The Kaya Fest took place over the weekend in San Bernardino, California, celebrating 40 years since the release of Bob Marley’s landmark album, Kaya. Marley’s children got a bunch of their friends and fellow reggae legends together to fill the NOS Events Center with positive vibrations.
Words by CJ Gronner Photos by Paul Gronner
The rasta vibrations were felt the minute you walked up, with Roots Of Creation providing the beats, as we checked in and went to get the lay of the land. There was a rasta bus called the “Irie Bird” and the kind people from Greenwood Farmz were supplying everyone with the kaya that we were celebrating. They also had coffee, tea, water, lollipops and shade, so it was an excellent place to take a load off during the day. Thanks to the Irie Family!
Native Wayne took the stage to introduce Jamaican legend, Marcia Griffiths, who made me say “Wow” when she took the stage, so regal and elegant was she in her cape and headdress. It was super hot, super sunny, and the audience was probably the most colorful one I’ve ever seen. Rastafari colors of red, green, and yellow were the order of the day, but any color was good, as long as there was a lot of it. There were many women in awesome turbans and a whole lot of dreadlocks. JAH! Rastafari.
“Sweet Bitter Love” was awesome, and the bass was so heavy that I could feel it in my heart. I heard mention of someone nearly losing their bowels from the bass, so it was no joke (though other factors may also have contributed). We were in the presence of Reggae Royalty – and would be all weekend. “I Shall Sing” made everyone shout afterwards, when Griffiths yelled, “Is everyone feeling Irie?!” I mean, how could you not be? Griffiths ended her set with “Buffalo Soldier” and had everyone singing along.
Between the heat and the long lines at the food and bar booths (and the even longer lines at the bathrooms), it was an endurance festival, for sure. Paul got an acai bowl to give him back life, and that allowed him to get in the photo pit to shoot Common Kings, who took the stage to the Game Of Thrones theme. I didn’t yet know the Common Kings, but the ladies did, as there were several high-pitched shrieks when the singer came out with his coiffed facial hair and green satin Bob Marley jacket. It was harder rock reggae, with shreddy guitar solos. “Lost In Paradise” seems to be their big hit, though “24/7” got all the ladies worked up with its “You taste so good to me, I know you love it when I go harder”. They got the crowd dancing, and the guitarist even took his licks out into the crowd while the singer shouted, “Love! Love! Love!” It was just that kind of a day.
We took the long lull between bands to walk the grounds and see what we could see. We found Paul a sweatband to keep sweat from dripping in his eyes while he shot, and we cooled off over by the fountains at the entrance. There were merch tents, food booths, a dancehall, a yoga area and plenty of grassy areas for people to relax (or collapse) on as you did some fantastic people watching.
“The bad boys of reggae music” were up next, and that meant Inner Circle. The band (formed in 1968) opened with “One Draw” and its “I wanna get high… so high” opening got yells from the crowd, who were mostly doing exactly that. The party anthem of the weekend might have been Inner Circle’s “Young, Wild & Free”, with everyone singing along, “So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed? We’re just having fun, we don’t care who sees!” What a blast. “Sweet Jamaica is calling you!” yelled the singer to close their short set, and he was right. I can’t wait to return to sweet, wonderful Jamaica.
As the sun was setting, the pink full moon was rising. That also meant it got chilly, and we were high-fiving ourselves that we’d chosen to lug around our jackets all day. The bathroom lines were so long that it caused me to miss most all of Yandel, who sounded very Latino. He had dancers shaking it and he played some catchy jams, but I assure everyone that I never, ever, need someone ever to yell “Make some noise!” again. I bet we heard it 10,000 times this weekend. Paul turned to me and said, “Is this Reggae? Ton?” Haaa. Yes, I think it is.
We left the venue at this point to try and find some food. There was a taco place nearby with one lady working with her two remaining ingredients. No go. Back to the venue, stomachs growling. By now, most of the food booths had shut down because they’d run out of everything. We got back in time for “The Mighty Toots and the Maytals!” and all was forgotten.
“Beautiful people, it’s good to be here!” shouted the wonderful and legendary Toots Hibbert, clad in all rasta colors. “Pressure Drop” kicked things off and got everyone dancing again, and then he strapped on a guitar for the classic, “Never Grow Old”. It was as awesome as expected, as was “Funky Kingston”. Hibbert was buff and spry and rocking, and you’d never guess the dude was 75! The set felt a little short (perhaps because they were so far behind), but we got “Monkey Man” and an extended jam to end their time. Long live Toots and The Maytals!
