Reggae on the River and the Past and Future of Music Festivals

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Our cultivation columnists were at many of the OG music festivals, from The Rainbow Gathering to Goa’s infamous trance parties. Now, they wonder, what will happen to these events when profit margins become more important than community?

This piece was originally published on MERRY JANE on July 15th, 2019.
While communal gatherings have always existed, festivals as we know them today really started with the birth of rock n’ roll, some good drugs, curious hippies, and a groovy venue. Since the beginning of humankind, the urge to meet your neighbors, sell your livestock, and hopefully find suitable partners has found expression in tribal gatherings. Certainly some form of rhythmic beats and dancing was always involved. For centuries, indigenous tribes in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle held the annual White Deerskin Dance,a religious ceremony and gathering of up to 16 days filled with music, prayer, and dance. The Rainbow Festivals, which have been in existence since 1972 across the USA, could be called a close relative.Old timers will remember the famous three-day Monterey Pop Festival of June 1967, Janice Joplin’s break out moment, and the Newport Jazz festivals which have been around since 1954. Across the Atlantic, the legendary Isle of Wight Festival started in 1968, with an estimated 700,000 people attending in 1970. Inland, the mythic Glastonbury Festival started in 1970, and continues to attract over 300,000 people each year it’s held.

While the huge festivals we see today generally last a long weekend, they were born out of the free concerts sponsored by the hippie generation in the mid-to-late 1960s. How well Swami and I both recall many Saturday afternoons waking up to the sounds of Jefferson Airplane floating across the sky from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, or the stoned riffs and lyrics of the Grateful DeadBig Brother, and the Holding Company, and so many more who helped carry the message of the counterculture.  Off we would go to join the joyous throngs of dancing young people, arms in the air, many half-naked, and almost all tripping on psychedelics. The euphoric sense of freedom and love was palpable, sweet, and totally liberating. Joints were shared, communes were formed, and a whole new lifestyle was spawned.

The first really large music concert in Golden Gate Park was the infamous Human Be-In on January 14, 1967. LSD had just been deemed an illegal substance in October of 1966, and approximately 25,000 people came out to hear psychedelic guru Timothy Learyboldly proclaim: “Turn on, Tune in, and Drop Out.” Everything was free, including the “… acid, incense, and balloons” that Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane sang about. Participants were encouraged to bring their “families, animals, drums, chimes and flowers.” On top of the music, poets and revolutionaries spoke, while Allen Ginsburg chanted Hindu mantras. It was wild.

In August of 1969, Woodstock happened. This was the first US festival that lasted for more than an afternoon, as over 400,000 young people flocked to the now-infamous farm in Upstate New York. The swaths of hippies were not about to pay to get in, so they clamored over fences and eventually the producers were forced to admit it had become a free event. They stayed all weekend. It truly was a “happening.”


Above, a photo of the first Human Be-In

In December, 1969, the festival movement in the US was shaken up at Altamont, due to several deaths that occurred. It was generally regarded as a “bad trip.” Swami was there and parlayed his recently-expired KQED employee pass into backstage access for a van full of hippie compatriots. Up until the Rolling Stones came on at sunset, an hour late, it was a great day of sunshine, music, and beautiful young people stretched out on the grassy amphitheater. That changed suddenly as the crowd surged forward, threatening to crush those in the front row up against the barriers, as the band played “Sympathy for the Devil.” That’s when the Hell’s Angels, acting as “security,” beat an unlucky spectator to death. Three accidental deaths also happened that fateful day, with two hit and run fatalities and one man who clearly took too much acid and drowned in an irrigation canal.

The festival scene revived very slowly after that, with much smaller events. One of the longest-running is still the Annual Rainbow Gathering, which started in 1972 with about 2,000 thousand people camping out in the wilderness for a week. A year later,  after hopping a freight train across Idaho, Swami stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His ride said they were going right to the gathering, so he tagged along with a backpack and sleeping bag, but no tent. Not to worry, he was immediately taken in by some hippies he knew from the Haight-Ashbury scene. The Rainbow Gathering was never about famous bands playing their hits; it’s always been about living in the wilderness with conscious people, learning and sharing each other’s joy in life.

At the start of the ‘70s, many hippies left the cities to join the back-to-the-land movement and settled in remote places like the Emerald Triangle in NorCal. We chose to venture off with the part of the clan that hit the hippie trail across Europe, the Middle East, and on to Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and beyond.

A small group of hippie pioneers from around the world made it to Goa, a former Portuguese colony and tiny tropical state on the West Coast of India, facing the Arabian Sea. It was the perfect place to drop out and do some business, too, as it had always been a haven for smugglers of spices, cashews, gold, and other treasures from the subcontinent.

