a small core staff including his partner Gretchen Franz, have done for a quarter of a century now. They've garnered a reputation for one of the very best-run, friendly gatherings with an eclectic mix of musical styles from around the world, including in recent years some memorable debuts from South Korea and elsewhere.
What are the main challenges in producing such an event? There has always been financial risk, and the endless and intensive jigsaw of securing workable contracts, travel plans, schedules, and more for a large cadre of musicians, some of whom can be, well, challenging to deal with. But being an old pro at all that, Smith now sees his hurdles as both more irritatingly bureaucratic and, well, demographic.
"The hassles with visas and immigration have really accelerated over the past decade or so," he laments. "Plus, so many of the legends of reggae are aging, passing on - the time has gone when I could pick up the phone and call figures named Peter (Tosh), Alton (Ellis), Sugar (Minott), Gregory (Issacs), and many more on a first-name basis and they would answer and do whatever they could to show up for our crowd," he says. "Costs for everything go up, of course. There is also much more competition now, with many more festivals vying for the same artists, whose contracts often say they cannot play in the same area for some time. And then we had the whole dancehall era with some politics and homophobia and misogyny that really turned off a lot of people, and rightly so, and that cut out some of the otherwise popular artists as we just wouldn't book them. We strive to be positive and just don't need that sort of thing." As if to confirm his sentiment, a Humboldt County concert by long-popular dancehall star Sizzla, who has headlined Reggae on the River, was recently cancelled due to protests and controversy. Meanwhile at the Boonville SNWMF, the various law enforcement officers present tend to report few if any problems and even to look quite bored, which is usually a good sign.
So what does Smith look most forward to this year? "We have two big firsts coming, Dread Mar I from Argentina and Teddy Afro from Ethiopia. These are just huge stars at home and beyond and I wouldn't be surprised to see fans who know every word of their songs coming from very far just to catch them. We'll have a whole afternoon and evening of great Latin music on our smaller Village stage on Saturday. As for roots reggae, we're bringing back some of the most popular figures from past years, including Beres Hammond, Tarrus Riley, Protoje, the great Max Romeo who gave us an already legendary show a couple years back, The Mighty Diamonds, Cocoa Tea, the debut of Half Pint and Wayne Wade, Kenyatta Hill with Culture, and the Sunday closers Steel Pulse, veteran big stars from England. Some younger roots singers like Randy Valentine, Alika, and more, plus some ska and some of the most renowned DJs to rock the stages and dancehall, like Jah Shaka and Downbeat the Ruler, plus our stalwarts Rory Stone Love, Jah Warrior Shelter, and Comanche. That dance hall just gets more popular all the time and we're bringing back the 'silent dance hall" where people wear headphones and hear music broadcast from the DJs in the center - people just loved that."
After all these years and concerts, Smith still recalls what put him on this path, joys, struggles, and all. "In the early years you heard many musicians come from the Jamaican ghettos who were just on fire with devotion and enthusiasm for their music and messages. There may have been many of what others might call mistakes in the playing but many of us heard it as pure magic. As for me, as it turned out, I devoted my life to it!"
(The festival website: snwmf.com. Steve Heilig hereby discloses that he is one of the MCs for said festival.)