The entire venue was PACKED (I overheard someone say the venue was 6,000 capacity, but they’d let in 13,000, explaining the long lines), and they were all there to see the Marley brothers. It felt exciting, as if everyone had collectively found their second wind. I ran into an entire crew from Venice, and Block got everyone together for a photo by the Kaya album cover. It’s always fun to run into Venice when you’re out of town, and that it was for the Kaya Fest, made it even better. The hype man hyped everyone up, and the whole crowd was singing along to recorded Marley tunes. Skip Marley (son of Cedella Marley) came out and got everyone hyped for the Marleys with his tune, “Calm Down”. He is clearly carrying on the family tradition, and both looks and sounds the part, especially when he shouted, “One Love! One life to live!”
Jo Mersa Marley (son of Stephen) gave us “Burn It Down”, and he brought out his “little brother” Johan, for some more reassurance that the Marley name is in good hands. Arms and flags were waving in the audience as Jo Mersa yelled, “Say ‘Love’ if you’re with me!” “LOVE!!!!!” Yes. We were in exactly the right place in the world that we needed to be right then.
By the time the sons of Bob Marley took the stage, it was ON. Ziggy, Stephen, Jr. Gong (Damian), Kymani, and Julian Marley took the stage together as every lighter in there (yes, lighters, not phones) was way up under the pink moon to welcome this legendary and historic family. It was awesome.
“Do you love Bob Marley?!” was the question, and thunderous shouts were the answer in the affirmative. How cool for his kids that they live their lives knowing how beloved their father was – by everyone in the world. They do him justice, and carry on his legacy with love. And every Bob Marley song still has significance today. A lady near me said, “It’s weird how his lyrics are still so true now.” And they are. They played “Crazy Baldhead”, changing the lyrics to “Chase those crazy Marleys out of town!” The entire crowd sang along for every song, because we all know those true lyrics for a lifetime. It felt very special, and it was.
“Kaya” was the first track played, appropriately, and the crowd went wild. I got emotional, like choked up and teary-eyed, totally out of the blue. I think it was that it just felt so good to have so many people feeling the same vibes, originally put out there 40 years ago. All the Marleys are wonderful, but when Damian takes over, it’s a whole different thing. He gets the crowd riled all the way up, and the energy is instantly jacked up a whole bunch of notches. He spat out some riffs on “Kaya” and immediately updated the tune for the right now. He said, “We are the Marley brothers!” and we all just felt grateful to be there.
“Rastaman Vibrations” brought the positivity, and Ziggy went solo on an acoustic guitar. “So Much Trouble In The World” was next, and found the brothers alternating verses, as they did on most of the tunes. It wasn’t all about Kaya either, as we got deeper Marley tracks like “The Heathen” and Damian Marley’s “More Justice” hyped up the crowd anew.
“Misty Morning” had Stephen taking lead, and Damian dancing around the entire time. “Is This Love?” featured Julian Marley on lead vocals, and he fired it up with extra enthusiasm. Kaya has so many classic Marley tunes on it, it’s almost a greatest hits album. A must own. “Rebel Music” and “Top Rankin'” were off other albums, so you got something from everything. “They don’t want us to unite” is a verse, and also, too bad for “They”. We were a super united group in this space and time – something the whole world would do well to emulate.
“We and Dem” led into “Get Up, Stand Up”, and it really did feel like it could go all night and no one would care (aside from aching feet and backs, starvation and full bladders). “Satisfy My Soul” kept the grooving going. Julian Marley took over for a tune of his I didn’t know, and it was then that I noticed that there were about as many people on the stage as in the audience. The crowd had doubled from just Marley friends and family, and they were all having a blast.
Kymani Marley’s “All We Need Is Love” was great, as was Ziggy Marley’s new title track from his new album (Rebellion Rises – out May 18). There are many new Marley albums, and Damian next played “Medication” off of his excellent recent release, Stony Hill. He also explained that “Kaya” means “cannabis” – we got it. After that party jam, Ziggy said, “We’d like to welcome our friend, he was raging against machines, and now he’s a prophet of rage!” With that, Tom Morello took the stage to join the brothers for “Exodus”.
The brothers all lined up, bouncing in excitement, as they knew Morello was about to blow some already very blown minds. When it came time for Morello’s solo, he went nuts. Metal arpeggios to the constant “Exodus” backbeat might have been incongruous, but it worked, and definitely got the people all amped up. When he went for the solo with his teeth, he revealed that the back of his guitar had a “Fuck Trump” sign on it, and that got huge cheers all the way to the back row. Damian and Morello jogged in place together all the way to the last note, yelling, “We love you!” at the end. It was SO good.
We got one more, the timeless, “Could You Be Loved?”, and it was so happy and festive in there, you just wanted to bottle it. The Marley brothers took a group bow, with their flag-bearer waving the Jamaican flag behind them, waving as they left an entire event venue exhausted and totally spent, but happy and IRIE.
