Standing on stage in front of thousands of people can be a kind of out-of-body experience, especially if one is essentially shy in public. But on the big stage at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, it mostly feels easy — the crowd is so positively happy and supportive that it can feel like one could do or say no wrong. Still, as an MC there, I try to keep it short and sweet, as nobody paid to hear some non-musician pontificate. They are there for the music and we deliver it to them, for three days and two nights on two stages, virtually nonstop, from all over the world. That's what keeps fans coming back every year, for 25 years as of last week. "The best festival of them all and my favorite weekend of the year" is a common, unsolicited comment from attendees.
Still, something felt a bit different this year, and we debated about how to bring some sort of message of activism, even "resistance," to the weekend in a time where a minority of mainly deluded voters brought us the most corrupt national regime in American history (and that's saying something). We settled on simply trying to encourage voting, as the masses who didn't vote in 2016 defaulted to something the polar opposite of the messages of equality, human rights, spirituality, and more that has always fueled so much of the music heard at SNWMF. We found a fine volunteer advocacy group called HeadCount which sets up voter registration booths at music festivals, but they were unable to show up in person, and instead provided a new online option - all one has to do is text "Voter" to 40649 to get a registration package.
Armed with this easy information, I felt trepidation announcing it from the stage. Our loyal attendees and newbies are there for a good time, not what late reggae legend Peter Tosh called "politricks." So I kept it short on opening night, simply saying "Look, we know there is no such thing as a perfect politician, but we gotta be able to do better than what we have right now," and giving out the HeadCount info. It's hard to "read" a big crowd, and they were mostly quiet while I talked, and then I stopped and waited a few seconds to see if I'd blown it. Then the cheers started, and built into a nice rousing roar. And then I had to wait a little more as I felt I might get choked up.
"Get Up Stand Up" is one of the iconic reggae anthems, co-authored by Tosh and Bob Marley when they were still partners in The Wailers and first released in 1973. It's a call to arms in the name of human rights, adopted even by Amnesty International at one point. Covered by many musical stars, it has a driving rhythm and, as Marley played it onstage, featured a rousing wordless call-and-response chant that reverberated worldwide as he toured huge arenas in his latter years - and it was the last song he ever played onstage. It embodies reggae's two-pronged, maybe even schizoid impact - party and romance music, but with a vital, subversive, even militant message at the same time.
At SNWMF that dichotomy was everywhere if one was open to perceiving it. When reggae legend Max Romeo broke out one of his signature tunes from the 1970s, "Chase the Devil," I wasn't the only one who heard the devil as an orange one, using the White House as an offshoot of his corrupt business regime for personal profit, and worse. Friday headliner Tarrus Riley and Saturday headliner Beres Hammond - "the Marvin Gaye of Jamaica" - both lamented children put into cages. Many more of the over 35 musical acts likely had similar messages, explicitly spoken or implied in their lyrics. Some most memorable for me were the Mighty Diamonds, one of Jamaica's most beloved harmony trios, the debut of big Ethiopian star Teddy Afro, young Korean ska band Kingston Rudieska, Argentinian reggae superstar Dread Mar I, the aforementioned Max Romeo, the female dub poet Jah9, relative newcomers Natty, and powerhouse closers Steel Pulse. A whole evening of Latin-flavored music was featured on the smaller village stage Saturday evening, and the big barn dance hall thundered on - silently for one segment, wherein people wore headphones - with big dancing crowds who just couldn't quit when the live music ended by curfew times. On one day we had acts from six continents showcased - to top that, I guess we'd need to add a band of funky penguins from Antarctica. Maybe next year.
But after a couple decades of writing about music of all kinds for all kinds of publications, I years ago concluded that truly conveying how it sounds and feels is in essence an impossible task - like "dancing about architecture" as the old saying goes. For live music especially, you just have to be there to feel what it is like. And from the stage, one can get an inkling of how addictive it can be when the energy of thousands of fans comes roaring back up. Some critics voice dismay at "singalong" efforts by artists, but there is a reason stars ask crowds to sing their songs back at them — it feels wonderful, as many fans just love to join in. And when as an MC I have to shut down the day's proceedings at midnight, the fans are screaming for more and I almost feel guilty having to end the "conscious party", as if I am some sort of party-pooping sheriff. But somebody's gotta do it.
The days were hot as usual but not intolerable, the hundreds of staff and volunteers ran the big production tightly as could be - nobody knows how much teamwork and discipline goes into getting eight acts, with all their own equipment, on and off stage in twelve hours, ontime, until you see it close up - and it's a serious business up there, an inspiring professionalism all done with smiling efficiency, happening on two stages simultaneously.
The schedule is like a complex jigsaw puzzle. And even there politricks intrude, as multiple acts this year were detained and turned back at airports for arbitrary, petty reasons, requiring shuffling of schedules at last minute. By now that has become part of the game, but under this federal regime it has only gotten worse and more pointless and maddening.
This was the first festival year where pot was legal in California. Reggae music is of course associated with use of the herb. But ironically or not, it seemed to make little to no visible difference. I heard remarks that there was actually less visible smoking than before, that it was "like a napalm bomb of smoke" in front of the stage at one point," and that "nothing changed except the prices and advertising." Another of Peter Tosh's signature tunes was "Legalize It," but in any event I only heard one artist mention from the stage that this goal had finally been accomplished here. A cheer ensued, of course, but otherwise the issue felt somewhat anti-climatic.
As of Sunday afternoon the report from one cop present was that, as usual, there was not much to do other than walk around and look at the human finery and fun on display. It's a family affair. "Fighting and barfing is more a Beer Fest kind of thing," The Man laughed.
As it turned out, I probably shouldn't have worried about injecting just a bit of politricks from the stage this year. When I walked through the crowds to catch some of the musical magic, numerous attendees accosted me to say some variation of "right on!" I even got hugs and High Fives galore. Just before the SNWMF weekend, a restaurant had refused service to one of Trump's henchpeople, and yet one more media controversy had erupted. The eatery's owner was philosophical about it: "I'm not a huge fan of confrontation. I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This just feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
Exactly so. Get Up, Stand Up indeed.