Cover photo: 20th Annual Reggae
on the River
story & photos by BOB DORAN
THE QUESTION, "WHY REGGAE?" takes on different meanings depending on who's answering. For the uninitiated, reggae is a musical style, native to Jamaica, more specifically, emanating from the ghettos of the capital city, Kingston, and the surrounding hills.
W.W. Norton's music glossary describes it as "a Jamaican popular music style characterized by offbeat rhythms and chanted vocals over a strong bass part; often associated with the Christian religious movement Rastafarianism."
In Humboldt County the word Reggae -- with a capital "R" -- is synonymous with Reggae on the River, the annual fundraiser that marked its 21st anniversary this past weekend. Over 10,000 people spent three scorching hot days on a bend along the Eel River, partying with friends and family, communing with nature and listening to music, some of it reggae, some from Jamaica, some from elsewhere. The Journal talked with a few of them.
Deb Alan, 36 [above left] , from Mill Valley, was working as gatekeeper for the westside parking lot near the entrance to French's Camp in Piercy, not far from the county border, where the event is held. Alan first came to Reggae six years ago when her husband's band, Vinyl, played there. "It's a great social gathering," she says. "I like the atmosphere and the idea that's there's a place to go and stretch your arms and stretch your legs, to be in the trees, to be by the river, to dance and play and be safe around other like-minded people. I'm not a reggae expert, but I've learned a lot about it from coming here; there's so much great music here."
Phil Foto, 61 [above right] , a former "crazy, gear-jamming, diesel-snorting" truck driver from Magalia, Calif. He worked at Reggae last year, and also did security work at several other world music festivals this summer and last. "It's the only job I have at the moment," he admits. "I like being in the outdoors, living in my tent camping out, the camaraderie with the staff and crew. I love the location here in the redwoods -- and I like reggae." His weekend schedule was for five 12-hour shifts at minimum wage.
Maia Steffano, 15, from Alderpoint [above left, at left] , and her friend Evi Ashenbrucker [above left, at right], who turned 14 at this year's Reggae, are volunteers in the Mateel Community Center booth answering questions and selling posters. "I've gone every year of my life, except one year I missed it," says Maia. Why do you keep coming back? "Because it's fun," says Evi. "I like the atmosphere," says Maia, and the people. "You meet old friends, make new ones, cement ties with friends."
Katie McMahan, 45 [above right], from Shelter Cove, is part of Friends of Whitethorn School, a parent/teacher/student volunteer crew that will sell around $25,000 worth of "Rasta Pasta" over the weekend. "I've been doing it since the festival was conceived. We raise a lot of money to support all the extra things we want for the kids at the school. It pays for an Aikido program, our art program, new library books. There's a real camaraderie working in the booth -- it's fun, we have a lot of laughs -- but it's a lot of hard work." The music? "Well, to be honest, I'm not a real reggae fan, but a lot of people are."
Carol Bruno, 57 [above left], from Redway, heads up People Productions, the group that puts on Reggae on the River. She offers a bit of history. "In 1979, a group of people got a matching fund grant from the Humboldt Area Foundation to purchase the old Fireman's Hall in Garberville," she begins, retelling an oft-told tale. HAF put in $25,000, the Southern Humboldt community raised the rest and the Mateel Community Center was born. "Then in 1983, an arsonist burned down the community center and the fire department next door. We had an insurance policy, but it wasn't enough to rebuild [on the same land] under new requirements. We didn't have enough to buy a new piece of land, so we started fundraising. My friend Shelby and I were into reggae music at the time, so we said `What if we did a reggae festival?'" A committee formed and the first festival was held. "As it turns out it was a good thing for us to choose reggae," says Carol. "It's a grassroots kind of music and the Mateel was a grassroots thing. We never dreamed it would end up like this."
Betty Edwards [above right], "somewhere past 55," from Los Angeles, is a volunteer who, like a mom, picks up after everyone backstage and in the photo pit in front of the stage. "Reggae gives me energy," she says, "and I'm glad to get away from L.A. I'm sick of L.A. I can breathe better up here. It's all good up here. Everybody's happy. At least I know I'm happy."
