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Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2014

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2014

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2014

By on - Photos by Lee Abel - Comment

Summer Solstice Brings Musical Heat To Booneville, CA  

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival (SNWMF) is one of the most crucial music festivals on the West Coast, not just for the massive selection of bands from all over the world, but also for the undeniable sense of community it creates amongst thousands of music fans. Celebrating its 21st anniversary on the Summer Solstice, SNWMF took place June 20th-22nd in the tiny village of Boonville, deep in the coastal hills of Northern California.

On Friday afternoon, while tent cities were forming outside the festival proper, inside the gates a very unique convergence of people were awaiting the start of the first-ever music-industry panel on “The State of Reggae Music.” Panelists included entertainment lawyers, journalists, promoters, and musicians to discuss challenges facing Jamaican artists as they seek to tap into the North American market.

Panel moderator and Austin, Texas radio veteran Sista Irie opened the discussion, introducing each panelist who each gave both academic insight and streetwise expertise based on a lifetime of work in the music industry.

Florida-based Jamaican attorney Lloyd Stanbury, currently working with the artist Chronixx, and New York attorney David Baram, who represents Bunny Wailer, both discussed the necessity for experienced artist management, and not just the employment of family and friends.

SNWMF founder, Warren Smith, spoke on the rise and fall of dancehall, and how homophobic lyrics have turned away liberal-minded fans. The subject of taxes and visas was also mentioned, as many veteran artists are unable to return to the States because they owe huge fines.bob andy

No reggae business panel would be complete without the insight of a true music veteran. Jamaican artist Bob Andy brought genuine concern and infectious humor to the group, while shining light on the relationships between the artists and the industry that supports them:

"Music is food. If we are consuming this food, we should be grateful for those who give us the opportunity to do that. I don’t think we are going to get the whole camp [to collaborate] at the same time. But if we can get 6 people out of the camp to walk the same road – set out to achieve something, with the same goal and same purposes, it can be done. I think we are the ones that can achieve the ideals."

More information on the Reggae Business Network of North America can be found here.

As the late afternoon fell into evening, the pulse of multiple soundchecks gave rise to the festival heartbeat, reverberating across the tops of camping tents and vendor booths. The backstage lot quickly filled with tour buses and by five o’clock, the main gates had opened for the annual Native American Pomo ceremonial blessing.

sambadaSanta Cruz-based Afro-Brazilian band SambaDá got the music underway with their new tune, “Más Que Tem Tem,” accented by a fierce horn solo from female saxophonist Annie Stafford. Song stress and master Ilê Aiyê dancer, Dandha Da Hora, wore a stunning hand-made dress while she moved with traditional Brazilian dancers on stage. Their infectious energy and uplifting mix of samba, funk and reggae set the foundation for another year of incredible world sounds.

The power of the feminine stretched the boarders of this year’s lineup. Even without a high-profile female artist on the bill, these rising stars used their rich cultural heritage to balance the festival’s dominant male presence.

Israeli by-way-of-Ethiopia singer Ester Rada took the main Valley Stage with a tremendous vocal performance. Her distinctive neo-soul flavor, supported by an ultra-talented Middle-Eastern-infused ensemble, takes super funky, ethno-jazz to new artistic heights.

Equally mesmerizing in both talent and style was the United Kingdom’s Hollie Cook, who for the second year in a row charmed SNWMF. Always flashing a fabulously eccentric style, Cook is undeniably a rock-star youth: she is the daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and Boy George’s goddaughter. The set’s biggest tune, “Tiger Balm,” off her new album Twice (2014), was backed by an all-star camp of members from epic Los Angeles bands The Lions and The Aggrolites. If she was not crowned already, Hollie Cook quickly became the darling of the entire festival.hollie cook

Meanwhile, Hawaiian-island girl Anuhea swept Sunday’s audience off their feet with her sweet acoustic melodies and a breezy cover of Mariah Carey’s “Dream Lover”. Korean-born, Australian songstress Saritah gave a joyful performance under the redwood trees of the Village stage, as did lover’s rock chanteuse Carol Thompson who followed, but their sparsely attended sets were the unfortunate casualties of the afternoon’s delayed lineup.

