Makeda Dread keeping reggae in the San Diego air.
“It was pretty scanty,” says Ras Charles about the turnout at last year’s Tribute to the Reggae Legends show at the Sports Arena. “You could have played football in there.”
Charles had a vendors’ booth for 15 years at the festival, which was previously known as the Bob Marley Day Festival. He says he will not be back this year to sell Jamaican crafts, T-shirts, and posters. “Every year I see the quality of artists dropping and the size of the crowd keeps going down. They keep bringing back the same artists, like Don Carlos and Barrington Levy. They need to bring in foundation [first-generation Jamaican reggae] artists, like Burning Spear, the Melodians, and Sammy Dread.”
This year’s Legends show has been scaled back. Promoter Makeda Dread said that during peak years (2006–2009) the event brought sold-out crowds of 12,000 to the Sports Arena. She said about 7500 attended last year. This year the show will expand from one day to two but it’s been moved to the Port Pavilion at the foot of Broadway, which has a capacity of 2000.
Dread launched the first multiartist Bob Marley fest locally 30 years ago. Traditionally held on President’s Day Monday, the name of the show had to drop “Bob Marley” in 2006 following legal demands from the Bob Marley estate. The local show had many of the same artists featured at a two-day sister event held on the preceding Saturday and Sunday at the Long Beach Arena. The Long Beach series was canceled after a 22-year run when backer/copromoter Moss Jacobs pulled out. Jacobs had also backed Dread’s San Diego show for 16 years. Jacobs’s exit meant Dread could only continue the Legends show locally if she got her own sponsors and became financially responsible for the event.
Because the Long Beach festival is gone, Dread is confident many L.A./Orange County reggae fans will come south for the only Reggae of Legends show left standing. Yet, she knows there is risk. “Right now, all of music is in trouble, but reggae especially,” says Dread. Other longstanding annual reggae festivals, including Reggae Rising (Humboldt) and Ragga Muffins (L.A.), have also bitten the dust.
“Some reggae artists are big in Europe and Africa, but they just aren’t coming to America as much,” says Dread.
Then, there are the challenges unique to reggae promoters.
“People are begging for Eek-A-Mouse, but we can’t get him in the country. Buju Banton is in jail for drugs, and there is always concern over Beenie Man and Capleton because of homophobic lyrics. In the old days, Jamaican artists didn’t need work permits to come play here. Now you have to get immigration and work permits.”
There are also horror stories about reggae agents. “I know a promoter in Colombia who paid $10,000 for a 50 percent deposit to get Sizzla. It turned out that agent didn’t really represent Sizzla. You might have someone out there saying he’s taking deposits for Bunny Wailer. Then Bunny could turn around and say, ‘He doesn’t represent me.’”
Regarding Ras Charles’s charges that the Legends show should have more roots artists: “Burning Spear is in retirement. I don’t know if Sammy Dread can get in the country. To be in this business you have to know what’s going on. I know all the artists on this bill will show up.”
Dread says she is proud that she can now pick her own sponsors. “We went local instead of corporate. We got Dr. Bonner’s Soap and Stone beer. Stone is local and it’s good beer. When we did it at the Sports Arena we had to sell Budweiser for $12 [a cup].... We had no control.”
Makeda mandated other changes. “The building we’ll be in is a green building. There will be no Styrofoam.... We refuse to get punked by Ticketmaster anymore, so we’re using a ticket company called Purple Pass.... And no more rude radio. When 91X had a ‘Resurrection Weekend’ a few months ago they invited all the DJs from back in the day. I was there for 25 years. I was the only black woman on the radio locally. But they didn’t invite me back.”
Dread now has a reggae show Saturdays from 7 to 10 p.m. on Pala reservation’s new “Res Radio” (KOPA 91.3 FM) and Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. on 102.5 FM. “I don’t have to deal with racism and disrespect in corporate radio.” She also streams music on a web station connected with worldbeatcenter.org. She says all the proceeds from the show will benefit the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park, which she runs. “We need drums for our outreach, we need a new dance floor, and we need children’s garden tools. If the community doesn’t support, there will be no Worldbeat Culture Center and no reggae fest. It’s not like Makeda gets a new Mercedes.”
But aren’t ticket prices ($65 per day or $120 for both) a little steep? “If you see Steel Pulse at the Belly Up or the Wailers at House of Blues, those tickets are $60.”
This year’s Legends show will feature 20 artists and will be held Saturday and Sunday, February 18 and 19.