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Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

By on - Photos by Lee Abel - Comment

Legends and new artists shine at the 22nd annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival.

“Reggae is a verb; it’s not just a music, it’s an action word, it’s a giving word. We don’t sing to get girls; we don’t sing to get big rims and tires. We sing because we want to make a difference; we want to see the world change.” - Taj Weekes, Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

Every summer, thousands of music lovers from all over the world pilgrimage to the annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival.

Why? The incredible lineup, each year, is part of it; I’m sure, as well as the camping, after parties and nice weather. Since its inception in 1995, SNWMF producers Warren Smith and Gretchen Franz have strived to bring in unsung heroes such as the, Admiral Tibet, Monty Morris, Max Romeo and Ken Boothe, as well as showcasing upcoming artists such as, Common Kings, Stick Figure, Nattali RizeJoseph Israel, Gentleman’s Dub Club, Thievery Corporation, Pentateuch and No-Maddz.

There were many poignant as well as jubilant moments at the 22nd Annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, held June 19-21 at Mendocino County Fairgrounds in the historic town of Booneville, CA.

Twenty years ago, I would have not thought is possible for a reggae group to function without its lead entity. But SNWMF 2015 headliners Steel Pulse and Third World—returning festival favorites-- proved their mettle in spite of the loss of their lead vocalists.

Celebrating more than 40 years in the industry, Steel Pulse, the Grammy winning band from the Birmingham, England, headlined on the main (Valley) stage on opening night. After several roots and dub selections, it became clear to the audience that lead singer/songwriter David “Dread” Hinds would not be singing lead. Unable to use his voice due to a temporary throat ailment, Hinds played rhythm guitar in the background during the entire set. Steel Pulse’s world class musicians Selwyn “Bumbo” Brown (keyboards, vocals), Sidney Mills (keyboards), Amlak Tafari (bass), Wayne “Ceesharp” Clark (drums), Rasta Moonie Pusey (guitar), Keysha McTaggart (vocals), and Jerry Johnson (sax) stepped up to the plate, proving themselves to be leaders in their own right.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

Though Hinds ethereal tenor was truly missed during their performance, Steel Pulse co-founder/keyboardist/producer Selwyn Brown delivered fine versions of Steel Pulse classics “Handsworth Revolution,” “Babylon Makes the Rules” and “Soldiers.” Brown’s smooth, Brummie-infused baritone is easily identified on many Steel Pulse recordings.

Following the June 17 massacre of nine black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC at the hands of a white gunman, America was in need of a conversation around race as well as a spiritual healing; and Steel Pulse’s presence seemed to bless the fairgrounds.

“All of our thoughts aright now are going out to the families of those who lost their lives in South Carolina,” Brown announced, before the band segued into “Ku Klux Klan.” “This is why Steel Pulse will always be rocking against racism!”

For their SNWMF set, Steel Pulse brought in guest vocalist/producer David “Cirious” Elecciri, who emulated Hinds’ vocals and charisma on tracks such as “Blues Dance Raid,” “Drug Squad,” “Chant a Psalm” and “Stepping Out.” Elecciri even adopted Hinds’ militant style of dress, trademark sunglasses and all. Steel Pulse’s sound was also accentuated with the lyrical riffs of Jerry “Saxman” Johnson, aka the Branford Marsalis of reggae. It was an indeed an historic moment as Steel Pulse literally became a tribute band within itself. So sentimental was this night that it ought to be included in the bands upcoming film: “Steel Pulse: The Definitive Documentary,” directed by Yoni Gal.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015In 2014, crossover reggae band Third World—who was, incidentally the first reggae group to appear on “Soul Train” --lost their velvet baritone, William “Bunny Rugs” Clark to leukemia. Since then, the band has been touring and soldiering on, with A.J. Brown filling in on lead vocals. Saturday June 20, on the Valley stage, founding members Stephen “Cat” Coore (cello, guitar) and Richard Daley (bass), joined by drummer Tony “Ruption” Williams (drums), Norris Webb (keyboards) and Maurice Gregory (keyboards) rose to the occasion. Though Brown has a lighter vocal sound than Rugs, he kept the audience dancing with popular Third World songs , “Ride On,” “Try Jah Love,” “Now that We Found Love” and “Reggae Ambassador.” The multi-talented Coore played a classical version of Bob Marley’s solemn ballad “Redemption Song” on the electric cello as the audience sang along. Fiery percussionist Ruption Williams led an African-inspired jam session on the djembe as the band members chanted a soulful refrain. Third World’s performance was indeed sentimental for Bunny Rugs’ daughter, Sheneka Clark, who watched the show and represented her father in spirit at SNWMF. 

