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Taken from Press-Telegram (Feb 17, 2006)

Keeping the spirit of Bob Marley

Ragga Muffins Festival celebrates 25th year with eclectic lineup

by Paul Andersen, Correspondent

Michael FrantiTHE ANNUAL Ragga Muffins Festival (formerly the Bob Marley Day Festival), taking place Saturday and Sunday at the Long Beach Arena, is marking its 25th year with an eclectic lineup of artists that covers the spectrum of reggae music, from dancehall to lover's rock and beyond, culminating with a performance Sunday night by Marley's former band, the Wailers, a fitting conclusion to a celebration of the music that the late superstar did so much in bringing out of Jamaica and sharing with the world.

"It has changed in the sense that the crowd is different now, with a new generation having been added," explained Barbara Barabino, a longtime reggae radio deejay and the founder and president of Ragga Muffins Productions, which has put together the festival since its start. "And over the years, we've branched out in our booking; we've moved away from basic reggae, which has occasionally drawn a little criticism, but in truth it supports the vision of 'one love, one heart' that was so important to Marley. There is enough segregation and isolation in the world already without adding more to it."

One look at this year's lineup provides a vivid illustration of Barabino's philosophy. Besides the Wailers, other veteran reggae stars include Gregory Isaacs, Lee "Scratch" Perry and Freddie McGregor (all contemporaries of Marley). Also scheduled are second generation follower Luciano and newer artists like Michael Franti, whose socially conscious music initially came from a hip-hop background, and Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jew who has made a big commercial and media splash by celebrating Judaism in classic dancehall reggae style.

"I've been to the last 16 festivals, and finally I'm realizing a dream this year," said Chapter 11 vocalist Scott Groveunder, who goes by the name of Daddy Scotty when he is performing with his band. The Long Beach-based 10-member band, formed by Groveunder and three other musician friends in 1998, will open the festival on Saturday with what could well be one of the weekend's most spirited performances.

"I've been a deejay (at the Ragga Muffins Festival) the last two years, but now we're finally playing it ourselves, and instead of looking up at it, we'll be on that stage," Groveunder said. "It's a great feeling, being there with all these artists that we've loved all these years.

"The coolest thing," added Groveunder, "is that Bob Marley was the first one to turn me on to this music, and this festival has always honored his spirit. I always told myself one day I'll get to play it, and here we are this year."

McGregor was one of the artists booked for the first Bob Marley Day Festival 25 years ago, so it is somehow fitting that he is part of this year's lineup (he plays on Saturday).

"I've had all sorts of people calling me about it," he laughed over the phone from Jamaica. "They look at the lineup and say, 'This is a great one, we want to go there with you." I guess the timing is just right. I'm just happy that I'm still out here after 43 years of playing music, still connecting with people."

Looking back over the years, McGregor said he doesn't really think about future goals.

"Sure, you could win a Grammy Award (he's been nominated before) or attain platinum sales with your albums, but even if you don't, there really shouldn't be any sense of failure (in not doing it). After all, if you can connect with a few million people, something which I think I've achieved, that is really the joy of doing this. Music is my job, and I don't think I could have done that in any other profession."

In the coming months, Michael Franti will be releasing a film, a DVD, a CD and a book while continuing to tour with his band, Spearhead. The film, "I Know I'm Not Alone," was shot on a 2004 trip to Iraq, Israel and Palestine.

"It was just me and my guitar, playing on street corners, hospitals, anywhere I could connect with people over there," Franti said by phone from his Bay Area home. "Music is such an essential part of our lives, and it was intensely eye opening going over there, seeing all the effects that war has on people past the bullets and bombs. Whether they were American soldiers or members of an Iraqi heavy metal band, music inspires people."

Franti admitted that there were a lot of tense moments during filming.

"It was especially scary at night," he said. "You could hear mortar fire in the distance, and small arms fire, and a lot of nights I'd be up until three or four in the morning. But I was able to leave any time I wanted; the soldiers over there, and of course, the people living there, they didn't have that luxury."

One of the interesting things that Franti found on his trip was that people invariably wanted to hear songs about love and relationships and human connecting; songs about conflict and war were not on his playlist.

"That is why this festival is so meaningful, because here's Bob Marley, who certainly wrote a lot of songs about resistance and social issues, but he also wrote some beautiful songs about love and just dancing the night away," he said. "And playing a festival is like playing a big party, and like any festival, it is a tribal setting. You balance things. You learn to dance and party, but you also learn to quiet things down, and build on that empathy you have, so you deliver something more."

Twenty-five years later, the spirit of Bob Marley will no doubt be smiling down on Long Beach this weekend.

Paul Andersen is an Altadena freelance writer


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