From the countryside of Jamaica, reggae legend Bunny Wailer picks up his land line with a bombastic introduction that would make any reggae disciple tremble in humility. "Greetings, this is Bunny!" The static-ridden connection reverberates like his 1981 classic dub tune "Rise and Shine."
Born Neville O'Riley Livingston, Bunny, along with stepbrother Bob Marley and childhood friend Peter Tosh, formed the Wailers back in 1963. Eventually, all three went their separate ways as solo reggae superstars, but Bunny, the last living Wailer, has always displayed an irie cool about his success. Staying true to his Rastafarian beliefs, he's kept a relatively low profile for the past 40-something years, usually preferring to tend his organic farm outside of Kingston.
Not that Bunny has ever ignored music. He boasts some 24 solo albums and three Grammy Awards to date since the '70s and still manages to stay current. Lately, he's been melding his traditional roots-reggae style to modern-day dancehall, proving that a reggae originator can still hold forth with the best of them.
It is by sheer hard work that South Floridians are graced by Bunny's only U.S. performance in 2009 at the first edition of the homegrown festival called DubFest, this Saturday at Hollywood Arts Park. "I've been wanting to play for my people in Florida, but the timing has to be right," Bunny says. "You can't be playing every time you get asked because it loses its specialness. Remember the saying 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder'? It's truer than you know."
Bunny's not the only rarely appearing reggae legend to headline DubFest. Also on the bill is Lee "Scratch" Perry, coincidentally one of the first producers of the Wailers back in the early '70s. Perry is often credited as one of the founders of the reggae offshoot known as dub and has been labeled one of the most important living producers of all time.
Snagging both Bunny and Perry to play at the first version of a local music festival seems near impossible. But creator Jesse Stoll says he lived by the adage "If there's a will, there's a way."
"It all just kind of came together in an organic fashion. I know we wanted to do a festival that took in the environment of South Florida, the beaches, the proximity to the Caribbean, the ocean ," he says. "It's more than a music festival but a lifestyle festival that celebrates the surfing, skating, and roots-reggae culture that's so prevalent down here."
Of course, local scene watchers know that Stoll comes from innovative music-promotion stock. His father, the late Jon Stoll, founded Fantasma Productions, one of the last independent concert promoters in the country. (It was subsumed into both LiveNation and AEG Live after the elder Stoll's death last year.)
His father created such extravaganzas as West Palm Beach's SunFest and Live Oak's Wanee Festival from the ground up, and the similar from-scratch process for DubFest excited Jesse Stoll.
"I really loved the creation process of producing an event, of what goes on behind the scenes, of making sure the band's taken care of, of the promotions and marketing, of understanding what makes people want to buy tickets," he says.
"From my observation, there are three things to making a successful event: That's location, timing, and the concept, and DubFest has all that," he says.
He's right. First, take location: The newly renovated Hollywood Arts Park in downtown Hollywood represents a halfway mark from Key West to Fort Pierce. And it not only boasts a state-of-the-art sound stage but also contains singing baobab trees and interactive water fountains perfect for the kiddies and the kids at heart. Then there's the timing: Labor Day weekend. So what if it's in the middle of hurricane season? So far, South Florida has been lucky this year.
Finally, the concept itself is a winner. DubFest will not only attract diehard roots-reggae fans but also pay homage to an oceanside-related lifestyle and musical universe. Nineties ska acts like Goldfinger and Reel Big Fish will share center stage with such buzzworthy newbies as Ballyhoo and Soja. And who could forget Badfish, the ultimate tribute band to the ultimate roots-rock crossover band, Sublime?
So with all three elements perfectly sequenced, Stoll is confident that DubFest will leave a lasting impression on the local festival circuit. "Our hope is that we will be able to bring DubFest back again next year but do it bigger and better," he says. "We want this to be a yearly destination that helps stimulate the local economy, boost tourism, and also launch new artists into the mainstream." With that sort of motivation, Stoll is ready to fulfill his father's legacy.