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Reggae scene holding its own in California

Published:Sunday | April 25, 2010 | 12:00 AM

For Justin Crellin, there are few more exciting sights than hundreds of nature-loving fans jamming to a reggae beat. Even after 30 years, it gets his blood pumping. Crellin is an organiser for the Reggae On The River (ROR) festival, an annual event that has its 26th staging on July 26 and 27 on the banks of the Eel River in northern California.

ROR is one of the longest-running reggae shows in the United States. This year's line-up features roots stalwarts Sly and Robbie, Sugar Minott, Pablo Moses, Sister Carol and the emerging Rootz Underground.

Crellin said ROR still attracts nearly 3,500 fans (the capacity of its venue) but the cost of tickets and accommodating artistes has forced promoters to scale back considerably on production.

"Over the past couple years we've seen a pretty steep drop in attendance at not only reggae shows, but concerts in general," Crellin told The Sunday Gleaner. "Thankfully, Reggae On The River has a staunch enough support base that the festival has been able to weather the storm."

Tough place to live

Financial commentators in the United States say the global recession and questionable fiscal policies of governor Arnold Schwarznegger have made California one of the toughest places to live in the US.

But even in tough times, the state's reggae scene is holding up says Los Angeles resident and reggae historian, Roger Steffens.

"The content of the line-ups influences how many people come, unlike five years ago when most of the big festivals sold out," Steffens explained. "For example, the annual two-day Bob Marley Day weekend in mid-February in Long Beach, now called the Raggamuffins Festival, has experienced steep declines on its Dancehall Day," he added.

The Long Beach Arena holds 12,500 people, but this year only about 4,000 showed up on Dancehall Day although Sunday sold out.

Roots shows fare best

According to Steffens, it is the summer shows which showcase mainly roots acts that fare best. Most of them are held in nature settings in the hills of northern California.

"People come as much for the hang out as the artistes, so no matter who is booked, there's still a massive crowd," he said.

The California summer reggae series starts May 30 with the two-day JazzReggae Festival at UCLA. It is followed by three mainstay events: the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival (June 18-20), ROR, and the Monterey Reggae Festival which runs from July 30-August 1.

Diehard ROR fans grew up in the California hippie counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s when they discovered Jamaican music. Crellin said they usually decide the show's line-up.

"Fans definitely influence the types of acts we book. We receive mails all the time about artistes people would like us to host," he said.

ROR was first held in 1984 as a community fund-raiser. Promoters estimate that more than 100,000 persons have attended the show since its inception.

- H.C.