Review: Northwest World Reggae Festival 2011
09/13/2011 by Justine Amadori Ketola
NWWRF @ Bob's Ranch Marcola, Oregon - August, 12th-14th 2011
These days, there are few occasions in reggae music where I find myself pleasantly surprised. This is in part due to the fact that I have experienced many artists and festivals over the years and am what you could call a jaded idealist and one that is often working during the most crucial music times, missing out on the sole purpose of the festival. The 7th staging of the Northwest World Reggae Festival, which I attended for the first time, can be considered one of those events that both exceeded my expectations and allowed for total immersion in what reggae music can feature by way of healing energy.
The setting is a bucolic forest and hayfield in rural Oregon, just outside Eugene, and the source of the only disconnect I had during the festival. This setting presents ample camping, vending and a natural amphitheater, where attendees post themselves at the top of a lengthy subtle slope, often for most of the afternoons, as it is shaded by some of the world’s most giant fir trees that live there. The camping offerings are both “hayfield” and un-shaded farmyard, and a second “Deep Woods” within the charming forest that transforms to a fairyland adorned with tapestries and a labyrinth network of tents.
Because it is within the confines of a privately held farm, the only road in is not that wide, so arrival and admissions as it is known can be a lengthy process as I found arriving after 8pm on the Friday of the three day festival. I was anxious to see the J-Boog performance which was slated for around that time, and looking forward to see the backing band, Detour Posse, mates of mine from our life and works together in the L.A. area.
After crossing the bridge over a little creek, I was at a standstill that lasted about 45 minutes and it was difficult to hear the stage. So as we waited, various groups began migrating amongst the cars, including someone in authority, who when asked about the band on stage volunteered that the schedule was about “two hours off” last he had heard. So it was time to chillax and wait for my turn at admissions, as others passed various glass apparatus around the isles and the faint sound of amplified music echoed in the distance.
Once inside the gates, I made my way hurriedly to the main stage, with an initial check of the crew at work backstage to receive the backstage badge, linking up with the mighty Lindsey Love, a key member of the brain trust for this event who was wearing an all-access laminate that featured H.I. M. Emperor Haile Selassie’s image. This set the tone for the rest of the festivities, as this event aims to take the elements of love and peace, respect in reggae music, multi-cultural community to the highest heights. Give thanks for the great vibes, really appreciate the professionalism and niceness!!
I caught up with Casper from Hopiland and the 602 band, whose set was one that I unfortunately missed as I sat in brutal traffic in Portland on the way. Hopi rapper/reggae artist Casper Lomadawa (as he is now known) has a new album, Brother’s Keeper that he is promoting. He gave numerous promotional copies to fans and media alike at NWWRF. He was also a featured MC on the festival stage Saturday. The last time we had seen each other was for a show in Hopiland with Stephen & Damian Marley and K’naan, so it was great to link again.
Great times were had by as there was no trash, no bad vibes, just some of the greatest stage lighting, fresh flower displays adorning the stage, a shaded dome that served as the DJ tent throughout the day into the wee hours, Some of Oregon’s greatest cooks including Kitchen Dances which serves some mean and irie vegan fare.
The world of the youth was a focal point of the festival for me. As I watched most of the sets in the photo pit with other media, I noticed the center, which had some subwoofer speakers bordered by hay bales that cordoned off the area. These speakers had kids standing on them during J-Boog (and throughout the weekend), and these kids continued to have run of the center of the pit, keeping their youthful stance throughout the afternoons and evenings where the area allowed them a safe, action-packed and accessible vantage point to join in the festivities.
J-Boog, what a joy, so many good tunes, excellent vibes from the audience…. the tune “Gotta Be Strong” with its refrain, “livin’ in a Babylon” is my song, and I had not missed that much by the time I made it to their set. When they broke out with “Let’s Do It Again” the whole audience seemed to know the tune and had their hands in the air.
When J-Boog came off stage, it was time to head to the press tent, where he answered questions about his successful career trajectory. He was so humble as he explained, “We're from Compton, we did not expect to go this far.” And when asked where he wanted to take this music, he proclaimed, “Man, we want to take it everywhere!” J-Boog outlined his plan (through Special Delivery) to tour Europe for the first time. And he was most excited about home town Hip Hop and R&B radio station Power 106, Los Angeles adding his music to their mix and having him on their morning show as a guest, a goal he has had for many years.
I cannot emphasize enough that this show had such fantastic staging and lighting, with interesting patterns, colors, and moods. The length of each artist's set, the amount of music and artists that were planned for each day allowed for longer sets and in so doing, each group had the ability to get in the groove and flow through their entire presentation. No rushing, plenty of room to craft the sound around each band configuration. It actually reminded me of the old school shows, with a natural spirit and flow to the proceedings. Memories of attending a Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica came flooding back, Dead shows, P-Funk concerts, in venues where the sound, the lights, the comfort zone of the musicians and the DJ’s came first.
