a long conversation with Warren Smith of SNWMF


The publicist for the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival asked if I might want to talk with Warren Smith, founder of the long-running festival. (That’s him in the photo with Ken Boothe.) I said yes, thinking I’d ask him what he thinks about the festive mess here in Humboldt.

We talked last week and the tape sat on my desk until today while I worked on too many other things, took a trip out of town for a convention, then came back to a bunch more work. I spent the last couple of hours transcribing the wide-ranging interview, which touches intermittently on Reggae on the River and Reggae Rising, with sidetrips in many directions including a fairly complete history of SNWMF.

Warren is a good storyteller, someone who takes his time answering a question and I had a great time talking with him. I hope some of you enjoy reading what he had to say.

(I should probably mention that SNWMF is coming up this weekend in Boonville at the Mendo Co. Fairgrounds. I’m pretty sure there are still tickets available. Read on and you’ll see why.)

The first thing I told him was I wanted to know what he thought about the state of Reggae business in Humboldt.

“The whole thing has been a sad state of affairs,” he began, and our conversation immediately veered off course. (My fault.)

How long have you been in the reggae business?

I got involved in reggae in 1974. I was doing a community benefit in Chico at the time. We were running people for city council — so I booked Bob Marley. Of course his tour got cancelled.

That seems pretty early on for reggae in America. I think it was the year before when I saw The Harder They Come at the movies and ordered the soundtrack.

I got involved in the very early ’70s through close friends living in Berkeley; I was an activist in those days. I was in Chico, I’d graduated and was doing community work, everything from prison support to community gardens. I got my masters in economics and taught for a while, but I was more of an activist than anything. My friends in Berkeley were bringing in 45s directly from Jamaica, so I kind of got hooked on that. Of course I saw The Harder They Come.

So you were saying you tried to put on this show to raise money for some city council candidate?

Not exactly. We had this thing we put together called the April Committee. We’d taken over the student government [at Chico State] from the Greeks and the jocks, got these conscious anti-war people involved. We were going to city council meetings and that was really an old boys network. We put a slate of four candidates up and really worked the town. We actually got all our candidates in.

Sounds a little like what happened in Arcata.

It is. It’s a lot like Arcata. So we did this show — with Marley out, it ended up being Taj Mahal, Booker T, and a little group out of Berkeley called The Shakers – a white reggae group.
You know I bought their album when it came out. In fact I just signed up to be their MySpace friends. I stumbled on their page and a track from the old album came on…

Oh boy. So anyway, during that time there was a little store that opened in San Francisco called Kingston Records, run by a couple of Jamaicans. I got to know them, and when we did the show I brought them up to help do radio ads. Just having real live Jamaicans was rare in those days. So the show was very successful and all, and I started getting called from the Kingston guys saying, ‘Hey we’re doing this show down in San Francisco and we need your help to promote it. We have Toots and the Maytals, Dennis Brown and Inner Circle with this guy Jacob Miller. We booked Winterland for three nights.’ I said,’ Yeah, yeah, I’m really busy.’ I just didn’t believe them. Finally I said, ‘Okay, I’ll come down,’ and they set up a meeting with Bill Graham. Their office was in the Fillmore close to his. He had rented Winterland to them for $500 a night, but that was about all that was done. I called Toots’ manager, none of the bands had been paid or anything like that. Next thing I knew I was involved. It turned out to be an amazing event. We ended up doing Mick Jagger’s birthday party that weekend and suddenly I knew the Stones.
The week before Bob came to town and did four or five night at the Boarding House. Of course I got to know Bob, he ended up going out with a close friends of mine. So I was suddenly immersed in Jamaican music. This was July of ’75. I moved down to San Francisco and got an apartment, next thing I knew I was in Jamaica. I established a record label in ’76, Epiphany Records. We produced a record with Fully Fullwood and Soul Syndicate. When I came back I worked as a booking agent for quite a few years. I had a partner on the East Coast; we were bringing in pretty much all the reggae at that time: Culture, Sugar Minott, Mutabaruka, The Mighty Diamonds, it was going on and on and on. We sometimes had two or three tours going at the same time.

You were booking the tours?

And I had a record label. I was trying to survive on this music, which was hard, but it all kind of worked out. I did that until about 1984, that’s when I had a couple of children and my wife wanted me around. So I tossed it all in and went to work on Montgomery Street as syndicate manager for a small boutique firm. I was a stock trader. I spent six years doing that, but also booked a few shows, Eek a Mouse, Leroy Sibbles, a few others that I still had a strong relationship with.

