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From the Jamaican countryside, reggae legend Bunny Wailer picks up his landline with a bombastic introduction that would make any reggae disciple tremble in humility: "Greetings, this is Bunny!" The crackly connection reverberates like his 1981 classic dub tune "Rise and Shine."
Born Neville O'Riley Livingston, Bunny, along with stepbrother Bob Marley and childhood friend Peter Tosh, formed the Wailers in 1963. Eventually, the three went separate ways and became solo reggae superstars, but Bunny, the last living Wailer, has always displayed an Irie cool about his success. Staying true to his Rastafarian beliefs, he's kept a relatively low profile for the past four decades, usually preferring to tend his organic farm outside Kingston.
Not that Bunny has ever ignored music. He boasts two dozen solo albums and three Grammy awards since the '70s, and still manages to stay current. Lately he's been melding his traditional roots-reggae style with modern-day dancehall, proving a reggae originator can hold forth with the best of them.
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It is by the sheer grace of Jah Almighty that South Floridians are privy to Bunny's only U.S. performance in 2009, at the first edition of the homegrown festival called DubFest, this Saturday at Hollywood Arts Park. "I've been wanting to play for my people in Florida, but the timing has to be right," he says. "You can't be playing every time you get asked, because it loses its specialness. Remember the saying, 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder'? It's truer than you know."
Bunny is not the only rarely appearing reggae legend to headline DubFest. Also on the bill is Lee "Scratch" Perry, coincidentally one of the first producers of the Wailers in the early '70s. Perry is often credited as a founder of the reggae offshoot known as dub and has been labeled one of the most important living producers of all time.
Snagging both Bunny and Perry for the first version of a locally produced music festival seems nearly impossible. But creator Jesse Stoll says he lives by the old adage "If there's a will, there's a way."
"It all just kind of came together in an organic fashion. I know we wanted to do a festival that took in the environment of South Florida, the beaches, the proximity to the Caribbean, the ocean," Stoll says. "It's more than a music festival but a lifestyle festival that celebrates the surfing, skating, and roots-reggae culture that's so prevalent down here."
Local scene watchers know Stoll comes from innovative music promotion stock. His father, the late Jon Stoll, founded Fantasma Productions, one of the last independently run concert promotion businesses in the country. (It was subsumed into both Live Nation and AEG Live after the elder Stoll's death last year.)
His father created extravaganzas such as West Palm Beach's SunFest and Live Oak's Wanee Festival from the ground up, and the similar from-scratch process for DubFest excited Jesse Stoll. "I really loved the creation process of producing an event," he says. "Of what goes on behind the scenes, of making sure the band's taken care of, of the promotions and marketing, of understanding what makes people want to buy tickets."
Adds Stoll: "From my observation, there are three things to making a successful event — location, timing, and the concept — and DubFest has all that." He's right.
First, take location: The newly renovated Hollywood Arts Park in downtown Hollywood represents a halfway point between Key West and Fort Pierce. And it boasts not only a state-of-the-art sound stage but also singing baobab trees and interactive water fountains perfect for kids and kids-at-heart.
Next, there's the timing: Labor Day weekend. So what if it's in the middle of hurricane season — so far this year, South Florida has been lucky.
Finally, the concept itself is a winner. DubFest will attract diehard roots-reggae fans, plus it pays homage to an entire seaside lifestyle and musical universe. Nineties ska acts such as Goldfinger and Big Reel Fish will share center stage with buzz-worthy newbies such as Ballyhoo and Soja. And don't forget Badfish, the ultimate tribute band to the ultimate roots-rock-crossover band, Sublime.
So with all three elements expertly sequenced, Stoll is confident DubFest will leave a lasting impression on the local festival circuit. "Our hope is that we will be able to bring DubFest back again next year but do it bigger and better," he says. "We want this to be a yearly destination that helps stimulate the local economy, boost tourism, and also launch new artists into the mainstream." With that sort of motivation, Stoll is ready to fulfill his father's legacy.