Words by Jesse Serwer
For 30 years, a remote, riverside campsite near Piercy, California has been a crucial stop on the reggae music road map. French’s Camp, along the Eel River in Humboldt County, hosted the first Reggae on the River in 1984; What started as a fundraiser for a nearby community center featuring mostly local acts quickly grew into one of the best-loved and most popular international reggae festivals, and the template for many other events to follow. Today, Reggae on the River, which will hold its 31st edition July 30th through August 2nd, is likely the longest-running annual event of its kind anywhere in the USA.
Although the festival has gone through some changes, growing and contracting and then growing again, and relocating for a brief time to a different location, it retains its original feel as a community-oriented event with a distinct local flavor. It is still volunteer-run, with funds going towards the non-profit Mateel Community Center, and it retains a family-friendly vibe, with many guests camping overnight and availing themselves of the opportunity to swim and kayak along the Eel River.
Bruce Champie, a longtime volunteer for the Mateel Community Center, who has been involved with Reggae on the River since its inception, explains its origination:
“This guy named Jack Arthur had this big property on the Eel River and he wanted to do something with it, and Mateel wanted to do an event,” says Champie, who also performed as part of Rod and the I-deals, a local Humboldt County group that performed at early editions of Reggae in the River. “We did a small rock and roll event, then we decided to try a reggae event, and it went good. We liked the music, we liked he people, we liked the ganja.” Though a handful of reggae acts had been been booked in area venues before, the events helped solidify a connection between Jamaica and Humboldt County, two places that had become world-renowned as capitals of ganja growing and consumption, but which perhaps lacked a means of direct dialogue between one another. “It was a world-class blend of culture. We were similar people, with similar ideas, and we loved the same music.”
The Itals and The Melodians were the lone Jamaican acts on the first year of Reggae on the River, but as word of the event spread, acts such as Jimmy Cliff, Third World and Israel Vibration became staples, returning year after year. Word spread through California and, eventually out to the rest of the US and abroad, that on the first weekend of every August, you could catch some really good reggae acts from Jamaica in Humboldt County.
“Reggae Beat, which became The Beat magazine, featured the festival, and that got us national, or even international, notoriety,” recalls Brian Elie, a longtime volunteer for the Mateel Community Center and the host of “Brian’s World” on local radio station KMUD. “Once it exploded, everyone wanted to play here.”
Reggae on the River also provided a valuable function as a meeting place for people from disparate parts of Humboldt County to get together once a year. “We had a lot of hippie-type cultures in Humboldt with not a lot of access to each other except for the grocery store,” Champie says. “So this festival became a really big, focal point.”
Expanding from a one-day concert to a three-day, weekend-long festival, Reggae on the River took on a broader musical scope in the ’90s, booking acts from Africa and elsewhere in the Caribbean, many of whom were making their first trips to the West Coast. “For many years, we had this cool world music thing called Africa Fete, which was a tour of African and Caribbean acts, usually out of France,” Elie says. “Africa Fete would play NYC, Chicago, Toronto, just a few major cities, then Piercy, California. That’s where we first heard Angelique Kidjo.”
As dancehall’s popularity grew in the States in the late ’90s and early 2000s, top acts like Bounty Killer, Sean Paul and Baby Cham were booked at Reggae on the River. In a lineup that has likely not been reproduced anywhere else, Vybz Kartel, Machel Montano and Slightly Stoopid all performed on the same night in 2003. As with anything that starts out small and grows bigger than anticipated, Reggae on the River experienced some growing pains and, in 2008, it was relocated from the Eel River to nearby Benbow State Park.
“It became Reggae Rising for a year and then we retained the name and we started over like it was in the beginning with roots, family, reggae, strollers and a beautiful few evenings camping at the state park,” Champie says. “And then a few years ago we had a triumphant return to the old property, and we’ve been making that better each year.”
Where most festivals of its size are either vehicles for promoters or rely on corporate or government funding, Reggae on the River still feels like a genuine community project, and for many therein lies the appeal. “There is really a strong sense of family among the people putting it on,” Elie says. “It’s not any one person, it’s a vast amount of people that make this thing happen, and they are proud of it, as they should be. That’s the key to it. It’s never really been about the money.”
In what has become an annual Humboldt rite, a bridge is constructed across the Eel River during the weeks before Reggae on the River, providing a physical as well as symbolic welcoming point for all those who attend.
“It’s like building our ark to bring Jamaica to Humboldt,” Champie says. “It’s two railroad cars embedded in each side and we build curbs and railings, and it opens up the venue. We make the bridge over the Eel River and invite the world to comer over to our festival.”
The 31st edition of Reggae on the River, from July 30th through August 2nd, will feature performances from Protoje, Collie Buddz, Cham, Stephen Marley, Tarrus Riley, The Congos, Alborosie, Ce’Cile, King Jammy’s and more. Tickets are available here.
Here’s some classic shots from the early years of Reggae on the River.
(Photos by Becky Higgins-Charles, Agnes Patak and unknown photographers).