Every festival has one or two emcees who sustain the good vibes while bands break down and set up. SNWMF has four top-ranking MCs, and they are the ultimate knowledge keepers. Reggae historian Junior Francis, renowned KPFA radio host Spliff Skankin, music journalist Steve Heilig, and 9-time soundclash champion Irie Dole gave light to the incredible careers of the weekend’s performers, extending SNWMF’s unique contribution to the music, beyond just bringing in bands. This was about educating the people on the artists and their legacies.

Main-stage headliners and Los Angeles veterans Ozomatli brought high-energy, super-funky breakdowns of their reggae-cumbia classics to Friday night. Live remixes of big tunes like “Cumbia De Los Muertos” and the new “Paleta”, off their latest release Place In the Sun (2014), coupled with running through the crowds in a giant drum line, made for a great closing act. Also appearing was Cultura Profetica, the Puerto Rican band top-ranked amongst Latin reggae groups; as well as the ever-dynamic reggae-cumbia stars B-Side Players; and Oakland, California-based cumbia-fusion band Candelaria. After decades in the making, Reggae-en-Español is finally getting some well-deserved recognition at North American reggae festivals.

Tucked under the redwood trees, and far from the main stage antics, were the widely anticipated performances of Jamaican icons Chuck FendaJosey Wales, and Clinton Fearon on Friday night. The veteran roots crowd filled the viewing area beyond capacity for five hours straight, as each of these stately gentlemen engaged the audience with heartical delivery. The all-star lineup carried throughout the weekend with the likes of 1960’s rocksteady crew Carlton & The Shoes, and old-school rudebwoy Derrick Morgan, whose classics like “Tougher Than Tough” and “Conquering Ruler,” (backed by East Los Angeles rockers The Delirians) were magical, and deservedly garnered two encores from a roaring crowd.

Sierra Nevada is as famous for the bands during the day, as they are for the soundsystems that take over at night. This year the U.K.’s Adrian Sherwood took over the tables Friday night but the energy was mild as the tunes did not quite jive with the crowd. Saturday night on the other hand, was a massive blowout. Japanese soundsystem super stars Mighty Crown killed it on the tracks, laying down the dopest mixes and dubplates, while calling out artists in dance like J Boog (who was not even playing the festival, but who had jumped on stage with several performers throughout the weekend). The dancehall was packed with people begging for more as it shut down just after three. But the party went all night with Bay Area soundsystem Jah Warrior Shelter Hi-Fi, who set up in the camper’s tent city, spinning tunes until dawn.

The morning after the dance is always quiet and slow-moving. One of the treasured rituals for many festival-goers is Solstice Yoga, a morning asana practice that happens under the trees, as the sun begins to rise. Then the Kidz Parade begins. This is part of another wonderful tradition at SNWMF, like the many workshops for children encouraging ethnic and cultural diversity through art and dance.

Grammy nominated Guyanese, now New York-based artist, Jahan Blakkamoore transitioned nicely from his typically harder dub hip-hop sounds, to flow with smoother reggae riddims for the morning crowds. Fellow lyricists Relic Secure, Love Fyah, and Irie Culture also stepped out to bring the set home.

kabakaBringing more fire to the festival are the young artists whose talent and motivation shine the brightest on stage. Kabaka Pyramid was fantastic on Friday evening alongside his crew The Bebble Rockers. Switching up between tunes that got the ladies swooning, such as “Pretty Like Flowers” and “Worldwide Love”, he also came on strong with solo renditions of collaborative works “Mi Alright” (with Chronixx) and “Warrior” (with Protoje). Later in the press tent, Kabaka was asked his thoughts on the youth consciousness in Jamaica:

"On the good side of things, there is definitely a conscience awakening going on. Maybe the "RootsRevivalg" as they call it, is more recognized abroad than even in Jamaica, but it is a still a positive thing."

Jamaican youths Raging Fyah brought an electrifying set early Saturday proving that, whatever you want to call it, there is a massive revival of the roots and culture coming out of Jamaica, and the world is ready and waiting for it.

Tarrus Riley was by many accounts, the most charismatic artist on the bill. Backed by legendary sax player Dean Fraser and the Blak Soil Band, Riley’s style is incredibly cool – it feels like he falls in love with his audience every time. A proud salute to Nelson Mandela poignantly cut through the chatter, reminding the carefree fans that greater causes exist and we must keep aware of what is happening in the world.