What about Reggae on the River, it had started by then…

It had. Earlier, in 1978, one thing I did was, I went to Jamaica, I was sponsored by the government of Jamaica to do a three-day show. We had it at a hotel and marketed it on the East Coast of the U.S. That was quite an experience. The government was so supportive. They hooked me up with the press. We booked Burning Spear and Culture, Big Youth, Peter Tosh, The Heptones. We called it the Island Music Festival. We had a good turnout. Meantime I was on the radio, I’d never seen press so forthcoming. I could go anywhere. I ended up living at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kingston, which was owned by the government. I finally told them they didn’t need some white guy to be doing what I was doing; they could do it themselves. The following year they put together Reggae Sunsplash, based on the same concepts. By then I had done six or seven albums for Epiphany, including an album for Flo and Eddie from the Turtles. I took them down to Jamaica, what an experience that was. So I came back to the states. It was getting harder to do shows. I had some run-ins with the powers that be, mainly Bill Graham Presents. [This story went on, but at some point he wondered aloud how much he ‘wanted to see in print, and to avoid stirring up negative memories, I agreed to leave that part out.]

Back on the record… Can I interject a question? How old are you and where are you from?

I’m 61. I grew up in the house I’m living in right now, in a tiny town in the Sacramento Delta called Walnut Grove.

And what was it about reggae? You said you were political, was that it?

Here you have a Third World country that speaks English, and the youth are embracing freedom and justice. It was more that I could handle. I just thought, ‘The American people have to hear this.’ Third World people singing poetry about their plight. It was like a mission. I took it very seriously. There were very few what you’d call movement bands here. Almost all of the Jamaican bands were movement bands. In the early days it wasn’t so Rasta, and if it was, it was still about truth and rights and those kinds of things. I hate to say it, but I think that part of reggae music has really run its course. I see a kind of contraction going on right now among the followers of reggae.

A contraction in the American audience?

It’s been getting much smaller for the last four years, but particularly over the last year. This turmoil up in your area has only fed the fire. The younger generations are not embracing it like they used to. It’s no longer the cool music in college; in fact there’s been a negative reaction to the whole stance on gays. Young people seem to be much more in tune with that and the fact that some of these artists take a Bible on stage and start quoting from it. It’s no longer the cool music, and I think we’re starting to feel that in the business, it’s harder and harder to get them touring. I really think the Rasta thing has run its course.

I did a bit of research on the various Rasta subgroups when this group of lesbian DJs on campus raised a ruckus about Capleton coming to play a show here, so I know what you mean by the Bible-thumping side of it. Then again, looking around Humboldt, where we have a lot of white dreads, I don’t think most of them have a clue what it’s about beyond the sacred herb business.

The pot thing is so much a part of it. But, yeah, you get the Bobo Dreads and it’s very fundamental and nationalistic. With Bob it was more about social commentary. He wasn’t so religious. He had such an enormous worldview, and he wasn’t out there quoting the Bible like a lot of others since then. A lot of the older artists, guys like Burning Spear, who is Rasta in some ways, he’s still a big Marcus Garvey fan, he does a lot of social commentary and again, he’s not quoting scriptures. That’s the younger generation, they’re really fundamentalists, which I worry about sometimes. I don’t think that’s helped.

Returning to the concert business, when you started doing Sierra Nevada, you called it a World Music Festival…

And the world part has always been very important. I can see the day when reggae might not be able to hold its own. But the idea of mixing up different cultures kind of supplanted the mission of bringing that particular Third World voice out. The festival became something to bring out many cultures and create some kind of understanding. Americans really get lost over here. Many don’t travel, many are completely unaware of other cultures, and consequently they get paranoid and jaded. They go down wrong paths. I see this as an antidote to that. I can foresee going even further with world music than we have. It’s always hard to get really legitimate acts.

Sierra Nevada World Music Festival is a brand…

I guess it is…

The name is the brand, which I bring up because the battle over Reggae ended up being a battle over the use of the trademark. Is the Sierra Nevada Brewing trademark part of your thing? Did you do the first one in association with them?

No. What happened, when I left the brokerage world, I had my label (Epiphany) and I got a sweet offer from Japan to sell them a bunch of CDs, I hadn’t made CDs, everything on my label was in vinyl. The offers from Japan were for CDs of things I had in vinyl, so finally I made this transition from the suit and tie world back into the music business. I believe it was 1989 when I was approached by a Berkeley student who was doing this party and wanted to expand it a bit. He actually did this show at the Yakiyama (sp) Indian Reservation on the Russian River — he had Strictly Roots and the Itals, $10 for admission and camping over the weekend. He took out an ad in the Chronicle and sold 6,000 tickets. Needless to say, it was a huge success and a disaster. I didn’t go to the show, I remember seeing the ad and thinking Jesus, you can’t camp on the Russian River for $10, much less on an Indian reservation. They had all these problems and he couldn’t go back there. He came to me and said he was going to do another show, he wanted professional help and offered me a good sum of money to do the booking. For the next three years I booked Gathering of the Vibes and did the marketing as well.