Speaking of fathers and daughters, the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival not only coincides with Summer Solstice, it is usually held during Fathers’ Day weekend. This was the perfect time for the reggae legends to showcase their progeny. David Hinds’ son, Baruch Hinds, delivered an original rap during Steel Pulse’s hit “Drug Squad.” On Saturday afternoon, reggae veteran Big Youth, backed by the Soul Syndicate, performed on the Valley stage with his son, Tafari.

A Friday night surprise on the second (Village) stage was a sexually charged dancehall performance by Yellowman’s beautiful daughter, Kareema Foster, who gave up her career as an emergency medical technician to pursue a career in music. King Yellowman, the godfather of slackness (sexually explicit lyrics and naughty rhymes) spiced up the Village stage with his hits such as “Sea Cruise,” “Oh Carolina,” “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” and other favorites. 

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

This was perhaps the cleanest Yellowman show I’ve ever witnessed, probably because of the SNWMF family atmosphere. As his set moved along, Yellowman began to peel off a different layer of clothing, most likely due to the Mendocino County heat, but this writer did not stick around long enough to find out if the high-stepping DJ ended up naked by the end of the show. Yellowman also kept them grooving in into the wee hours of the morning at the opening night dancehall session with Mungo’s Hi-Fi.

At the SNWMF international food court, none other than one of Yellowman’s producers, Gary Himelfarb, aka Doctor Dread, former owner of RAS Records, served up his signature Famous Jamaican Jerk potato chips and peanuts, recently featured at the 2015 Fancy Foods show in San Francisco. I also picked up a copy of what I consider to be one of the best reggae recordings of the year, Barrington Levy’s “AcousticaLevy,” produced on the Doctor Dread Presents label. “AcousticaLevy,” a collection of his greatest hits such as “Murdera” “Unda Mi Sensi” and “Vice Versa Love” showcases Barrington’s expansive vocal range with minimal instrumentation.

On Saturday afternoon, brave new artists, Nattali Rize and acclaimed Jamaican drum and bass duo Notis, Wayne “Unga” Thompson and Jason “BigBass” Welch, made their debut on the Valley Stage. Rize and Notis performed songs such as “Generations will Rize,” “Rebel Love” and the ambient dub “New Era Frequency.”

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015Rize, an exotic soulful soprano, was born in California, grew up in Australia and is of Mexican, Native American and Norwegian heritage. At festival time, Rize and Notis were on a mid-west tour with Michael Franti and Spearhead and had also toured the west coast with New Zealand’s Katchafire.

“It’s a joy and a pleasure to take our music out of the studio and out of our little world and onto the stage and share it with America,” said Rize, during a press conference in the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival Press Tent.

Rize said she was proud to be one of the few female artists represented at SNWMF 2015 along with conscious dancehall queen Sister Carol and Hempress Sativa.

“I don’t find being a woman in in reggae difficult, because right now, the way the universe is going, we’re seeing a rebalance of feminine energy coming back in line with male energy,” said Rize, who was heavily influenced by pop icon Janis Joplin. “It is still few and far between that we see female artists on the lineup but it’s great when you notice that festivals take time to put women on the program. At the same time, there are not that many of us out there, so part of the work that we’re doing is to inspire the next generation.”

One of the great aspects of Sierra Nevada is the festival camaraderie; watching artists from different backgrounds support each other and even venture into the crowd to watch the show. Rize and Notis said they planned to stick around and watch Jimmy Cliff and their “uncles” Third World perform.

Also on Saturday afternoon, St. Lucian singer/songwriter Taj Weekes, returned to the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival for the third time, performing on the Valley stage. Weekes, incidentally, is not only a Caribbean activist; he is St. Lucia’s ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund. (UNICEF).

“I like the community vibe here at Sierra Nevada,” said Weekes. “I like the idea that most of the artists stay at the same hotel, so there’s no power play so to speak. Everybody’s cool and everybody mingles. I love the chef on the second floor. Sierra Nevada definitely has a family vibe. Warren Smith is an incredible person.”

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

Asked what it was like having graduated to the main stage, Weekes said: “Stages don’t matter to me, because I don’t play stages, I play music. It doesn’t matter where we are or who we play for. It’s not like, when we play the big stage, we put more energy or professionalism into our performances. It’s the same thing, wherever we are.”

