SNWMF: Roots, Culture, and Reggae!
By Terri Larsen and Saundra Torres
Photos by Lee Abel
Nestled in the comforting arms of Mother Earth and Anderson Valley (known for its beautiful vineyards and wines, and as the gateway to Northern California) is the quaint and friendly town of Boonville. Here locals welcomed, for the fifth and most successful year at this location, thousands of revelers for the 18th Annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival (SNWMF). Held at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in beautiful downtown Boonville, and, although the rock hard hoof prints imbedded in the dried mud and straw made a rough road for the dancers and players of instruments, everyone celebrated three days in sheer bliss and joy, without complaint, confirming the strength and power of righteous music that gathered here from around the world.
The festival kicked off on Friday with a prayer of blessing and the traditional “head shake” dance by Native American Pomo spokesman Clayton Duncan. After the prayer, he drummed with fellow tribesman as traditional dancers filled the stage and the surrounding valley with the sound of the ancestors.
On Friday, one of the few flaws in an otherwise flawless festival was the relegating of the historic Jamaican roots and culture artists Pablo Moses and Brigadier Jerry, and relative newcomer, St. Lucian-based Taj Weekes to the smaller Village Stage. This was deemed somewhat disrespectful to these veteran artists, as fans would have
appreciated them more on the larger Valley Stage instead of the relatively less popular Reggae Angels and Tribal Seeds, two nondescript groups who passed us virtually unnoticed. This bit of poor scheduling diminished much of Friday’s fire.
Highlights of the night were Santa Barbara-based Rebelution, white “bwoy” Reggae at its best, by far the crowd favorite. Pablo Moses rocked the Village Stage, with Briggy bringing forward his typical hard-hitting DJ stylee filled with conscious lyrics and rockin’ rhythms. Back to the Valley Stage, where the fresh sounds of Collie Buddz and the New Kingston band were invigorating after the two previous groups mentioned, and set up Rebelution for a high-energy grand finale. Briggy went on to rock the Dancehall with Jah Love Muzik, and Comanche High Power rocked until the sun came up. Each evening the Valley Stage ended with a spectacular Fire Dancing/Drumming session that went on until the wee hours, leaving us all feeling well connected to Mother Earth and all Her gifts.
On Saturday the 7th Street Showcase kicked off the Village Stage, bringing out Jr. Toots (the son of legendary Toots Hibbert from Maytals fame), Irae Divine, Guyana-born Arkaingelle, Puerto Rico’s Malika Madremama, Empress Isheba, Binghi Ghost, and Itaweh, all backed by NorCal’s finest Reggae band, the 7th Street Band. This showcase mashed it up!!
Unfortunately, the Valley Stage drew us away again, and we missed the long anticipated performance of Australian-based Saritah, discovered in Australia by long time Reggae agent George Michailow of Fastlane International, who has represented some of the top Reggae acts in the world. Her sweet presence rocked the audience with her loving vibes. George was also representing Taj Weekes and Kora from New Zealand this weekend. We also missed Thomas Mapfumo, one of our favorite African artists.
On the Valley Stage it was back to old school as SoCals The Expanders brought forward their scorching rockers sound in a retro stylee. Great sounds from this great 70’s style group. It soon became a Rocksteady day as The Cables, a classic Jamaican group made up of vocalists Keble Drummond, Elbert Stewart, and Vince Stoddart, were reunited on the Valley Stage as if time had stood still. They performed their hits, including “Baby Why” and What Kind of World,” thrilling the crowd with a vibe that took them back to the days when Kingston was the heartbeat of the music.
Romain Virgo followed suit and turned up the heat with a hot and sweaty Lover’s Rock set. He showed everyone why he was the winner of the Digicel Rising Stars competition in 2007. And when you did not think it could get any better, out came Horace “Sleepy” Andy, belting out Roots Reggae in his distinct falsetto. What a pleasure to see him here. Sleepy is one of the bulwarks of Reggae, there in the foundation of the music, who gets little attention in the US. His set tore it up, showing he might be called Sleepy, but he is definitely NOT asleep!