Where did you take it?

He found this venue in Marysville. He was a nice kid, but he was having a hard time running a festival. By the third year he’d pretty much burned out. The fourth year, I brought in a partner in Chico and said, ‘We should do it.’ We called it the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, and yeah, the brewing company was one of our original sponsors. That was in 1994. With Gathering of the Vibes it was reggae with Grateful Dead jamband type stuff. When I did it, I wanted more cultures so we did reggae and world music. I knew the music pretty well and I wanted to bring all these gems out from Jamaica. And we succeeded. We’ve had some remarkable shows.

Obviously this was parallel to the blossoming of Reggae on the River. How did the two work in connection with each other? Was Reggae the competition?

Well, I never thought we competed with Reggae on the River. I never thought we could compete with Reggae on the River.

You must have been competing for the talent…

Not really. Carol was never interested in what we did. From the beginning she was more involved in getting the more commercial bands. And getting the bands on tour.

Which is what I’ve heard, she’s always brought in bands from Jamaica who would use Reggae as a cornerstone for touring elsewhere.

That’s true.

How important is that to the reggae touring business overall? Would acts come here specifically because they had landed a gig at Reggae on the River?

Well, maybe. The fact is, she was in the position to pay a handsome fee for bands. Reggae on the River was sacrosanct. It was a community event, something we couldn’t reproduce. There was magic there. You had the redwoods, you had the Eel River, you had the ganja. And you had the community.

Because it was run by a nonprofit for a specific cause with a massive volunteer army…

I used to go all the time. I was just astounded by it. I’m a leftist and I really appreciated the levels of organization and all that kind of stuff — the fact that the community was running this thing. We were just another show in the face of all that. Although all that’s changed. I’ve got a sad feeling a lot of the magic has left.

From the perspective of someone who lives in Northern Humboldt, I’d have to say that’s the saddest thing about what’s happened. I don’t know if the magic’s still there. But when you talk about the success of the organization, wasn’t a lot of that because of the fact that Carol was at the head of the command structure?

There’s always been controversy over the years. You now Doug Green is one of our MCs. And Mossman is our medical guy. Peter does our security. We share a lot of people. For us, it’s our organization. I do the booking and work on the marketing, but I don’t really do the show. My wife Gretchen is head of operations and we have a great staff, it’s our people who carry this thing out.

As you know, a turning point came when the Reggae staff signed a letter saying they were standing with Carol.

Another issue on that is, as I understand it, she pays her staff really well, I’d say 10, maybe 15 times what we pay. But yes, she had the organization, and she’s been doing this for a long time. But you know, I don’t want to say a lot more.

Looking at what’s going on right now, what’s the relationship between the two festivals?

You know we moved to Boonville, almost by default. We’d been at Angel’s Camp for five years. The first year was kind of tough. When we started planning the Sheriff came to us and said. ‘Well, don’t worry about us you guys, we’ll get back to you.’ Then we didn’t hear from them. Two weeks before the show we called again and they told us they wanted $20,000 in 48 hours.

For what?

For the Sheriff’s Department. Then they came in and — I’d never seen anything like it — they searched people illegally, they did all this stuff. And the fair manager, Buck King, a good old Republican rancher and one of the sweetest guys you could meet, he ended up calling the Attorney General of California and telling him there was a Sheriff harassing him, putting huge fees on us. He said go to your board. The fairgrounds was state owned, run by a local board. They were all Republicans too, but they kicked the Sheriff off. And for the next three years it was grand.

Then Buck King retired and they brought in this corporate guy from Cal Expo. We didn’t really get along with him, the Sheriff came back in. It came to a head on a Sunday. They were marching around, really bothering people. At one point we had maybe 2,000 people on our village stage watching the St. Croix acts and apparently there was a black kid in the middle of the audience smoking a joint. In Calaveras County if you’re black and smoking a joint, you go to jail. So they marched into the crowd, everyone was sitting down, and threw this kid in handcuffs. Everyone in the crowd stood up and backed off. Then the band stopped. All of a sudden the cops looked around and they were surrounded by a couple of thousand people, and everyone started booing. So the cops cut the handcuffs off and everybody cheered. I was thinking, ‘oh, we have trouble now.’

They were livid. They said we’d tried to start a police riot. It made the newspapers. We’d had 7 or 8,000 people and they’d rousted hundreds of people and only came up with 15 arrests. Things started going back and forth between me and the Sheriffs and it got in the Stockton newspapers and all that. We started looking for another place, every single place we looked at in the Sierras, they’d call the Sheriff and he’d poison the waters. We were having a hard time. I thought it was over.

Then someone called and told me there’s these people at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds, and they’d love to talk to you. I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ We met Jim Brown over at the fairgrounds, he was the director. He said it’d have to be a smaller show, which we kind of liked.

