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Crucial Event: Ithaca Reggae Fest

I can think of a dozen good reasons for reggae fans to dedicate the weekend of June 17 & 18 to attend the Ithaca Reggae Fest in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

However, I will simplify by boiling it down to four words: 10 Ft. Ganja Plant. The mysterious throwback roots and dub masters will make a rare appearance headlining the festival, which will mark their first public performance since the summer of 2019 at Ziontific Festival and Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in western Massachusetts.  Adding to the excitement, their set will be mixed by none other than epic King Tubby’s/Channel One/Tuff Gong producer/engineer, Scientist.

What brings this reclusive collective out to play this event in Stewart Park on the southern banks of Cayuga Lake?

“How could we say no to playing a headlining set on the Ithaca Reggae Fest stage??,” exclaimed Nate Silas Richardson, 10 Ft. Ganja Plant guitarist, a longtime resident of Ithaca.

“I often walk over to Stewart Park when I need to clear my head.  I just look out at the lake and enjoy the calming effect of the expansive view.  It’s practically in my front yard, and it’s such a staple of our local community.  I have so many memories of great times from different stages of life, there by the lake. I wouldn’t let the other guys say no even if they wanted to! We are all stoked to finally bring 10 Ft. to Ithaca!  Knowing that we will be helping support efforts to preserve and protect our beautiful lake makes it a no brainer.”

This year will mark the fourth Ithaca Reggae Fest, and, as Richardson alluded to, the festival has always served to raise awareness and funds dedicated to conservation efforts of this integral place. The 2022 version will also feature a dynamic cast of modern reggae acts, including Jamaican sensation Kabaka Pyramid, New York City phenoms The Far East and JonnyGo Figure, Root Shock out of Syracuse,  and local pros Mosaic Foundation, Sim Redmond Band and Thousands of One. The event will kick off Friday evening with a not-to-be-missed Happy Hour Party featuring the one and only British dub music producer/engineer Mad Professor selecting a tribute to dub God “Lee Scratch” Perry.

Cha Cha of Mosaic Foundation.

Rootfire spoke with Ithaca Reggae Fest’s Director of Marketing, Russ Friedell, to learn more about the history of the festival and Ithaca itself as a hotspot for reggae music, as well as what to expect for this year’s event.

 

Rootfire: This will be the fourth Ithaca Reggae Fest since its inception in 2017.  Can you provide some insight into the history of the festival?   Have you been personally involved from the onset? If not, how did you become involved?

Friedell: In 2017, good friends Michael Mazza and Kevin Kinsella (John Brown’s Body, 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, I-Town Records co-founder) decided, after a number of conversations around fresh water and the history of reggae music, that Ithaca, New York, really needed a reggae festival to bring people together next to the lake that the city is situated on. In thinking about who to perform, they reached out to John Brown’s Body, who I was managing at the time, and I instantly wanted to get involved to help in the mission of bringing this beautiful idea to life.

With just over 2 months of notice, approximately 4,000 people showed up to celebrate and protect Cayuga Lake through a classic northeast reggae lineup of John Brown’s Body, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, Kevin Kinsella, Thunder Body, The Analogue Sons, Root Shock and more. We raised over $10,000 to donate towards a non-profit organization dedicated to opening access to Cayuga Lake for everyone, Discover Cayuga Lake, which they used to help purchase their new boat, The Teal.

Needless to say, it was an incredible day in the park full of love, smiles, hugs, yoga, water education and incredible music, and we knew we had created something very special to bring back the following year.

Rootfire: Can you tell me a little bit about the issues that the lake has endured and the role that it plays in the Ithaca community?

Friedell: As a reggae festival, we quickly realized that although we ourselves are concerned about the lake, it is best to bring in the professionals who know the most. And so, we are proud to have brought in a number of prominent organizations throughout the years to help us spread the word about the major issues the lake is facing, including everyone from regional organizations like the Cayuga Watershed Network and Community Science Institute, to statewide organizations like the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Cayuga Lake is one of the largest of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York at over 40 miles long, 2 miles wide and up to 435 feet deep, and serves as the public drinking water for over 40,000 people. All of the Finger Lakes ultimately flow into Lake Ontario and then down the St. Lawrence River back into the Atlantic Ocean, so in a sense clean water starts in places like Ithaca, where numerous creeks and streams flow past farms, gas stations, parking lots, etc. bringing into the water whatever is running off. One major issue facing the lake is that as climate change creates more intense weather events, farm runoff and erosion of silt into the lake cause an increase in nutrients that, coupled with higher temperatures,  lead to harmful algal blooms. An algal bloom is a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae that can affect the entire ecosystem in a number of ways, including blocking sunlight from reaching other organisms that can cause a depletion of oxygen levels in the lake.