SNWMF took us back to school, and it was only going to get better on this fantastic summer day in NorCal! St. Croix, Virgin Islands-based Midnite hit the stage next, and their rocking, electronic set was a little too hard-hitting lead-in for the next group, Mento folk artists The Jolly Boys. They performed an amazing set, however, and seemed nonplussed by their rocking predecessors. The Jolly Boys were a particular favorite for Terri Larsen, as she reviewed one of their earliest albums for Reggae Report Magazine in the early nineties and had looked forward to seeing them after all these years of playing their music on her radio show. What a treat! Albert and the boys were truly Jolly! Mento is Jamaicas original folk music, which became the foundation of Reggae, Ska, and Rocksteady, true living history, dat.
Next up, Toots and the Maytals brought forward more classic Roots Rocksteady music. Opening was his daughter,Leba Hibbert, whose soulfull voice emulates the rich soulful tone of herfather. Leba has been the foundation ofToots and the Maytals backing vocals for many years.Another shining moment inthe set was when his son, Berkeley based Junior Toots, performed 54-46 onstage together, father and son. What aclassic combination!! Junior has thesame style and grace of his father, and when you see him live it will give youchills as he has the same rough cut edge on his voice that Toots has. The love continues in the new generation! A true family affair!
Steel Pulse wound up the evening with a tight, massive set. Bassist Amlak Tafari paced the stage like a tiger wanting to escape from his cage as he pounced on each heavy bass line. Keyboardists Sidney “Predator” Mills and Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown kicked butt as usual with the Pulse’s signature sound. Lead guitarist Donovan McKitty killed it with incredible riffs. Drummie Wayne “C-Sharp” Clarke created the foundation for the group’s classic sound, as lead singer David “Dread” Hinds trademark voice blended seamlessly with backup singer Keysha McTaggart’s to complete the auditory sensation and create an amazingly well meshed sound that we have all come to expect from the Pulse. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.David Hinds son Baruch Hinds, joined his father to perform a freestyle on the rhythm of a Pulse classic!
Sunday was even more rockin’ as New Zealand’s Kora took the stage with a pounding, edgy set that screamed Rock n Roll! This band fuses elements of Reggae, Rock, Dub, Funk, Space Funk and Dub Step into a fusion sound that totally rocked! A great kickoff to another beautiful NorCal day. South Africas Vusi Mahlasela followed, dovetailing off the energy of Kora and carrying the crowd high into the air.
It took the original sounds of veteran Dancehall DJ Dennis Alcapone to bring us all back to earth as he flung hit after Studio One hit from the early days out upon the largest crowd to ever attend this festival. Duane Stephenson then took the baton and never missed a beat with a hard-core set featuring his hits “August Town” and “Cottage in Negril.” President Brown and Anthony B each came forward with strong, powerful sets, keeping the pace for the day, while on the Village Stage, Mambo This! had the capacity crowd mamboing all over the yard. We spotted several board members of the Mendocino Environmental Center writhing to the Cuban Son rhythms. This Mendocino County group kicked butt!
Rounding out the high-energy day was the headliner on the Valley Stage, Ozomatli! This LA-based band has fused Reggae, Hip Hop, Funk, Latin, Asian and more into music that represents the feeling of life in LA. Their positive message and activism created next generation enthusiasm amongst the youngest of the children. The highlight of the set was when the band members all jumped off the stage and over hay bales with their percussion instruments, keeping the beat as they wove their way in and out and around the crowd, adding more and more to the snaking, writhing, line of musicians and dancers, until they all ran out of steam on the field. What a weekend, and what a way to end that weekend. Kudos to Warren Smith, Gretchen Franz, Jennifer Buchanan, and all the volunteers and staff who made this Sierra Nevada World Music Festival the best! Can’t wait to see what next year has in store!