Rock | Warren Smith, SNWMF Founder

Irie Magazine | ROCK - Warren Smith - SNWMF 2015

Irie Magazine | Rock | Warren Smith - SNWMF Founder

Warren Smith, SNWMF Founder


Warren Smith’s career spans over four decades in nearly all aspect of the music industry.  He produced benefit rock concerts in Northern California during the late 60s.  In the 70s, he embraced reggae music and started Epiphany Records as well as RBI (Reggae Booking International). In Jamaica, Warren produced some of the earliest recordings of Jamaican musicians and organized many of their first U.S. tours. For the past 22 years, Smith has produced the annual three day Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. It is held in Mendocino County in the little town of Boonville.  Smith programs the festival with indigenous artists from throughout the world with a concentration of reggae in its various forms. SNWMF, as it is affectionately known, reflects the belief that music has the power to move paradigms – and is committed to fostering cultural awareness and understanding.  Smith also heads Epiphany Artists, a boutique production and management company.

The Interview

IRIE. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Warren Smith: I’m lucky to work with my wife, daughter, and other family and friends to create something borne of shared convictions and a commitment so strong that we really don’t know how not to do it. It is a labour of love.
I grew up in the Northern California Delta, and ‘came of age” in the 60s in the Bay Area where I was heavily impacted by the new music of the day.  I studied economics, was active in the anti-war movement and community organizing in the late 60s and early 70s. In the later 80s, I was a stock broker for a boutique trading firm in the SF Financial District.  It was an exciting time watching all the new tech emerge and we were very active in their IPOs.  During this time, I continued to book and promote shows. In 1989, I left the stock broker world to digitalize my record label and set up new distribution. and focus full time on the music.  I love organic gardening and farming and keeping up with the current events of the day.  

IRIE. You have a long career in the reggae business. When did you first get involved in reggae music?

Warren Smith: I discovered reggae in about 1972 through friends in Berkeley.  In 1974, I put an offer in and booked Bob Marley and The Wailers to perform in Chico CA for a community nonprofit fundraiser for the alternate candidates for city council.   Bob cancelled and I ended up presenting Taj Majal, Booker-T and the Shakers.  However, my interest in reggae continued to grow.  In 1975, I was involved in the production of Toots and the Maytals, Dennis Brown and Inner Circle featuring Jacob Miller.  We did three days at Winterland in San Francisco.  Subsequently, we did a few dozen dates around the bay area and that began my serious venture to introduce reggae into the United States.
Also during this time I formed Epiphany Records and started recording in Jamaica.  Epiphany Artists’  first record release in 1977 was “Harvest Uptown” by the Soul Syndicate. During the same time, Michael “Eppy” Epstein, owner of My Father’s Place in Roslyn New York and I created a bi-coastal booking agency (Reggae Booking International – RBI).  specializing in Jamaican Reggae.  During the late 70s and early 80s we debuted many Jamaican acts to the American public.  Sometimes we had 2 to 3 bands out at the same time.

IRIE. What is it about reggae music that influenced you?

Warren Smith: The fact that it was so accessible – sung in the English language and it shared the same values I had – anti war; unity; people getting together.  The politics of reggae was very appealing to me as I was active in community organizing. 
People have supported reggae music all over the globe since the days they were first exposed to the music. Today, reggae music is being supported more by people in the world than in Jamaica itself. If we cannot acknowledge that reggae music is a global music, without borders, then we are not being truthful to ourselves. That is the reason we were very adamant about working with people from different places because everyone has their own interpretation of reggae.

IRIE. In the mid to late 70’s, you were really active in the reggae industries. Not only were you a booking agent, but you also ran the record label, Epiphany Records, and a magazine called Reggae News. What was it like to be so deeply involved in reggae during these times?

Warren Smith: It was very exciting – having the Reggae News which we distributed free world wide featuring guest editors was an educational venture for me. There was never a dull moment.

IRIE. How did the inspiration for SNWMF first come about?

Warren Smith: I was hired to program and promote another festival called Gathering of the Vibes. After three years of working with the festival, I started SNWMF to focus on reggae and world music. I wanted to feature many of the bands I had worked with in Jamaica in the 70s that I felt needed and deserved to be heard.

IRIE. I’m sure you’ve had many favorite moments from past SNWMF? Can you share a few memories with us?

Warren Smith: Certainly the Junior Byles appearance where he gave us 45 stunning minutes of magic – also the appearances of both the Congos and Abyssinians who had hadn’t played in years … both bands reformed and played at SNWMF 1997 in Marysville. I love when historic bands would come back together on our stage like the Gladiators and Israel Vibration. Sly and Robbie came out of a strictly recording mode and performed for the first time after several years of not playing – a date I vigorously lobbied for. All the Linton Kwesi Johnson performances really stand out.  Tabla Beat Science was a memorable set.  Watching our extended family grow through the years has been one of the most rewarding aspects of SNWMF and what keeps bringing me back to the show.

IRIE. Every year, you always manage to deliver an extraordinary lineup of the best in roots reggae and world music. How do you go about determining the artist lineup for each SNWMF?

Warren Smith: Oh geez, it’s like a puzzle.  I dwell on it till it comes together. Unfortunately, a lot of it is dependent on the attainability of securing headliners which has been very challenging the last 5 or 6 years.

IRIE. What do you hope attendees take with them from their SNWMF experience?

Warren Smith: A greater compassion for the peoples of the world; more trust and understanding and realizing that we are all in this together – and we can share it with our friends and teach our children.

IRIE. What does the future hold for SNWMF? For reggae music?

Warren Smith: That is to be seen …

IRIE. Is there anything you would like say to the IRIE audience?

Warren Smith: Support your local reggae festivals.  Spread the vibes.  Keep the music and message alive. Thank you for your support and hope to see all of you at SNWMF this year!