Days were spent hanging out in the makeshift cafes, lounging naked on the beaches, eating tropical fruit, and getting high. And often secretly packing suitcases full of hashish to carry back to Europe or the States. Traveling “freaks” from all over India congregated for the notorious “Full Moon Parties” on the beach or in the jungle. These went all night and on into the day until the sun got too hot. Mostly, they featured itinerant rock bands or jam bands of whatever musicians were on hand, playing music through scratchy old speakers. In the early days, most people were sleeping in palm frond huts on the beach, or in shared houses under the coconut trees, so it really was like a non-stop party festival.

By the late ‘80s, as electronic trance music was beginning to take off in Europe, big name DJs came to Goa to escape the harsh winters and party in the tropics. Party producers found it was so much easier to plug a tape recorder into those same funky speakers and let the DJ rip, and not have to worry about putting a band together from random traveling musicians. And the music could just keep on going and going and going. BOOM BOOM BOOM. It pounded across the rice paddies, under the palms, all through the warm tropical nights, while the 1/16th note bassline synth kept the ravers dancing. At the fringes of the parties, local Goans set up small “chai shops” on mats, serving coffee, chai, sweets, and snacks. Everyone was tripping on acid or smoking hashish mixed with tobacco via traditional Indian smoking rigs called chillums. People just didn’t want to leave, and the party never seemed to end.

At least four nights a week in Anjuna — the hip little village in Goa where we lived for several years — we would be awakened at about midnight to the thumping beats and know there was a party somewhere. Lying in bed, we’d decide if we were up to go out and join the dancers. Often, it was just too alluring, so we’d get up, drink some coffee, smoke a bowl of hash, and maybe take a hit of acid. Then, we’d be off to find the party. Most often, we’d get there about an hour before dawn, get in some good dancing, and be totally into it by sunrise. What a way to start the day!

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the concept of these overnight festivals blossomed. OG trance DJs like Goa Gil, Shpongle, and Paul Oakenfold spread out from India and began to travel the globe to share the scene, the music, and the psychedelic initiations. Before long, every continent (well, maybe not Antartica) was home to 48 hour parties where people would bring a small tent and sleeping bag, some water and snacks, and their favorite substances. It was simple, after all — when tripping on a regular basis, how much “stuff” do you really need?


A photo of a party in Goa, India

It was 1999 when, during one evening sitting around his dhuni(sacred fire), Goa Gil mentioned that “no one in California knows how to organize a good party.” Nikki took that as a direct challenge, and returned to San Francisco, where she had been co-producing underground raves for a couple of years. Through a friend, she met this guy named Tim Blake, who had a piece of land up in Mendocino County. It was a dump, but we made it work, and that October we hosted the first Goa Gil Birthday Bash at what would become known as Area 101, future home of the Emerald Cup. 500 freaks showed up for the first one, and 1,000 for the second one the following May. People loved the idea of a full weekend together, instead of just a one-night affair in the city. The idea clicked and Goa Gil got his great parties in California, which continue today every May and October.

While there have been country music festivals and county fairs for many centuries, these are not usually participatory affairs: the audience is a spectator, not co-creators. In contrast, the Burning Man Festival has always had a philosophy of “No Spectators, Everyone Is a Participant.” For us, the best part of doing a music festival is always the process of helping plan it, setting up, partying on, and then breaking down the site. The high from bringing to life such a magical shared vision, and then seeing it transform lives as people get in the groove, is worth all the investment of time and money.

Nikki’s passion around parties is to create sacred spaces to be grounding stations for serious trippers. Back when she was a teenager, there would be no one to guide her through the night at San Francisco dance halls. Her give-back was to be there for the younger generation and offer them a place to chill out and be at one with the universe. During our years of traveling the globe, we had sent back to the USA many many statues from all traditions, which were all featured on elaborate altars. The message was simply, “If the gods can all play together, so can we.”

At Burning Man, we ramped it up, building themed camps on the Esplanade (the main street on the playa) with enormous installations that took weeks to create. Inside would go the lifesize Buddha or six-foot Shiva Nataraj. People would curl up on the Buddha’s lap — the magic was working! These were all community projects, and the collaborative efforts tightened our clan even more. Such is the nature of festivals. Back in the late ‘90s, we would erect a stage way out in the desert and pound electronic music. Then, it was an acquired taste, and we were not allowed closer to the actual festival. Renegades forever!

Burning Man is unique in that there is supposedly nothing for sale, no vendors, and no advertising. Most of the smaller festivals actually depend on the fees they charge the vendors to break even, or (rarely) make a profit. Many of the original hippie festivals (dare I say most?) were funded by local drug dealers of some sort. It was a generous way for them to give back, and — let’s be honest — also offered them a large customer base.