But one of the biggest issues that our educational partners have told us we are facing is simply lack of awareness; that most people living in the Finger Lakes region don’t know much about the health of their lakes and where their drinking water comes from. And thus, helping Discover Cayuga Lake purchase their new boat, The Teal, after our first festival in 2017 was a crucial step towards opening up the lake to everyone and increasing people’s awareness of Cayuga Lake, and the issues it faces, in general.

More resources:

https://www.cayugalake.org/

https://cleancayugalake.org/

Rootfire: Focusing on Ithaca, can you speak to how this town in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York became such a hub for reggae music and an incubator for music and arts in general?

Friedell: It all really starts in the 1970s when, after traveling to Jamaica while attending Cornell University and falling in love with reggae music, John Peterson becomes a part owner of the legendary club, The Haunt. As reggae artists touring the United States at the time would typically only hit major markets like New York City, he began bringing those acts through The Haunt to help fill their tour schedules. This begins a deep love affair as upstate New York gets to experience legendary performances from some of the hottest reggae acts in a packed 200 capacity club, which included Burning Spear, Culture, Toots & The Maytals, Sugar Minott, The Meditations and Mighty Diamonds. This lead to larger acts being put on at the State Theater and Cornell University’s Bailey Hall such as Jimmy Cliff, UB40 and others.

It’s at this peak point in the 1980s when teenage Kevin Kinsella’s life is forever changed when he hears Bob Marley’s “One Love / People Get Ready” on the radio and then sees The Gladiators live at The Haunt, igniting his love of reggae music and prompting him to create a band called The Tribulations while still in high school. That band ultimately takes off, beating out 4,000 other bands to win the Yamaha Soundcheck Competition and get flown out to Los Angeles for a live taping and studio session. After graduating from high school and taking time off for the birth of his first child, he then decides to evolve the band into what becomes John Brown’s Body: one of the first national American reggae bands who would release a slew of classic albums that go on to heavily influence what is now the large American reggae scene.

In 2019, we actually partnered with The History Center of Tompkins County to detail this timeline, and you can check out our exhibit we curated together here.

Rootfire: Looking back on festivals past, are there any sets or moments in particular that stand out in your memory?

Friedell: As a huge JBB fan, the first year, in 2017, standing on the side of the stage in 80 degree weather, looking out at the crowd as the sun set and John Brown’s Body put on an incredibly powerful set, is a defining moment for me that I will never forget. Seeing all of these people coming together in celebration of clean water and reggae music with just 2 months of notice was an incredibly powerful lesson to me that, if what you are creating is true and resonates, then you simply have to create it, and the people will come.

Rootfire: Will the 2022 festival offer any new elements that have not been offered in the past?

Friedell: Absolutely. This year we are returning to our roots and lowering ticket prices to be as inclusive of the community as possible. Early Bird tickets at $10 have sold faster than in any year prior, and then increase to $20 in advance and $30 at the gate. As a family friendly festival, all children under 16 are free of charge when accompanied with a parent or guardian.

Also, unlike in previous years where we hosted pre- and after-parties at The Haunt, we will be hosting a free Welcome Happy Hour Party on Friday, June 17 from 5-9 PM with Mad Professor spinning his Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry tribute set right in Stewart Park facing out on Cayuga Lake. In addition, this year we are partnering with a number of great organizations to offer a number of other activities in addition to just reggae music:

Just as in years past, Ithaca Reggae Fest will include lakeside yoga.

  • We will have an interactive Education Village, where numerous water educators will have displays up engaging attendees in various aspects of issues facing Cayuga Lake.
  • The Yoga Farm, an international yoga teaching school, will be leading 108 sun salutations in the morning to set the intent for the day.
  • We are hosting the US Pro/Am Championships of Flatland Freestyle Skatebording. Qualifying runs on Friday June 17th and championship runs June 18th.

 

Rootfire: What can attendees expect from the Skateboard Event?

Friedell: 1st Annual Flat Attack US Pro/Am Championships of Flatland Freestyle Skateboarding. Saturday regional skate shop teams will compete in a game of skate, launch ramp jam best trick and highest ollie contest.  Skate shop teams will be invited but anyone is welcome to enter the contests.  All of the Skateboard events are free for the public to attend, no Ithaca Reggae Fest ticket needed! All the skate events are produced by AJ Kohn of the Philadelphia Skateboard Academy. http://theskateboardacademy.com/

Regional skate shop teams will compete in a game of skate, launch ramp jam best trick and highest ollie contest.

Rootfire: Focusing on the musical acts this year, who had to promise their firstborn or who sold their soul to the devil to get the elusive and mysterious 10 Ft. Ganja Plant to play?