Weekes, known for his unique vocals, a cross between a rasp and a whisper, is the youngest of ten children. His late brother, who he considers his greatest musical influence, taught him how to play the guitar. Weekes is old enough to remember when dreads and Rastafarians in his country were attacked and persecuted for their beliefs, and that’s why he defends the rights of others, women and children in particular. “I think the work that I do is far greater than myself,” said Weekes.

One of SNWMF’s most fun features is the Kids Zone, which all weekend includes activities for the wee folks such as storytelling, yoga, drum workshops, face painting, eco-friendly arts and crafts and more. But that does NOT mean you can leave your kids there while you check out Luciano and the iKronik Band.

For the last decade, Asheba, Bay Area based troubadour/storyteller from Trinidad and Tobego, has been the star attraction on the Village stage. Asheba entertains and educates the little ones with his unique blend of his native calypso, reggae and kids’ rock.

When they heard his acoustic guitar and signature voice, a group of children literally followed him into the press tent. “Children are the most blessed audience that you can perform for,” said Asheba.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015On the Valley stage on Saturday afternoon, Kingston’s reggae revival artist Jesse Royal, backed by the Dubtonic Kru, was a hit. The conscious reggae singer performed tracks such as “Preying on the Weak,” “This Morning,” “Butterflies,” “The Harder the Battle,” and his signature track, “Modern Day Judas.”

Joining Royal and the Dubtonic Kru was one of reggae’s most in demand young producers, Llamar “Riff Raff” Brown, who is also Stephen Marley’s keyboardist. Brown, who began working with Marley at age 19, has been involved in the production Grammy winning albums, “Mind Control” (2007) “Mind Control Acoustic“(2009) and ”Revelation Pt. 1 – The Root of Life” (2011). During his hiatus from the Stephen Marley tour, Brown has been touring with Jesse Royal and also working with him in Jamaica.

Asked at the SNWMF press tent how a song is created, Brown demonstrated by tapping a beat on the table. He said he could be inspired by a simple chord he hears someone playing on the guitar. “I’ll just walk in, put my bags down, set up my laptop and start working on the road,” said Brown. “We make music 24/7.”

By the end of Saturday night, the anticipation had built up for the return of the godfather of reggae, Grammy winning singer/songwriter and actor, Jimmy Cliff. Incidentally, the “Harder They Come” star is also the recipient of Jamaica’s highest honor, the Order of Merit, as well as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. 

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

At age 67, Cliff arguably delivered on of the festival’s most high energy performances. With vocals as clear they were in the seventies and dance moves equally as fluid, I would say that Cliff has earned the right to perform in a red satin suit that looks like it came off the set of “The King and I.”

Cliff, his soulful band and dancing horn section, delighted the audience with favorites such as Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” “Many Rivers to Cross” “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Rebel Rebel,” from his Grammy winning album “Rebirth,” produced by Tim Armstrong.

Where do you go to keep the vibes after a Jimmy Cliff performance? To the dancehall, of course for a late night/early morning session with Nattali Rize and Notis, RoryStoneLove Black Dub, Jah Warrior Shelter Hi Fi, Hirie, Pentateuch & Ras Muhamad, and Kingston’s hottest new band No-Maddz.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2015

In a world where young artists are taught to assimilate in order to achieve mainstream success, it was empowering to see a powerful Jamaican band like Pentateuch embracing African pride via their hits “Black Face” and “Kingston.” The reggae revival artists performed on the Village stage on opening night. Their sound and lyrics reminds me of a young Black Uhuru.

No-Maddz, a Kingston-based poetry and dub group who formed in 2000, was a hit on the Village stage on Sunday afternoon. No-Maddz was one of the most creative group of musicians to play SNWMF in this writer’s opinion. After Jimmy Cliff’s performance, I had noticed them in the crowd, and wondered who these nattily dressed, perfectly accessorized young men were, with their fly Rasta-funky hats, tailored suits and scarves. They are: Everaldo Creary, Christopher “Birdeye” Gordon, Oneil Peart and Sheldon Shepherd—recipients of the Prime Minister's Youth Award for excellence. No-MaddzSly & Robbie produced sound was reminiscent of the conscious dancehall and the sweet R&B music of the 90s. At the 2015 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Sean Paul cited No-Maddz as a band that should be recognized.

For information on Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 2016, go to


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