Earthdance photo via Kim Sallaway

Around here in the Emerald Triangle, obviously, they were blackmarket cannabis growers. Over the years, harvest celebrations turned into elaborate events, such as The Emerald Cup, whose attendance has grown from about three hundred in 2003, to over thirty thousand weed lovers in 2018. From the very beginning, Nikki and Swami have been the chief flower judges, coordinating the efforts of what Swami has called “The Supreme Court of Cannabis.”

Earthdance was born in Northern California and spread across the globe to 50 countries and over 160 cities. For many years, Earthdance was held just a few miles from our Mendocino ranch, and we would install numerous large bronze statues of the Buddha, Ganesh, and Shiva Nataraj (the dancing form of the God of Yoga), to create the feeling that this was a sacred space, a sacred celebration.

Reggae on the River in Humboldt County, also grew to be very popular. The first one was a benefit to rebuild the Mateel Community Center after it burned down in 1984. Coincidentally, there were a number Jamaican people living in the area, so it wasn’t difficult to round up some awesome bands to perform. A large picturesque location on the Eel River was secured, and for over 20 years it kept growing and growing. Partiers would gladly drive the four hours from San Francisco to smoke great bud, frolic in the river, hear rockin’ reggae, and meet other great people. They also were willing to pay for it, but over time ticket prices kept rising to keep up with costs.

Many of the mid-sized festivals (up to 10,000 people) have been having problems with attendance lately. Much is due to an over-abundance of them, and the fact their small budgets do not suffice to book the biggest name acts, which go to the mega-festivals. But perhaps the main reason is the high cost of tickets. The smaller festivals now must compete with the mega-festivals, such as Bonnaroo and Coachella, Outside Lands, Hardly Strictly — the ones with hundreds of thousands in attendance and big stars on stage. In addition, there are festivals all summer long in every state, to say nothing about festivals all over Europe every weekend. Plus, there are now festivals in Japan, India, Indonesia, Israel, South Africa, Brazil… you name it.


Above, an early edition of Reggae on the River

In year’s past, much of the community of northern Mendocino and Southern Humboldt County was totally involved in “Reggae,” as locals simply called the festival. It had become a tradition to sign up for volunteer shifts or vendor spaces or offer whatever you could do to be a part of it every August. A rift among producers, the landlord, and others happened in 2006, so it moved down the river a short ways to a new site — and it also went through some other changes. But basically, it was still Reggae. It eventually returned to the original site, where it has stayed since. The locals depended on it, and so, as they say, “the show must go on.” Until this year.

With falling attendance, the Mateel Center was struggling to fund the event again, and so it brought in High Times to co-produce the annual festival.

And High Times blew it.

By the end of June, they had sold so few tickets they cancelled the event. One reason given is that they did not advertise it enough other than in their own publication. The “real” reason, according to trustworthy sources, is that they chose to hire their own out of town crews and not invite back the regular vendors, local volunteers, employees, and non-profit booths. High Times alienated those who had been the real “backbone” of the event, and who also depended on the income made each year at the festival. Hence, SoHum and the Reggae community stood up and said “no” to High Times, and nobody bought tickets.

“The Mateel Community Center is disappointed, shocked, and saddened regarding the cancellation of Reggae on the River 2019. We are feeling the pain of the community for the loss of local income and much more a tradition,” the community center’s Board of Directors said in a statement.

This further upset the hotels and businesses in the area who would suffer badly as a result of the cancellation. So the Mateel Center announced this past week that they will host a smaller version at the actual Community Center in the town of Garberville, featuring legends Toots and the Maytals. The show will go on! But it won’t be with High Times.

We’d need a crystal ball to see the future of music festivals over the next decade. If the popularity of the mega-festivals continues, will they overpower the sweet smaller gatherings? According to one report, 198,000 tickets were sold for Coachella last year and attendees spent at least $399 per person for basic admission for each weekend of the festival. That doesn’t count the cost of food and drink at festival prices. That’s a far ways from the free music concerts in the park of the ‘60s.

And you know, when corporate money comes in, that means the new mega festivals are staffed by union workers. It no longer takes a village, but a permitted crew getting paid overtime. We have nothing against unions protecting their members, but their employment excludes the locals and extinguishes the collaborative hippie culture which gave birth to the festivals so long ago. It is also noteworthy that the High Times Cannabis Cup held in June in Santa Rosa was very poorly attended. Like the average music festival, High Times has evolved from a countercultural platform to a corporate, profit-chasing endeavor. And the individuals who originally bolstered it are now the ones getting the short end of the stick.

Let us continue to celebrate the local artists and craftsmen and producers of the smaller festivals, along with the smaller craft cannabis farmers. We are all the same family, ultimately in the business of creating joy for others. The Mateel Mission Statement sums it up very well:

The Mateel Community Center seeks to involve all segments of the community in the creative actualization of a cultural vision embracing diversity, vitality, justice, and sustainability. Our programs and events serve changing community needs, emphasizing the performing and visual arts.

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