Friedell: Hahaha, great question. I don’t know where to begin…In 2007, I moved to Ithaca, NY, to manage my brother’s rock band, Jimkata, and within the first year discovered John Brown’s Body, which led me to reggae in general. As a Phish and jamband fan, Bob Marley was the extent of the reggae I knew, so the JBB discography in the Ithaca summer just completely changed my life for the better, healing my soul in the process. That led to a deeper dive, and right there next guilty by association was 10 Ft. Ganja Plant. I think I clearly remember hearing Midnight Landing as the soundtrack to Ithaca College’s radio station, WICB’s, local concert calendar, and then just taking the deep plunge from there.

As this was on the edge of the internet takeover, though, 10 Ft. Ganja Plant was completely shrouded in mystery. No social media, no music videos, no promo photos – just albums. So, as I spent the next 10 years meeting and mingling with the incredible cast of humans that comprise the Ithaca music scene, sooner or later I met Nate Richardson, and discovered that, not only was he the keys / guitar player for John Brown’s Body in the peak Kevin years, but he was a part of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant AND he was a Phish head. Clearly, we became friends.

Fast forward to the end of 2019, when thinking about who to bring on 2020, I called Nate about the possibility of the 10 Ft., and being very familiar with the festival after performing at Reggae Fest himself in 2017 with John Brown’s Body, Nate loved the idea and trusted us as a festival to do the rare 10 Ft. performance right.

Rootfire: How did the talent buyers of the festival select Kabaka Pyramid, The Far East and JonnyGo Figure to participate over other potential acts?

Friedell: Ithaca is a global city with people of all ages coming from all over the world to attend Cornell University and Ithaca College. Walking around downtown on a weekend evening, you hear everything from Chinese to Russian to Spanish, German and French, so we want Ithaca Reggae Fest to echo that vibe.

In thinking about representing Jamaica, the beating heart of reggae music, we had seen Kabaka Pyramid perform both at The Haunt and in Denver at Cervantes in the past couple of years, and his show was so hot and fresh that it was undeniable that we wanted to bring him and his band to grace the stage to show Ithaca the cutting edge of Jamaican reggae.

In thinking about the UK, Guyanese-born British dub king Mad Professor is old friends with another member of our team and has toured through Ithaca multiple times throughout his career. And with the passing of his dear friend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in pandemic times, we knew we wanted Neil there and are so excited to have him host the free Welcome Party on Friday night to really kick the weekend off right.

Following those 3, we really want to support the regional east coast reggae scene, and thus Brooklyn’s own The Far East and JohnnyGo Figure just put out some great records in the past couple of years, and Syracuse’s Root Shock always delivers a powerful performance, while Ithaca’s own Mosaic Foundation features an incredibly powerful lead singer, Cha Cha, who is originally from Ghana.

Rootfire: What recommendations can you give to people coming from out of town in terms of other things to do in the days/evenings prior to and after the event on Friday and Saturday?

Friedell: Ithaca is heaven in the summertime. Seated at the base of one of the largest Finger Lakes in central New York, Cayuga Lake, the city is surrounded by these beautiful gorges filled with waterfalls that flow off the hills and into the lake. And New York State had the forethought to preserve all of them with camping available at a lot. Taughannock Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, but my personal favorite is Lucifer Falls at Robert Treman State Park. Then there are the classic Buttermilk Falls, Cascadilla Falls and Ithaca Falls all within the city limits! For the full Ithaca experience, we highly recommend camping at any of these great state parks.

Plenty of joy will abound at Ithaca Reggae Fest.

But Ithaca is also a budding college town city that prides itself on good food, beverage and hospitality. There are a number of great restaurants around town along with some very comfortable national hotels to rest at, all situated around The Commons, which is the open mall walking area right in the heart of the city.

It’s really the best upstate NY tourist destination, and I feel so lucky to have welcomed so many of my musician friends and family through town over the years, and can’t wait to welcome everyone back into town for Ithaca Reggae Fest!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ever since becoming deeply moved and then essentially obsessed with reggae music as a teenager, Dave has always strove to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of reggae music, Jamaica and Rastafari, the ideology and lifestyle intertwined with reggae. 

Over the years, he has interviewed many personalities throughout the reggae world including Ziggy Marley, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Bradley Nowell and many artists in the progressive roots scene.

Dave has also written and published a novel, “The Cosmic Burrito,” a tale of two friends who drive across the USA in search of the ultimate burrito. He plays ice hockey weekly for a recreational team he founded and manages, Team Rasta.

Reggae music has filled his life with a richness for which he will forever be grateful, and he gives thanks to musicians far and wide, past and present, whether they perform roots, dub, dancehall, skinhead, rocksteady or ska, whether their tools are analog or digital, as well as the producers, promoters, soundsystems, selectors and the reggae massive at large who comprise the international reggae community.

You can follow Dave on Instagram at @rootsdude and Twitter at @ElCosmicBurrito.

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