I was also struck by the quality of the festival announcers, many of which were female, which was a nice variance to the norm of late, interesting energy and information, with the ability to retain the attention of audience that gathered between sets.
There had been some grumbling from hardcore reggae fans about the lack of “Jamaican” artists on the lineup this year. Some changes had occurred in the initial lineup which shifted the balance in this area slightly. But a few Yardie entertainers made the scene, one was an artist I have watched grow since first witnessing him “buss” at Rebel Salute back in the days of radio bans for “Fire Pon Rome” a time that signifies the beginning of the "fire" era and its blowtorches.
As the smell of sage instead wafted through the air, Anthony B touched the stage giving what is his usual high energy, message-filled, dance-infused show. With sounds like “Living My Life” which rolls into a power pop lead guitar jam that finds him and the band members hopping and rocking out, AB has proven himself worthy of some of music’s most prestigious stages worldwide. I was most impressed by his mini-lesson in love that he gave to the VIP kids section in the photo pit. Towards the end of the set while introducing the tune “Rasta Love” he told the youth that this song was for them, and reminded them that they had to love themselves, reciting the lyrics in his spoken voice to them and connecting with them to make sure they “overstood” the message. He then gave them all CD’s of his music making a few trips to ensure he had enough giveaways.
The festival features a dome that sits just to the side of the stage and it blasts off as soon as sets on stage end. Sound systems and artists transform the dome into a high-test blend of fuel for the dancing fire. YT of Small Axe sound was at the controls for what turned into a true session, with artists taking the mic to drop some scientific fire. Jagga Culture, Portland’s own Jamaican MC made his statements but also offered the mic to his fellow mc’s. At the same time, Selecta Element of Seattle’s Zion Gate Sound worked the effects component, contributing to what is truly a collective spirit amongst the DJ’s. Selecta Element held down his own sets throughout the weekend, and I spent a few precious daytime moments in the shade of the dome checking out his world class sets as well as a killer one by DJ Chukki from Seattle.
Big respect to the DJ’s in the scene, as this translates throughout the dancehall/club collective in the Pacific Northwest, with performers, sharing the stage with selectors from up and down the coast. Sharing the mic this night was Bobby Hustle, a part of the Dynasty Records camp out of Seattle. Bobby has several songs on ferocious riddims from Dynasty and a seasoned, confident performance style that can be tested by some of dancehall’s biggest names. His voice is strong and sweet at the same time, with lyrics and flow to match. He had the massive under his spell into the wee hours of Saturday morning. Dynasty has some strong riddims for Bobby Hustle, on the “Alive” “Steady Flow” and “City Streetz Riddim.” The summer Party Town riddim with “Tun It Up” was the climax of his performance, and the floor was packed to prove di dome ‘tun up.
Taking the mic after a trade or two was Messenjah Selah whose range and stature as a deep roots Rasta singjay brought him guest performances both in the dance/dome and on stage on Saturday where he linked with the Escort Service to free up the people with his incredible vocal range and lyrics that stay true to the spiritual foundation.
Saturday and Sunday saw the love of dance and drum power the stage in the afternoon, Loveness Wesa Dance Troupe came with serious dance moves and percussion, as well as Zimbabwean and Southern African vocals & language that offered a formidable demonstration of how the Portland area is a hub for African culture.
Exhibiting what could be the most unique concept in youth groups and empowerment for young girls, Jah Breeze of Seattle has now formed the South Shore Girls Pan Ensemble. A native of Guyana, Breeze has been a promoter, media representative and now instructor and bandleader in the community. South Shore girls were well prepared to play some jazz standards, reggae classics and more on the steel pans. It is a great thing to see the youth, and in particular the girls, nurtured and given this opportunity to learn about the music industry. As Jah Breeze explained, he was inspired to do this work from being exposed to Baba Olatunji, the late virtuoso percussionist from Nigeria.
When the group visited the press tent, he further outlined how significant their training is and what it entails for them as they participate in large-scale events throughout the area selling their merchandise, setting up their steel pan drums, working as a professional music group. He also made mention of the fact that there is a lot to take in for young people at such an event, all of the alternative lifestyle tendencies notwithstanding, and that the girls had lots of questions which he and their parents on hand had patiently and lovingly answered throughout the festival.
South Shore girls performed two times on Saturday, once in the afternoon and once later in the day to present an opening prime time extravaganza for Marcia Griffiths. We were all beaming with pride for both the girls and their fearless leader Jah Breeze.
Through the years, I had never seen Toussaint perform in the live setting since his critically acclaimed release Black Gold released on I-Grade Records and recorded in St. Croix. What a treat! He seemed comfortable with the Escort Service and their wondrous horns, which had to play a major role in his musical presentation. The Escort Service also has these fantastic back up singers who fed unique harmonies to the ensemble.
