No matter how many upsets the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival confronted in its 9th year, nothing could stop this growing celebration from springing to life. Despite several act cancellations, this summer’s festival was unquestionably a success. Much respect needs to go to everyone who helped in making this year’s festival a beautiful gathering, from the audience to the promoters, the vendors to the volunteers.
Unsung Heroes Characterize Friday’s Line-Up
Friday was led by unsung hero Earl Zero, who comes from West Kingston’s musically fertile Greenwich Town, where, in the heyday of reggae in the 1970s, he collaborated with the Soul Syndicate band and others. Spectators began to funnel into the already swelling crowd, while a colorful cloth backdrop electrified Z’s vibrant threads as he moved about the valley stage singing hits “Jah Love Will Always Grow” and “Let I Go Babylon.”
Meanwhile, on the village stage, the melodies of the West African Highlife Band mingled with the smells of grilling chicken and fish turning the area into a real marketplace vibe. Shouts of excitement could be heard among the bustle of shoppers and vendors under a full moon.
Back on the valley stage, star drummer Wadi Gad, rose to the occasion, teamed with west coast champion Toho Saunders on bass, who, along with Ed Loveletter on guitar, Steve Hoffman on keys, Gavin Distasi on trumpet, and Balboa on trombone, supplied the killer sounds to light up the stage for singers like Bay Area local Fenton of the Reggae Angels and the great Don Carlos, who breezed through hits that have made him a cornerstone in Reggae history.
Night had since fallen on the small village stage across the fairgrounds, and the magnificent Mahotella Queens kept the torch burning bright with their high-energy sound from South Africa. Accompanied by dancers in traditional dress, the three grandmothers brought the music of the townships to a very appreciative audience.
Barrington Levy’s surprise performance electrified the crowd. “Here I Come!” he belted. Barrington jived with the crowd involving everyone in a little audience participation. “Music is my everything,” revealed Levy backstage. His tastes range from Dennis Brown to David Bowie, Michael Jackson to Mick Jagger, Bob Marley, ZZ Top and more. Their subtle influences are all reflected in his astonishing stage presence and extraordinary vocal range. Look for a new album to be released in January 2003.
Friday night was the summer solstice celebration, and it was time to dance, free from the troubles of an outside world. Jah Shaka lured the late-niters into the dancehall with his hypnotic selection of heavy dub plates.
Saturday’s line-up was well charged with top-notch performers on both stages and in the dancehall. One such artist was the revolutionary Mutabaruka, who uses the mediums of poetry, music, film, radio and more to challenge his audience and forward a new consciousness for the Rastafarian faith. “We try to move Rastafari out of the red, gold, and green and smoking herbs thing…. We try to, as my bredren Mortimer Planno would say, ‘Create a new faculty of interpretation.'” Mortimer Planno is an elder in Jamaica who has helped to shape the mind of Bob Marley, and is Muta’s personal friend. With a new album out titled “Life Squared” on the Heartbeat label that includes the title track to Stephanie Black’s highly acclaimed documentary “Life and Debt,” Muta performed with the Skool Band–drummer Desi Jones, bassist Dale Haslan, Maurice Garden on guitar, and Christopher MacDonald on keys. They are so skilled and reliable that Mutabaruka won’t work with another. Muta’s poignant lyrics together with the Skool Band’s tight rhythms were described most accurately by festival MC Tony Moses as “confrontation with humor and honesty.”
Following on the main stage were the dynamic sounds of Jamaica’s dance band, the Fabulous Five. Feet were shuffling and bodies were skanking while the Fab 5 led a musical journey through time, beginning with dancehall favorites, rocking through reggae standards, and picking up the pace with the up tempo pulse of rocksteady and ska in a non-stop medley fashion. The Fab 5 are renown for their repertoire of Jamaican classics and lead singer/drummer Grub Cooper’s remarkable ability to evoke the voices of Jamaica’s greatest singers.
It was then up to dancehall veteran Sugar Minott to nice it up with the sweet, affectionate sounds of lover’s rock and a fashion unmistakably his own. Broadcasting classics from his career, including tracks from “Rare Gems,” his recent Easy Star release, to the swaying crowd only seemed to weaken knees, and the couples got closer and closer under Sugar’s spell.
Award winning Jamaican harmony trio Culture proved to be harder than the rest when they unleashed hits like “Holy Mount Zion” and “International Herb” on a sun-soaked crowd, and when hard-hitting saxophone king Dean Fraser came up to bat with Beniah, it was pure musical satisfaction. Fraser hails from Tuff Gong Studios where he has accompanied major artists with his striking melodies. He is a producer too, and has worked with Morgan Heritage, Freddie McGregor, Sanchez and Fiona. Fraser also produced Luciano’s Grammy nominated album, “Brand New Day.” When asked about the place of horns in today’s synthesized music, Fraser just laughed and said, “We are gonna try to get a little horn heavy in some of these new reggae songs!”