Mohamed Doulaki, [above] 43, from Morocco, sells arts and crafts, most of them imported from Africa. "I'm a reggae fan to begin with, a Bob Marley fan when I was a kid, so when I came here in 1986, straight from Morocco, I came to Reggae. It seemed like something I had never experienced in my life. I was shocked basically, by the way people party in America. It's really a big party. Since then I became one of the Reggae followers."
Acacia O'Quinn, 30, from Arcata, (on right) and her little sister Erin O'Quinn, 19, from Eureka, are both volunteers. "It's a great event; I feel like I have to go, since it's free for me. The real reason is this thing called FOMO; it's a disease, the Fear Of Missing Out syndrome," says Acacia. "She has to go to every festival," adds Erin, "and now she has me coming along." Erin worked as an EMT for the medical crew; Acacia was on site crew, setting up the grounds beforehand, including helping to erect a fence around the children's play area, Kidlandia. "I like the river and the music is great," Acacia continued. "I like the fact that there's no cops here, and there's a real sense of freedom around that."
Dom Jerry [above left], 31, a former Humboldter, currently, "living in the S. F., beautiful San Fran-disco." Why Reggae on the River? "It's my Chinese New Year; it's my Fourth of July; it's my happy birthday; it's everything I could want life to be for three days. I love everybody here; they're all my friends. I know I'll see everybody here. I hug 'em and kiss 'em and listen to music with 'em. I'll never stop coming. We'll do it again and again."
Ayanna Hart, 6, [above right, at right] and McKenna Lee-Liston [above right, at left] , 9, both from Santa Cruz, will spend much of the weekend in Kidlandia, (seen behind them in their photo). "My mom works in the booth for Jessica Lee Designs [a jewelry operation], so I came with her and a lot of family friends," McKenna explains.
"This is my first time here," Ayanna interjects. "It's fun because there's lots of things to do. There's a river; I like doing that. My dad, he took me here because he wanted me and daddy to have fun together."
William Pierson [above left], 53, a businessman from Freshwater, has been to Reggae 17 times. "I love watching a bend in the river become a city in a two-week period and then go back to being a bend in the river. It's probably the finest example of economic development by a non-profit that this area has ever seen. In many ways the event and its execution and the vibe it creates transcend the music itself. The music is an extra benefit for what has become a fabulous cultural event."
Gary "Junior" Haley [above right, behind group at top], 15, is part of a large group of cousins, most of them from Brooklyn, New York, here for the festival because an uncle is associated with the reggae artist, Midnite, who played Sunday. "We're here to see Reggae on the River. We've never been before. We're here to see Luciano, Bounty Killer, a whole lot of reggae artists."
"It's a party; it's a whole party!" adds the youngest cousin, 4-year-old Sierra Gaul. [above right, center front] His cousins join in, explaining that they especially like Saturday's dancehall reggae lineup with Mr. Vegas, Warrior King and Capelton, and, of course, Midnite, the roots reggae band playing Sunday.
Paul Gallegos [above left], 42, from Eureka, with his youngest son, Kai. The district attorney and his family were escaping the heat in Kidlandia. Why are they at Reggae? "Great music," says Paul. "I've been a reggae fan since I was in high school," says Paul's wife Joan, "back when Bob Marley was still alive. It's also a great people-watching venue." Paul adds, "The music's awesome. Our kids love it, too; they love the kids' area. It's great all around."
Danny Glover[above right, at right], 57, an actor from San Francisco. Why are you at Reggae? "I'm here to hang out with my little buddy here, my grandson. His name is Adsola," he says shifting his focus to his seven-month-old grandson who lives in New York. "'Grandpa came to hang out with me' -- and his mother," he says with a laugh.
Ross Huber [above left], 25, from Garberville, now attending Chico State was feeling grumpy after being refused permission to camp in a restricted area, one that his wristband actually allowed him to use. "As far as why I still come, I guess it's the nostalgia of it, but every year it gets a bit worse, I think. It's more corporate; no drum circles past 10 o'clock and all this ridiculous stuff. We still come because all our friends are here. Back in the day this used to be our festival. There weren't so may people here, and you'd come in and go where you wanted, do what you wanted; all our friends were on security. This is our river, our river bar, so of course you're going to resent when some guy from San Francisco tells me I can't go where I want to, just because he's wearing a security T-shirt."