We limped back to the car and, after a long while of looking for a room in the fully sold out town, we headed back to Venice to sleep a couple hours, bathe, and head back out to San Bernardino to do it all again. JAH! Rastafari.
*All photos by Paul Gronner Photography
I have to be honest here, and say that, after the Kaya Festival Day One found us getting back to Venice at almost 4 a.m., I was kind of surprised when my brother texted to say he was on his way to grab me for Day Two. Once I got over the shock, I found my rally cap and we were back on the road. Knowing what we knew now about the event held at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino, we knew we needed a proper meal before getting there. We also made some other minor adjustments – like not carrying a heavy-ass bag all day. We looked up “Best Breakfast in San Bernardino” and came up with “Kountry Folks Family Restaurant”. I don’t believe in chains on road trips, and this place was definitely a trip. There were Bible verses everywhere, and families tucking into big plates of chicken and waffles. Yep. We were good (I subbed the waffle for the delicious cinnamon roll french toast – excellent decision).
After getting as full as possible for another super long concert day, we headed over to the NOS, knowing we were even later than the day before – but at least we were there! The early bands we missed – and apologize to – were Jah Stix, Bambaata Marley (son of Ziggy, who I was told isn’t reggae at all, but straight up hip hop, and now I’m bummed to have missed), Kabaka Pyramid, and most of Third World, who were playing as we rolled in. The good news was that the festival was once again mega behind schedule, so we were in better shape than we had thought. De La Ghetto was the soundtrack in the background as we once again met up with the new Day One friends in the Irie Bird bus, comparing notes and getting caught up. I’m not sure who was playing at this point, but we heard an opera aria blasting, and it elevated us all for a moment. A cool moment.
Zion Y Lennox were a reggaeton duo singing in Spanish, so I didn’t know any of their songs, but they were all fun, celebratory jams that had everyone dancing in their colorful garb in the golden hour sunshine, feeling fine. They were from Puerto Rico and they had dancing girls in bright red outfits, and I dug them. That’s the gist.
“Are you ready for Chronixx?!” This was asked no less than 10 times … and dude still didn’t come out. DJ Sway kept on asking, and Chronixx kept on lagging. It was good they were spinning classic Bob Marley tunes to keep everyone grooving, because it was getting ridiculous. “I don’t want to wait in vain … for Chronixx” was the new verse. FINALLY, “The voice of the future”, Chronixx took the stage with a big Haile Selassie banner behind him. He has a rather feminine voice, I thought, and people were digging it, but I was kind of indifferent – as was he, it seemed. It was a sluggish performance, and it’s probably because was stoned, which is probably why it took him so long to get his ass on stage. It was cool, and so was everyone else. Chronixx gave a JAH! Rastafari speech, and that set the tone for more Marley.
Stephen Marley – the organizer of the Kaya Festival – gave us a solo acoustic turn of the Kaya hits next, with a subtle opening of seated conga drumming to “Time Will Tell”. This is my favorite, the traditional, the rootsy, the flag waver behind the son of Bob Marley singing one of his all time best tunes. It was sublime. “Excuse me while I light my spliff” … which everyone did for “Easy Skanking”, and you almost could close your eyes and imagine it was Bob, as I think Stephen sounds the most like him.
“She’s Gone” was wonderful, and then Kymani Marley came out to join his brother for “Sun Is Shining”, and then Julian Marley joined for “Running Away”. No one could have loved it more, but then Stephen introduced “My youngest brother, Damian Marley” and the place again went insane. After playing “Kaya”, Damian said, “We’re here to celebrate kaya!” and then played his own “Medication” about kaya. All you saw in every direction were the widest smiles, and that is what this festival really is all about. After thank you’s from the Marleys, we were given another long break…
Until the mighty Cypress Hill took the stage! I had to get into the pit for this and, after all of the Marleys, this was my favorite act of the weekend. B Real, Sen Dog, and Mixmaster Mike tore the place up, kicking it off with “I Wanna Get High”. Festival appropriate, for real. B Real exhaled a big puff of smoke from an onstage j to let us all know that “Dr. Greenthumb” was in the house.
“Hits From The Bong” kept the hits coming (musical and weed), and when B Real (in fine form, I must say. Prophets Of Rage is keeping him sharp!) yelled, “Are you having fun at the Kaya Fest with godddamn Cypress Hill?!”, he could be sure that everyone was, based on the roar that went up. “Hand On The Pump” killed it, and led right into “Shoot ‘Em Up”, and, as I watched Sen Dog, I recalled how about ten years ago to the day the guy saved me from a righteous hangover with one of his medicinal remedies when we were on the same tour together. Never forget.
