The eleventh annual Bob Marley Festival is headed to Bayfront Park on Saturday, February 7, and this year ticket prices are $28 plus four cans of food. Permit us some nostalgia when we say, "Remember the good ol' days?"
Before '99, the Marley Festival was a day of spiritual enlightenment. It was a time to commune with burnout friends, listen to some happy tunes, and maybe take a few tokes of the wacky tobaccy while in the arms of some free-loving Rasta hippie. Then something happened: Instead of nitty-gritty performers, the festival started booking acts with more MTV appeal. Gone were the wailers and the melody makers of yesteryear with their positive message of unity and feeling all right. In their place were sugarcoated R&B and hip-hop acts like Nas and Guru from Gang Starr, punctuated by an appearance from Marley's mother for that authentic "Rasta" feel.
It didn't work. Nobody was fooled. A lot of the island vibe was lost. Although it is true that the festival has continued to book reggae performers, these mainstream acts brought with them suburban, middle-class fans eager for a chance to hang with Nas and company. In their minds, these "gangsters" thought they were chilling on the rough streets of N.Y.C. They didn't realize that it wasn't that kind of party. "It hasn't been the same, bro," says Ismael Gonzalez, a long-time fan of the festival. "They put on a bunch of people that have nothing to do with true reggae, and then they expect you to pay for dishonoring the memory. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but at least I gave some food to charities, right?"
The "memory" that Gonzalez speaks of is the legend of the late Bob Marley. The roots reggae singer achieved a following akin to a modern-day mystic. His songs were anthems of social activism, equality, and love in the name of the Most High. He grew up poor and died rich, but it was never about the money for him, and it definitely wasn't about the glitter. So why have the past few Marley Festivals felt more like the MTV Beach House?
Miami's own Johnny Dread is a veteran of the festival, having missed only two opportunities to perform since its inception in 1994; once when he was on tour in Costa Rica, and another time when traffic caused his band to be late to the venue. The promoters wanted him to play an unrehearsed, unplugged version of his set. Dread, a perfectionist, declined. He is not your everyday, up-and-coming reggae act. It's fairly (pun intended) obvious why, for when the waiter spots Dread aimlessly staring at the sea from his patio table at TGI Friday's in South Beach, he doesn't waste any time pointing out ever so tactfully: "Dude, you have the coolest dreads I have ever seen on a white guy!"
Dread was born Juan Carlos Guardiola. If that name sounds familiar, it's because back in the day, before he was in the music pages, he was in the local sports pages. As a high school student he was a star basketball player for Christopher Columbus High School, a Catholic parochial school in Miami's Westchester area. He then went on to play for Florida International University on a basketball scholarship. Though raised Catholic and more of a jock than a musician, this man with a deep, coarse beard and dreadlocks ten years in the making now takes the stage in the name of the Emperor Haile Selassie I and the Rastafarian faith.
Dread first rose to musical fame with the band Copacetic, where he played with Anthony Booker, Bob Marley's youngest brother. The group had some success with the 1990 album Ghetto Rock, which reached number seven on Billboard's top reggae album chart before Dread left for reasons he won't get into. (He does admit, however, that the whole experience left him "confused, disillusioned, and meditative.") Now on the heels of his third solo album, Magnificent People: The Book of Revelations, Chapter Two, he is set to share the stage alongside other acts like Damian, Julian, and Stephen Marley; India.Arie; Steel Pulse; Culture; and Nasio Fontaine.
So what does our homegrown expert Dread have to say about this year's festival? "I think it's getting back on track, man. This year they're going back to the roots. Culture is going to be there. Those guys are the real deal, man. They were friends with the man [Bob Marley] himself. That guy is a walking prophet, man. Even Steel Pulse, who for a while there kind of lost their way, have come back to embracing their roots. They even wrote a song about it," says Dread before wandering off into his own rendition of Steel Pulse's "Back to My Roots." "Everyone always comes back to the roots, man -- the roots being Haile Selassie," he adds.
But what about the ticket prices, Johnny? $28!
"The price is the price, man. I don't dally into that. I do it for the love of it. That's it, Johnny Dread does it for the love of it," he says, obviously annoyed that the subject has even been broached. As for the notion that the festival has lately been kinder to dancehall and reggaetón acts like Sean Paul or Shaggy, with a more commercial appeal, he says, "These guys are delinquents, man.... Reggae is alive, it's a tree, it doesn't lie. What you are getting now --reggaetón. These guys are like leaves far away from the roots. Johnny Dread is a fruit, a fruit from the root." He laughs a little and continues, "[Roots reggae] differs because we have a meditation in our music. It's Rastafari! It's a celebration. It's a prayer. The sole reason reggae was invented was to praise Jah."