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Cali Roots festival co-producer and talent-buyer Dan Sheehan | Courtesy of Joe Wilson, Bulldog Media

Cali Roots’ Dan Sheehan: “Reggae Is the Heartbeat of the Festival” (The Interview)

By Stephen Cooper

Last summer the New York Times reported that Grammy-nominated reggae star Chronixx told a crowd during one of his electric performances: “This is the beautiful sound of reggae music from the island of Jamaica. Look amongst yourselves. You’ll see people from all different races, with all different color faces. And that in itself is the power of music.”

Well, attention music lovers, especially if you’re craving a memorably mellow, meaningful escape this Memorial Day weekend: Chronixx will be leading a large contingent of red-hot music stars descending on Monterey, California; they’ll be bringing that unifying power of music about which Chronixx eloquently spoke – especially sweet reggae music from Jamaica – to the 9th annual California Roots Music and Arts Festival (known colloquially as “Cali Roots”). As co-producer and talent-buyer Dan Sheehan put it: “For us, reggae is the heartbeat of the festival, and it will always be the heartbeat of the festival. There’s no doubt about that.”

Just over a month before Cali Roots opens its gates, I interviewed Sheehan on April 20th or 4/20, a day historically, albeit mysteriously, associated with marijuana consumption in the United States. The many topics we discussed included: the legalization of marijuana in California and its effect on events like Cali Roots; Cali Roots’ exponential growth into one of the most iconic music festivals in the world; freedom of expression and engaging politically through music; the challenges of running a major music festival including an insider-look into talent-booking; misconceptions that have long-surrounded the name “Cali Roots”; festival upgrades and other important event information. What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

(Click on image to enlarge poster)

Q: Dan, thanks for taking the time during what I’m guessing is a busy period with final preparations to host the 9th annual Cali Roots. Can you believe it’s only a month away?

Dan Sheehan: (Sighs) Gosh. Well, it’s 35 days. We still have five weeks to go. (Laughing)

Q: (Laughing) You don’t want me to shortchange you any days you have left [to prepare]?

Dan Sheehan: Yeah. We’re a month away from being on-site. It’s a little scary.

Q: As a longtime lover of reggae music, from the jump I want to thank you for your work over many years — I understand it’s about two decades now, maybe more — that you’ve been promoting reggae music in the United States?

Dan Sheehan:  Yeah. I grew up in Hawaii, so I grew up with reggae on the radio. Hawaii is one of the only places in the U.S. where commercial radio plays reggae all day. So I grew up on Aswad, Gregory Isaacs, Burning Spear, The Gladiators. And obviously, Bob. And Israel Vibration. My first show was Aswad when I was seven or eight years old. And I’ve been promoting reggae since [the] first show [I produced] in 1996.

Q: Is it true you began promoting music after an experience pitching one of your favorite bands to [the] Reggae on the River [music festival]?

Dan Sheehan: You’ve done your homework. Yes, absolutely. I found out about Reggae on the River in a High Times [magazine]. Which is pretty ironic since High Times took over Reggae on the River. Yeah, I found this little article, and I told all [my] boyz, “dude, we gotta go to this!” And I fell in love with it my first time. [So,] the next year, growing up in Hawaii, I had a connection to a band called Natural Vibrations, and I thought, man, they’d be perfect for this! And I was hitting up [the producers of Reggae on the River] pretty often. And that was back [in the day] when there weren’t many emails. Emails were scarce. So, it was a lot of phone calls. And [they] finally said, “Alright, Dan, we’ll get them on.” And they played at noon on Sunday at [that next] Reggae on the River.

Q: And that was long before you joined up with your co-partner, the founder of Cali Roots, Jeff Monser, in what I believe was the third year of Cali Roots’ history?

Dan Sheehan: Absolutely, yeah, that was well before that. That [Reggae on the River experience promoting Natural Vibrations] kinda kicked me off to do [more] shows. I got the bug. I moved to Guam for a couple of years to be the music director for an all-island reggae [radio] station out there.

Q: Wow. What was that station called?

Dan Sheehan: 93.9. It was an all-reggae, all-island station. I did promotions for them as well, and so I was able to do a couple of my own shows. And [also,] I got to be a part of some of the bigger shows that the beer companies brought in. Then, I moved back to California to really pursue [promoting] shows. And I did shows from Seattle to San Diego. Really [also] cut our teeth doing shows back in Hawaii. Bringing bands over. Which taught us a lot [about] logistics and operational techniques, to, you know, keep doing what we’re doing, and be able to produce large scale [music] festivals. It was a lot of work to do those shows.

Q: Interesting. And it helps to explain how Cali Roots has been successful. Clearly, it’s come a long way from being essentially a backyard party in year one to [now being considered] a world-renowned reggae festival. You must be very proud of what Cali Roots has accomplished over the last nine years, and how it’s grown?

Dan Sheehan: Absolutely. When Jeff [Monser] first started [Cali Roots] in 2010, I don’t think he had any idea it would become what it is now. It’s an iconic event. And in the reggae community, it’s definitely a strong event. With the bookings, I really try to [incorporate] a Caribbean vibe: to have an artist like Chronixx, and Protoje, and Raging Fyah. And bringing in some of the legends like Don Carlos, or Barrington [Levy], or like this year with Alpha Blondy. It’s a fine balance. We’re trying to pay tribute to the roots of reggae, which kind of gets forgotten sometimes. It’s important that the roots of reggae are brought to the forefront. Unfortunately, at the same time, I’m also in the music business, and the key word [there] is ‘business.’

Q: I’m going to ask you a few detailed questions about this distinction between roots reggae and some of the other music Cali Roots promotes. But, before we get to that, since you mentioned how iconic a festival Cali Roots has become, I wanted to note how impressive it was that Jamaica’s oldest, largest, and most respected daily newspaper, The Gleaner, published an article announcing the names of the first round of artists booked for this year’s festival; the article was titled “Chronixx, Steel Pulse, Raging Fyah to thrill California Reggae Festival.” And to me, what I found to be so impressive about that, other than just the fact that it shows what a giant influential music festival Cali Roots has become — is that this article was published in October of 2017 – more than 6 months prior to the festival! That must have been exciting for you to get that kind of buzz in the Jamaican mainstream press, especially so early, concerning this ninth annual Cali Roots?

Dan Sheehan: Absolutely. Any time we can get something published in The Gleaner [about Cali Roots], I’m pretty stoked. I think it’s important that people in Jamaica know what we’re doing. I’m a huge fan of the new [music] that’s coming out of Jamaica; the Raging Fyah guys are great, [and then] there’s Chronixx who is really good. We had Anthony B [perform] a couple of years ago. So, yeah, to get that recognition from a Jamaican newspaper, and in October, like you said, that’s pretty strong.   

Q: Definitely. Now, was what I said at the beginning accurate — that this is a busy time for you, a month or so prior to the festival? Or, is the bulk of what you and your team do to prepare and promote the festival already done by now? What work is there still left to do at this point?

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