Reggae vs. Reggae 

After a bitter dispute, a new festival rises up to replace Reggae on the River

It was a dread-ful moment, to be sure. This spring, the Mateel Community Center and People Productions — partners for 23 years in Humboldt's annual irie-athon, Reggae on the River — each announced separate festivals. The kicker was that both were listed as happening August 3-5 in the same location (albeit with different lineups). To say confusion reigned would be an understatement.

The conflict had been brewing since at least last October when the promotional force behind the festival, Carol Bruno of People Productions, says she was abruptly fired by the Mateel Center. In January, the center handed the festival's production contract to Boots Hughston's 2b1 Multimedia (best known for running the now-defunct Maritime Hall in San Francisco). Only problem was, while Mateel owned the rights to the Reggae on the River name, it didn't own the land the concert was being presented at.

That privilege fell to Tom Dimmick, whose ranch was conveniently located next to French's Camp, where the festival was held for most of its existence. After the 2005 event, at which point the owner of French's Camp decided not to extend the festival's lease, Dimmick stepped in. "I never would have done that if I hadn't been a neighbor to it for all these years," he says, adding that he grew up listening to the festival and holds the utmost respect for People Productions: "Carol Bruno, she's a true champion. There's no way in the world I would have ever housed the event if it wasn't for her capable hands."

Dimmick said Mateel's dismissal of Bruno "was totally unacceptable to me." He maintains that the community center violated its lease by bringing in an outside promoter, and he used that rationale to sever his arrangement with Mateel. Numerous, often-contentious attempts at mediation — including one proposal, Dimmick confirms, which would have paid Mateel upward of $200,000 a year to license the Reggae on the River name for a decade — failed. "We offered to basically do the event for free," he said. "Take the money and be happy for the next ten years. That wasn't acceptable to them."

At that point, Bruno and Dimmick decided to go ahead with their own festival, to be called Reggae Rising. Still-pending litigation ensued, as well as chaos among the Reggae on the River faithful, who were being forced to choose sides. As Bruno says, "there's a lot of cloudiness" regarding the dispute. "It's all been blown way out of proportion," Dimmick adds. (Neither the Mateel Community Center nor 2b1 Multimedia responded to calls and e-mails seeking comment.)

Bruno and Dimmick say the conflict arose because of money: specifically, the unforeseen infrastructure costs associated with moving the festival site. "The result was the community center didn't earn the money they needed," Bruno says. After Reggae Rising was announced, Mateel's lawyers argued for an injunction, but a judge upheld Dimmick's property rights. The day after the injunction was denied, Reggae Rising announced that it had booked three big names: Ziggy, Damian, and Stephen Marley. The Marley sons had considerable history dealing with People Productions; as Ghetto Youth crew, Damian and Stephen were first booked in 1998, long before their ascension to headliner status. Soon after that, Reggae Rising sent another shot across 2b1's bow, announcing the booking of reggae legends Sly & Robbie and Horace Andy.

On May 16, Hughston issued a statement through the Reggae on the River site officially canceling the festival and refunding tickets already purchased. "We held out as long as possible in hopes of a resolution," he wrote. "The Mateel has tried everything in their power to convince Dimmick Ranch to settle fairly and in good faith." Mateel's own statement was more succinct: "We tried."

On June 26, Reggae Rising got the green light from the Humboldt County planning commission, which evidently felt the loss of the festival would be too severe an economic blow. But while Bruno readily acknowledges the financial importance of the event for the Humboldt community, she's quick to add that it's not just about the money — it's about the vibe. "It's very important economically and it's important spiritually for the universe," she maintains.

For her part, Bruno has chosen not to dwell on the acrimony. "I've been meditating," she says. "I've tried not to feed into the negativity." Dimmick is likewise weary of the protracted conflict. "I'm not really comfortable speaking about it," he said. "I'm hoping that at some point cooler heads will prevail and come up with a settlement that's acceptable to all the parties."

In the meantime, there's still a festival. Past years have occasionally featured numerous world-music acts, but as Bruno notes, "The lineup this year is more of a roots lineup." She's equally excited that there are several women performers booked (including Queen Omega and Luna Angel), while Dimmick says he's looking forward to a repeat of last year's showstopping performance by Sly & Robbie and to the other talented acts ranging from up-and-comer Collie Budz to veterans like the Abyssinians. Putting all politics aside, Dimmick says he's concentrating his energy on a good show: "We've dedicated Reggae Rising to the music." As the saying goes, who feels it knows it.

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