Aug. 5, 2004
by BOB DORAN
ANYONE STILL QUESTIONING THE PRESTIGE AND THE international reputation of SoHum's biggest fund-raiser, Reggae on the River, would do well to look at this week's Time magazine, where the event is featured in "Stirring Up the Spirit of Reggae," an interview with Bunny Wailer, who along with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, founded the seminal Jamaican reggae band the Wailers.
Bunny, Friday night's Reggae headliner, describes this weekend's festival as "a Rasta-ized event," adding, "the atmosphere makes you feel very welcome and very united with the next person that you see."
The Time piece also gives prominent mention to a just-released DVD with the eponymous title, Reggae on the River, a two-disc set split between "The Music," a star-studded collection of concert sequences offering a glance back at last year's 20th annual concert, and "The Story," an overview of the festival shot by a crew who roamed through the crowd last year.
The Story begins with sunlight streaming through the redwoods as a voice from the stage heralds (slightly inaccurately) "the golden, golden jubilee" of Reggae on the River, describing it as a "family reunion," as the visuals switch to a view from the sky, the plane-mounted camera scanning over acres of trees, then settling on an instant makeshift city: 10,500 people camped along the Eel.
Michael Franti of Spearhead [photo above], who headlined last year's fest, returns this year, closing the show Sunday night. He explains that "people come from across America -- you have your hip hoppers, dreadlockers and Woodstockers, all in one place," creating what Native American poet John Trudell deems "a tribal gathering."
Concert coordinators Paul Bassis and Carol Bruno, from People Productions, point to the roots of the event just over two decades ago when members of the Mateel Community Center organization put on a fund-raiser to replace a building destroyed in an arson fire. "Twenty years ago there were only 1,200 people here," says Bassis. "It's grown, but the thing about it is, it's grown organically -- from the ground up."
Pat Arthur, owner of French's Camp where the event is held, recalls, "At first the community was not receptive to Reggae. It was noisy; it brought `strange people.' And now there's a turnaround, because it's brought revenue into the area," along with "good vibes."
An example of the event's economic impact comes from Harry Hardin, who runs Six Rivers Portable Toilets. "The first year we did [Reggae] I was buying toilets and this and that out of L.A. `cause I was just a small company," he says. "[But] now I'm a big company. This event got me to a size where I'm doing all the big events now."
Susan Maloney of the activist group the Environmental Protection Information Center notes that, "numerous nonprofits raise a substantial portion of their annual budgets with the work [they] do here." Sales of things like sushi, iced coffee, corn-on-the-cob or Indian tacos can pull in five-figure profits for local groups.
The camera takes you down to the riverside where a reveler holding a large bagel, smiles, saying, "It's a community basically; that's what I like about it. Everyone gets along and has a great time. It's ideal, I guess."
That utopian vision in echoed by Franti, who sees the event as reflective of a collective shift in consciousness. "Are we gonna live in a world where corporate interests, the military interests and the materialistic interest takes precedence?" he asks. "Or are we going to live in a world where the human interest, the natural and the spiritual interests take precedence? I think there's a way we can begin to balance the scales."
The crucial ingredient for Bruno, who supervises the selection of bands: fun. "Fun is really important and we don't always make a priority for it in our lives," she says. "We're all busy and we don't stop to remember that fun is good for the soul."
The DVD succeeds in capturing the spirit of fun, along with the spirit of "love, respect and unity" that drives the event. Well-executed concert footage shot with multiple cameras, interspersed throughout the first disc and filling the second, demonstrate the level of musical talent the event draws.
I know this all sounds a bit too good to be true -- great music, a sense of community, a weekend in nature, an irie world full of fun -- but in many ways The Story paints an accurate picture. Of course, the DVD is a celebration of Reggae, not an unbiased dissection of the event.
Is there a downside? Well, for one thing, 10,500 people hanging out for a few days on a short stretch of the Eel certainly have an environmental impact, although this year it may be lessened by reports of a toxic blue-green algae bloom. (See the Weekly Wrap for details.)
There is another small hitch: By the time you read this it will be far too late for a spontaneous decision to head to the river. The show sold out months ago -- it always sells out far in advance. Time notes that tickets are available on eBay, and as of press time there were dozens of them, mostly at face value, but again it will be too late for that when you read this. Those who look to scalpers should do so warily -- with tickets at $150, counterfeiting seems inevitable, and security is tight as a Nyabinghi drumhead.
The DVD gives you a taste of what Reggae is all about (for those with no DVD player, there's a CD version with most of the same music) and there's always next year. In the meantime, People Productions and the Mateel have put together a pretty incredible DVD release party, set for Thursday, Sept. 2, at Benbow Lake. The concert features reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert and the Maytals, and a rare joint appearance by five of Bob Marley's sons: Damian, Julian, Steven and Kymani from Ghetto Youth, plus big brother Ziggy. It might not be Reggae on the River, but we're talking about some truly fine reggae along the shore of the same river.
For more information than you need about Reggae on the River, see www.reggaeontheriver.com. Tickets for the Benbow DVD release party are $35. Showtime is 5:30 p.m. at the Benbow Lake Recreation Area just south of Garberville. Watch for tickets to next year's 22nd annual Reggae on the River in early Spring, 2005.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.