If there is one thing you can expect at SNWMF it is an assembly of the masters. Legends like the original toaster, U-Roy, and lyrical genius Bob Andy laid down oh-so-smooth performances to irie crowds basking in the sunshine. Sly & Robbie went on just before dusk Saturday, with an instrumental set that upheld their status as reggae’s most sought-after musicians. They blazed fire backing Bitty McLean’s SNWMF debut; then again for Mykal Rose who was even hotter, with powerhouse vocals that never falter. The next day, Barrington Levy once again affirmed his moniker as Dancehall Master, turning up the place with an extended high-energy mashup of “She’s Mine,” “Black Roses” and “Broader Than Broadway.”

Seun Kuti, son of the late-great Fela, was supposed to headline Friday and was bumped into an earlier slot, which may or may not have attributed to a low energy set – nevertheless, the music was powerful. Morgan Heritage was widely anticipated early Sunday afternoon, but came on after so much delay, nearly half the crowd had left the arena. Their performance was solid though – harmonies sounding like they were right out of the studio. The set’s most notable aspect was surprise appearances by the young Jemere Morgan and Senegalese artist Lord Alajiman.

On the tour bus after the show, Mojo Morgan reflected on the Sunday’s reggae-rock headliners Rebelution:

"We have to commend our peers for leading the frontier of the reggae-rock movement. They are bringing a new audience to reggae music. Artists within the reggae genre grow and the audience continues to evolve. We are grateful for people who are American born doing reggae music – it is a fulfillment of the prophecy: reggae music is going to grow until it reaches rightful people. You have South Pacific stars, Japanese and European reggae stars, so it is only right that in America they have their reggae stars. The presence of roots music puts more pressure on us as Jamaican reggae artists to continue to keep our presence within this evolution of reggae music and this new fan base. At the end of the day it is still reggae music, it is just an alternative."mojo

There is no mistaking that a new generation of fans is boosting up the careers of a select few American reggae-rock bands on a scale never seen before in North America. On the one hand, their popularity may be holding back deserving roots artists from reaching new fans, but on the other, and as reiterated by Mojo Morgan, any band with a vision of One Love and Unity is going to uplift reggae music to the masses."

Many of the fans were disenchanted though, that so many incredible roots artists were subject to open for a pop-reggae band with only a few years of experience. Rebelution is wildly popular with the college radio scene, and they sell out shows to twenty-year-olds all over the country. Yet Sunday night’s finale was lackluster. Although they did pay tribute with shout outs to their predecessors, after a one-song encore they merely dropped their instruments and walked off stage.

Every festival year is different, and each person has their own experience. But nothing shifted the balance of roots culture like the appearance of Shaggy on Saturday night. He is a surefire entertainer, talented and fun-loving, but just as sexually explicit as ever. For many, his energy was over the top – some people said the show was inappropriate for the family-oriented event. Time has moved on, and fans want to hear the evolution of Shaggy. Between pushing the MTV classics, it was hard to make out any of the tunes off his excellent new album, Out of Many (2013) with Sly & Robbie, who were backing him on stage. All in all though, you have to love him for the outstanding performer that he is - the ladies were practically fanning their faces after he stuffed the mic into his belt and started humping the air. And I think I may have heard someone in the crowd call the decriers “H.A.D.”s. (hippies against dancehall).

blackslateAcross the fairgrounds, Black Slate closed down the Village Stage on Sunday night with a full audience of roots music fans. This was the first appearance for the U.K. band at SNWMF. They ran tunes like “Brutality” and “Rasta Festival”, and fans begged for more, even as curfew set in and the band said their final goodbyes. The intimacy of the tiny stage under the trees, with low ambient lighting and the closeness of the stage, always seems to offer an enchanted experience. And with such an incredible band, it was the perfect ending to the festival.

The versatility of reggae music is growing with every year and every new artist. Countless countries across the globe have local reggae bands with fans that love and support them – and SNWMF is putting many of them on the map. The message of One Love and Unity is spreading farther and delving deeper. Although there may be work to do in terms of the business and commercialism of reggae music in the words of the great Bob Andy:

"There is a major paradigm shift from where music used to be. In all facets of it –from creativity to production, to promotion and sales. But we are talking about reggae music as a product, because the music as a culture will never die."

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