World music festival digs for roots in Calaveras County
This weekend, the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival will bring roots dance music from around the world—and especially the Caribbean island of Jamaica—to the heart of Mark Twain’s Calaveras County.
Beginning early Friday, the storied village of Frogtown, in Calaveras County’s Sierra Nevada foothills, will see an international assembly of musicians and a colorful tent city of music lovers and mini-busses from throughout America’s West.
The event, formerly held at Riverfront Park in Marysville, is a vibrant three-day music and camping festival held annually over the Summer Solstice weekend. In 2001, the fest relocated to the “gold country,” and this year marks the festival’s 10th anniversary. These days, 10 years as an independent grassroots festival is nothing to sneeze at.
In fact, event organizers are quick to point to their grassroots nature as the basis of their success. According to its Web site, the festival was “created through the collective efforts of the artists, vendors, staff, volunteers and ticket buyers.”
It’s probably due to those roots that the festival promotes “conscious” music and musicians said to carry messages of peace, unity and brotherhood and meant to transcend divisions of race and culture. As always, this year’s fête offers an estimable lineup of reggae and world music artists.
This year’s theme is “Tribute to Roots Reggae,” and it features such seminal roots acts as The Wailers, Barrington Levy, Mikey Dread, Sister Carol, Pablo Moses, Johnny Clarke, the Twinkle Brothers with Della Grant, U-Roy and more. This year’s festival also pays homage to the Jamaican dancehall—foundation and modern—presenting such artists as Cocoa Tea, Yami Bolo, Warrior King and 2002 Grammy nominee Capleton.
Deepest of all roots represented at this fest is ska legend Prince Buster. He’s a true Jamaican original; his catalog and career span the history of reggae and pre-reggae Jamaican dancehall music. In the ‘50s, American R&B was the music that blasted from every pair of speakers on the island. But in the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s, as Jamaica gained independence, it was Prince Buster—an artist-cum-producer—who injected local roots forms like “mento” and “buru” with shuffle rhythms and jazz horn licks, creating a new, rhythmic sound called “ska.”
Reflecting the times, many songs Buster produced were political and embraced Pan-Africanism. His 1960 production of the Folkes Brothers’ “Oh Carolina,” for example, was the first recording to use the Rastafarian drumming group Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari as rhythmic accompaniment, setting a course that the music of the ‘60s would follow, inspiring a generation to return to the roots of Jamaican music. Prince Buster anchors the festival, taking the stage on Sunday night.
Another facet of Buster’s persona was his innovative skill on his sound system. At that time in Jamaica, there were a number of “mobile discotheques” that would pack into large trucks to get to a particular dancehall or town lawn, where they would set up massive sets of speakers and amplifiers to play the freshest records at all-night, community-wide dances. The performers would typically include an operator, a selector, and a number of box men to lug records and equipment, who would also string up the system.
The operator and selector were the stars, with the operator handling a microphone and the selector choosing records to keep the dance hot. The operator—or deejay—would chat on the mike to hold the crowd’s interest between records, using clever jingles and rhythmic rhymes. One of the best of these mike-men was Ewart Beckford, known by the masses as U-Roy.
“Daddy” U-Roy, as he is affectionately referred to today, is cited as one of the clear roots of hip-hop and DJ culture as a whole. Along with early pioneers Count Matchukie, King Stitt and a select few others, U-Roy was there for the genesis of an art form that very much resembles what one sees today as rappers work their mikes while working off of their DJ counterparts.
This year’s festival features U-Roy on stage with such veteran Jamaican session musicians as George “Fully” Fullwood, Tony Chin and Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. In addition, however, will be the replication of a cultural icon in action: Saturday night in the dancehall, U-Roy’s own original sound system. called King Stur Gav, will reign again, when Mixmaster Steve takes control of the turntable and ace deejays U-Roy and Brigadier Jerry tag-team the mike, giving this part of the world a taste of Jamaican roots it has never known.
Warming things up for Stur Gav will be Japanese sound and recent World Clash bashment champs Mighty Crown. Stalwart Jamaican sound system Stone Love will also be in the mix, playing the dancehall Friday night.
Sierra Nevada has drawn even more from the deep talent pool of roots reggae. Leroy Sibbles, for example, is credited with writing and/or arranging music behind many of the genre’s enduring standards, such as the Abyssinians’ “Satta Amassagana” and the instrumental called “Full Up,” known popularly as the rhythm and beat behind the ‘80s pop hit “Pass the Dutchie.” Sibbles is an equally accomplished and respected singer who continues recording to this day.
Prior to Sibbles’ set on Saturday afternoon will be that of another roots icon, Johnny Clarke. Clarke was known as the “studio idler” because he would literally wait around studios for chances to get on wax. Once he broke through and hit, Johnny became the dancehall sensation of the ‘70s.
Singer, producer and DJ extraordinaire Mikey Dread will be there, styling up the session; Pablo Moses will remind his audience that ‘dubbing is a must"; and sing-jay Eek-A-Mouse will bounce the house. There should be enough Jamaican flavor on site to last even hardcore fans at least through the summer.
And, keeping true to its name, the festival of course showcases flavor from throughout the world, including performances from Alma Melodiosa, Shabaz, Medicine Drum, BrazilBeat Sound System, local favorite B-Side Players and more. As with the reggae slate, there is too much to list in this space.
In general, the festival aims to unite music and nature lovers of all backgrounds. Families are invited and encouraged to attend—children 12 and under are free when accompanied by a paid adult. There is a separate Family Camp area and an extensive program of children’s activities throughout the weekend, including dance and music workshops, storytelling, and more. The venue’s Festival Village will be a marketplace of food and craft booths—vendors are hand picked to provide an array of international cuisine and arts from such places as Indonesia, West Africa, Jamaica, Ethiopia and India.
Single-day and three-day festival tickets are available through a number of independent sellers and through Ticketmaster. For more information, check the festival’s website at www.snwmf.com.