How many tickets did you sell?

We’d gone as high as 7,300 tickets in 2001, then after we had the 9/11 thing it got smaller.

How many staff run the show?

We have 400-500 with volunteers and all that, add another 1,000 or so with guests. So we never really picked up back to there to 7,000. It’s hard enough now for us to make 5,000 in sales. But we feel really good in Booneville. After Maysville, where we had gangs attacking our people, and Angel’s Camp where we had a Pentecostal Sheriff who’d been to Iraq three times, whose wife was chair of the Republican Party. So we said goodbye to the Sierras. It was so different in Boonville, we were working with the people like ourselves, people who would come to the show.

The one thing about the Sierra Nevada that I will really stand on, that I’m proud of, that I fell is the most important thing, and that is our audience. Our audience is not into hard drugs; they’re not into alcohol. I think in the early days when Reggae on the River started getting really expensive and would sell out real quick, we kind of had the reggae community that couldn’t respond real quickly or those with less money. We always oriented ourselves toward families.

Of course you really do put on a world music show, and on the reggae side it seems like you stuck more with the roots rather than dancehall. I wonder if that contraction in the audience you were talking about has something to do with the fact that the original rootsmen from Jamaica, the guys who created reggae, are dying off.
They are. Same with the audience. We’re all getting older. And we can’t go out like we used to.

With Reggae on the River the booking shifted to match the younger audience. The younger crowd wanted more dancehall and that’s what they got.

I kind of run at loggerheads with that, particularly when I see what’s coming out of the dancehall with some of these artists, especially the more fundamentalist Bobo types. All of I sudden I realized these people have more in common with George Bush than they do with me. They’re fundamentalist Christians. They’re very sexist towards women. They’re anti-gay.

Then you have the flipside off dancehall, the slackness with guns, drugs, violence and big butts.

Yep. All that stuff. And it was no longer this naïve innocent magical kind of thing. I remember in 1976 sitting in Channel One Studios, which even then was in a scary part of town, Maxfield Avenue. Soul Syndicate was working with some of the producers and they’d be there all day so I would go down and watch. The producer would come in and he’d have six or seven singers, each singer would get like 15 minutes to work out their song with the band. Then they would take one, maybe two takes, and it was ‘Okay, next guy.’ You’d see these kids, and their whole lives they’d waited for this. They had this song and it meant everything to them. They’d go out there and sing their heart out. From a production point of view it was atrocious, but as art it was amazing to see how naïve it was.

It sounds like Ivan in The Harder They Come.

It was Ivan laying it down on a four-track recorder. It was real.

[At this point Warren’s phone started making funny noises due to a low battery. I suggested we wrap things up and returned to the topic of Reggae.]

In terms of what’s going on up there, I think it’s hurt everybody. I think this is going to be a hard year all around. Sales are really down. I don’t know that Reggae Rising is going to sell out like Reggae on the River did.

And how are you guys doing?

We’re hurting. We could be doing a lot better. We’ll be okay, but we’re promoting harder than we ever have. It’s harder to get that audience. The audience is much more discriminatory these days.

Something that came up in the course of negotiations over Reggae on the River was the indefinite nature of the future ticket sales. If what you say is true, Reggae may not be a long-term moneymaker like it was for the last 20 plus years.

I think this year’s going to be the big surprise for people. You had Reggae Sunsplash cancelled. I knew that was coming. No way it was going to work. They couldn’t make it work last year, they had UB-40, Toots, Maxi Priest and Third World and they still lost enormous sums of money. This has been going on for a while. It’s always a struggle. It’s not going to get any easier.

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4 Comments

  1. From my perspective, Sierra Nevada and RotR have both been great festivals over the years (and I’ve been to both many, many times); however, the past few years I’ve thought that the vibe was much, much better at Sierra Nevada (and I think all my RotR friends would agree). The attendees tend to be a lot more into the music as opposed to the drugs, alcohol and “the party”, and the lineups have been at least as good (and they’ve had the better ticket price too).

    This year in particular, my friends and I are really excited about SNWMF. I think they’ve got a great lineup – much better than RR – *and* it’s $50 less .

    Reply

  2. I juts got back from the Sierra Nevada WMF. I LOVED IT! So much fun, good clean vibe. One could party and get loose, but it wasn’t a big drug fest. Really nice. Very family orientated. I’ll be going again. Great camping, very comfortable, not packed on top of each other. I’ll go to this festival over RR ANYDAY. If RoTR returned to a smaller event, I’d go back to it. I’ve been to RotR for over 20 years and I wouldn’t bring my family to it in it’s current state. But the SNWMF, I’ll certainly bring my family to. and the music was AWESOME!

    Reply

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