“The Phuncky Feel One” told me how B Real got the name for his Phunkcy Feel tips, and also showcased “Mixmaster motherfucking Mike!” Yeaaaaah. “We’re gonna play this next one real aggressive”, and play “Shots Go Off” aggressively they did. Phew. “Wanna do some Latino shit, Sen Dog?” asked B Real, and they did, but I don’t know the name of that one. Lo Siento. “Rock Superstar” was classic and amazing, as is the fact that these dudes have been doing exactly this for over 20 years now. “We try to keep it hype in this bitch, alright?!” They sure did, when they hit us with the trifecta of “Kill A Man”, “Ain’t Going Out Like That”, and “Insane In The Membrane” all at once! “Ain’t no party like a West Coast party, ’cause a West Coast party don’t stop!” It really did feel like it would never stop – and that we’d be more than o.k. with that. We all took a group photo with peace signs raised, and BAM. Cypress Hill was out of there, having taken no prisoners.
SOJA was up next, and though they’re not really my thing, they are many peoples’ thing, because there was a lot of singing along and female shrieking. The man next to me said, “OK … It is what it is.” I would have bet money that the white guy led reggae band with many members would have been from Colorado or Hawaii, but it turned out to be D.C. Huh. Homie next to me said, “You gotta respect them just for playing. That’s what this Festival is all about.” He was right, and right when I was thinking that they should not have followed Cypress Hill (!), the singer said, “I went through high school listening to Cypress Hill! I had every t-shirt that there was!”, so then I thought he was cooler. That’s the thing about festivals too, every act is someone’s favorite.
I heard so many people singing along to every SOJA word, and overheard a woman saying that they were the only reason that she had made the trip, so there really was something for everyone, and everyone was happy. Until we had to literally wait over an hour for Lauryn Hill to take the stage. UGH. It was the 20th Anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an album that meant SO much to me that it was really WHY we came back out for Day Two. Now we were all standing there, packed in, sore, exhausted, hungry, thirsty (everything had closed down as it was now well past 1:00 in the morning), listening to DJ dude yell “Are you ready for Ms. Lauryn Hill?!” even more times than he’d asked if we were ready for Chronixx. YES. WE WERE. It was outrageous, and you could tell the DJ and the crew were feeling the heat as people in the crowd were yelling “Let’s GO!” over and over (in between singing along to “Three Little Birds” to calm our asses down).
Ms. Hill must realize that the people that love and care about her seminal album the most probably have sitters and jobs and things to get back to on the next Monday morning that was fast approaching, and we were all still waiting for her in San Bernardino. “We apologize for the technical difficulties”, said the DJ, but I’m pretty sure it was just diva stuff. It shortchanges the artist too, because now everyone was getting tired of it, and crabby, and when “Make some noise for Lauryn Hill!” was yelled for the 100th time without her showing, there was almost no noise left to make. “I can’t hear you!” – yeah, because we’re nearly dead. The band finally started intro music, that they kept having to repeat, to where we all really thought she wasn’t going to show. Then, like a marvelous vision, Lauryn Hill (or we might have just been sleep-deprived hallucinating, but I’m pretty sure it was her)!
Clad in a long fur coat and a golden headdress, Ms. Hill came out to happy – and relieved – applause, and then said, “You’re gonna have to bring the energy up!” Yeah, you’re right, except that YOU are gonna have to do that, Lady. I love her, but I was pissed too. “Everything Is Everything” made sure that (almost) all was forgiven. It – and she – are still so so good. I gather that Hill is a bit of a control freak, based on her constant directing and giving orders … the woman is IN. CHARGE. “Ex Factor” showed off a powerful woman in total command, and more gorgeous than ever. She was already dabbing sweat off of her face, so maybe the fur coat could have been tossed out to me to warm up in (San Bernardino gets freezing cold at night, we discovered). Anyway, her rapping was on laser point, and we all remembered just exactly why her album was such a monster hit.
“You can get the money, you can get the power, but keep your eyes on the final hour!” “Final Hour” got us all sweating, and when they said, “Ms. Hill at Kaya Fest is real!” we finally believed it. “Lost Ones” is one of my all time favorite jams, and I just heard it live! I was rocking out on that one, and my brother came out of the photo pit and gestured “Let’s go” (it was after 2 a.m. and brother had to work the next morning – AND still drive back to Venice!), I was o.k. to, because this was a high note for me. I can’t stand to – and almost never do – leave early, because you never know what you’ll miss, but I knew that Hill was taking her whole show on the road this summer, so I can catch it when we’re not beat down reggae festival zombies.
We walked back to the car singing. We drove back to Venice singing (mainly to stay awake and alive). I’m still singing now, with memories of a sunny weekend in sunny California with reggae lovers and a whole bunch of believers in One Love … because that really IS what it’s all about, and this weekend proved it once again.
One more time … JAH! Rastafari.
*All photos by Paul Gronner Photography