Toussaint, is the consummate performer with his big baritone, wise phrasing and confidence, his show is like a revival under a gospel tent. He gives you something to feel, something to think about, something sway to, under the reggae banner. Towards the end of his set of originals, he broke into Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and transitioned to “What’s Goin’ On?” giving a nod to his consciousness as an African American based on the East Coast of the U.S. and originally from Muncie, Indiana.
The U.S. Virgin Islands was well represented on Saturday’s festival, with the great Bambu Station, another group that I have been in the same location as, but not been able to break away from the work duties of festivals to actually check out live. Now was my chance, as their song “Chance to Grow” sings, “Every situation is a chance to grow, every sunrise another chance to sow, our hands in soil, we beg and borrow, it is all in what you know.”
They are really righteous, one of the groups that takes ideas from reggae’s past, and melds them with a contemporary vibe, you could call it a V.I. sound, but it is uniquely theirs. The band members give harmonies to support the lead vocalist, but they also take the lead at varied times during the set. Serious vibes and forwards from the audience were the result. It felt again, like the dynamics of live reggae’s past - shows I can recall that blew my mind, textures that build and strengthen, the space between the notes providing the senses with a sense of comfort and ease.
And as a perfect segue, my hometown sound, Blessed Coast filled the dome with some of the greatest grooves north of Kingston city. Pure creative spins here, all killer no filler, as usual, and yet without as many of their usual flip the script mashups that they break out in the weekly 500+ capacity Wild Out Wednesday. They also have one of the scene’s best websites, blessedcoast.com with a constant mix stream of dub specials. I was checking out DJ’s Triple Crown and Ryan I during that set from up in the hilltop area where I was visiting with Cat and Loppy of Crucial Vibes Unlimited, a vital merchant team and sponsor of the festival.
The next act on the docket was Marcia Griffiths, and before the royal empress of reggae made her appearance, the vocal mic was put to the test, and what was found, seemed to be of concern by those testing out the sound for her imminent arrival to the stage.
The monitor mix was not giving proper amplified representation to those testing the mic. One of the band members from Bambu Station actually discussed the same issue with me backstage after their press conference, noting a similar concern they had for their own set. I determined that what the performers heard was different than what we heard due to the festival organizer’s need to contain the sound from the neighbors, and in so doing built it outward into the natural amphitheater.
Things got sorted, and Marcia came out in resplendent costume giving her usual string of hits and high-energy performance. Her biggest hit, (and one of reggae’s biggest) “Electric Slide” was the opportunity to invite dancers on stage to do the infamous dance with her. She invited “those that know the Electric Slide” to come up. After a few females made the trek up to the stage, she announced that she would like to see more males up there (after thanking the sisters up there already). Toussaint made the scene, smiling broadly and executing the moves perfectly. Also several members of the South Shore Girls Pan Ensemble came up to dance as well as Jah Breeze, so it turned into a joyful party.
Closing the show on Saturday was the ultimate reggae jam band, Midnite and they got started just after their namesake, at about 12:20 and did not finish until after 3am, a legendary situation they are often in! Kindly and generously, in the midst a particularly long jam during “Zion Healing Place” lead singer Vaughn Benjamin suggested, “I don’t know what time it is, I only know the penetration of the message,” and it showed. Midnite played some of the classics, “Rasta to the Bone,” “Roll Call” and one of my faves “Kaaba Stone” - the latter a nod perhaps to Vaughn’s birthday which was that Saturday. “I am the original kaaba stone ….” “White Collar Criminal” rang true and “True King Spirit” became a 17.5 minute frequency builder while “Native Story” stilled the jins as it tells a tale from St. Croix, with its refrain, …”situation legendary”.
The freestyles that these artist/singers create are like a trance that the players restore and build the center to the finish, as if there is no end, infinite grooves. Brother Ronnie Benjamin peppers his bass playing direction with shouts, more like funky shrieks at the top of crescendos. The organizers of this event have had Midnite many times, so they cherish, uplift, and plan for their lengthy sets, making their sound requirements come off with ease, and reaching the heights of ethereal effects on the lighting, smoke, lasers, completing the sound. And when a song ends, in its own abrupt yet gentle finish, those same shrieks of joy echo from the audience.
I had made plans to travel out of reggae utopia on Sunday, but was able to come to the show in the morning, hearing some of DJ Crown of Brimstone Sound’s supreme conscious mix in the dome that doubled as a day care area with kiddies swinging on the lower dome’s metal bars.
What did I miss? Alika, who had a change of plans and performed with Quinto Sol but with her selector. I also missed Sashamon, Alcyon Massive, Trinidadian children’s performer Asheba in an evening “adult” set, and Clinton Fearon, original Gladiator who now lives in Seattle.
I also missed the movies in the deep woods that included a Sugar Minott Tribute montage, the great Holding on to Jah and more. There is yoga, soccer camp and lots of trees…at this current location. Apparently the organizers are seeking a new location for next year, but as I said, it is utopia and hopes are that they carry the same vibes to the next location for many more NWWRF’s to come.