The Beniah Band was proud to play in California, where they are not as well known as in Miami. They generally back the majority of Jamaican artists who don’t have their own band in Florida. Both veteran and newcomers make up Beniah–Peter Williamson on keyboard, Jonathan Makeda on guitar, founder Elijah, Danny Miller on bass, and Carl Wright on drums. Beniah currently has an album in the making, as well as a tour with Marcia Griffiths.
Fresh new singing sensation Abijah, from Kingston, Jamaica, gave an unforgettable performance. It was his first time playing in the United States. He has a musical background–his father was a founding member of The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. He also writes poetry, an element that is definitely reflected in this outspoken individual. “The message of love needs to be on everybody’s lips. Color is not the problem; it’s the heart and the mind of man. Money is not the problem. It’s out of greed that we fight over money.” Check out Abijah’s single with Nadine Sutherland entitled “Love Can Change The World Today,” currently getting airplay in Kingston.
Perhaps the only artist who could follow such a stellar line up was the father of reggae himself, Toots Hibbert and the mighty Maytals. He revived a grass-roots manner, so real, that no one could escape his infectious spirit, and resorted to bouncing and riding the energetic riddims. Toots became the teacher and the audience his students, and he taught tirelessly, resurrecting immortal hits like “Reggae Got Soul” and “54-46,” dishing out potent ska with “Monkey Man” and “It’s You,” and lifting spirits with the jubilant “Pomp And Pride.”
Still going strong, the party moved into the dancehall, where Jamaica’s massively popular Stone Love selected only the fittest of the fittest sounds for the evening’s entertainment.
Newcomers Make A Mark on Sunday
Sunday’s highlights included King Chango, from New York, who served up a spicy stew of rock, ska, and reggae, peppered with a Latin flavor, to an audience whose appetite did not need whetting. Frontman Andrew Blanco pumped the crowd with pure positivity and an uplifting attitude that fueled the groups sizzling sound.
Over on the village stage was Prezident Brown, backed by his band the Orchestra of Judah led by Beezy Coleman. Together they are storming through America, bringing a new roots reality consciousness to a growing number of listeners. The Prezident’s strength and confidence shone through as he went through older tunes like “Talking Drum,” and “Prezident Selections,” and more recent tunes like “To Jah Only” and “Woman of the Rising Sun.”
Next on the village stage was the stand-out Midnite from St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Their style of roots reggae is so raw and potent that it contends with the most cutting edge sounds of today. Lead singer Vaughn Benjamin’s vocal prowess cuts straight to the heart with pure emotion and true feeling that is only matched by brother Ron Benjamin’s stirring keyboard arrangements and musical direction. Watch out all weak-hearts! Midnite’s lyrics are dangerously powerful, and their tougher than tough rhythm section stands alone.
The Tabla Beat Science’s inspiring set provided the soundtrack to a breathtaking sunset. The experimental group is led by tabla master Zakir Hussain, sarangi and vocal luminary Ustad Sultan Khan, and internationally recognized producer Bill Laswell on bass. The rapid-fire rhythms of the tabla, the steady beat of Karsh Kale’s drumset, and the ambient layering of Laswell’s bass created a musical canvas on which Ustad Sultan Kahn painted rich melodies and colorful textures. With the grace of a queen, Ethiopian empress Gigi gave life to the swirling, churning sound. Her angelic vocals are all sung in her native Amharic. DJ Disc, the MIDIval Punditz and Sultan 32 provided pertinent dance beats that electrified the crowd. This rare arrangement of musicians was a real treat at this year’s festival.
Headlining on Sunday was Steel Pulse, the stars who brought reggae to the frontlines in Great Britain. Since then, they have been labeled everything from “Jah Punk” to “Jah Rock” to “Cosmopolitan Reggae,”, because of their unique blend of rock, pop and roots reggae. With their reputation for theatrical live shows complete with costume changes, Steel Pulse is set apart from conventional artists. Steel Pulse have not lost any momentum over the years, and their highly polished performance on Sunday night was spectacular, including hits like “Ku Klux Klan,” “Sound System,” “Prodigal Son,” “Chant A Psalm,” and a special appearance by Prezident Brown for the song “Black And Proud.”
If you were lucky enough to make it to Angels Camp this year, you already know that SNWMF stayed true to it’s aim: to nurture a world family peacefully united in celebration of the universal spirit of music. If you are a veteran to the festival you are familiar with its reputation for consistently attracting some of the biggest names in reggae and world music today, alongside new artists who blaze up the scene with refreshing new vigor and life. It is through the efforts of promoters Warren Smith and Gretchen Franz that this festival exists, and through the massive support of the music lovers that the festival continues to thrive. If you have not yet been to the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival you owe it to yourself to experience this shining example of what a celebration should be.