Diev Hart [above right] , 36, from Santa Cruz (who, it turns out, is Ayanna's daddy). Why Reggae? "Because I love reggae music, plain and clear. This is my second year. I'm ashamed that I didn't come earlier. It's the one place you know you can come and you'll be surrounded by other people who love reggae."
Jazzmine Williams [above] , 14, a champion gymnast from Long Beach, is hanging out in Kidlandia, where there are not many kids her age. Why is she at Reggae on the River? "My parents made me come," she says with blunt resignation. "My choice of a vacation would have been Hawaii, or some place where I can get reception on my cell phone." The music? "I like the music; it's good music -- but it's really loud."
Vidal Angel [above] , 57, an artist from Northern Mendocino, has been attending Reggae for 20 years. "For me reggae music is the music that rallies the rebel in all of us. It breaks down the barriers between cultures and all the borders that men have put upon themselves for centuries and a millennium. If we don't come to an understanding of peace, love and respect for each other and respect for nature, we won't survive. Reggae music is an international movement; you can go anywhere in the world and find somebody wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt who knows the culture and the message." [Note: the bronze casting of Bob Marley is one of Angel's creations.]
Eon Henry Garden [above left] , 24, from Negril, West Moreland, "Jah-maica," lives in Arcata, where he plays keyboards in a reggae band called Massagana. He hopes his band might "mash it up" at Reggae next year. This time he's just come to party with friends.
"Why reggae music? Because I was born and grown in Jamaica, there's where my roots are from. It's almost like church music to me. Reggae on the River is a perfect place to meet people from all over. I come here and meet people from home. It's a beautiful thing, make me feel good inside."
Bongo Ras Star [above right] , 50, from Los Angeles, runs a "cottage industry" textile art company known as Ras Star. A vendor who has worked Reggae for 17 years, he paid $750 for a space to sell his silk-screened T-shirts and tapestries, and figures he'll take in around $5,000 over the weekend. "We use art as a weapon to reach the consciousness of society, to bring forth our case for equal rights and justice, and world peace. It interfaces with reggae because [the themes] come from Rasta. Rasta is a consciousness, a way of life dealing with spirituality that is all encompassing and universal. It's basically being a non-conformist to the nuclear jack-in-the-box."
Harrison Stafford [above], 26, from Sebastopol, leader of Groundation, who played Saturday afternoon. "We're at Reggae on the River because they asked us, but as far as reggae, it was the first music I ever heard. It was the music that inspired me when I was four years old to be dancing ridiculously. My father was a jazz piano player and my older brother was into reggae -- it was always Bob Marley, Israel Vibrations, all the roots. What I love about it, the original roots reggae with the one-drop [beat], there's a lot of freedom in it, freedom to move within the music. We're trying to follow what the elders did in the '70s, trying to go within ourselves, play from the heart, original space."
Warrior King [above] , 35, a Rasta dancehall performer from Jamaica, grabs a meal backstage. Between bites he explains, "I'm here to do my Father's work, do Haile Selassie-I work. I just spread the message of love to all people, all races all genders, all creeds. Yeah, mon." Why reggae? "It's Jah music, the King's music. The most High use this music to bring forth his message to the world. That's why I'm here, for Him."
Brian Sykes [above] , 40, from Redway, but now living in San Diego playing lead guitar with Thicker Than Thieves. "I've been to every Reggae and last year I finally got to play [with his old band South County Dogs]. It's really the best concert I've ever been to: all positive, no negativity going on," he says, then his bandmates call him, "Let's go!" and he leaves the dressing room for the stage to play his music for thousands of people.
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A final note from the writer: There are a lot more answers to the question those included here are like the blind men's description of the elephant -- to understand Reggae, you have to go. Before the weekend ended, I saw young Sierra, the party girl from Brooklyn, up on stage busting moves her cousins taught her to a Caribbean beat. I ran into Ayanna dressed as a clown as part of a Kidlandia parade through the crowd, her dad running alongside snapping photos. Just after I spoke with Brian in his dressing room, I came around front to see him shred a solo, playing his wild Cali take on reggae. Each was having a blast, and I won't be surprised a bit if I see all of them at Reggae again next year.
Dreadlocked singer Luciano electrifies Saturday's crowd.
Actor/reggae souls singer Leon Robinson introduces Michael Franti from the crowd.
Rastaman Bunny Wailer, one
of the founding members of the seminal reggae band,
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.