When Packy Malley, promoter of the Mid-West Reggae Fest, says, "The bottom line is, it has to be profitable," he's only telling half the story. The other half is that while Malley is a businessman who also works in his family business, Malley's Chocolates, he's one of the area's most avid reggae enthusiasts, and the Mid-West Reggae Fest, which celebrates its 17th year this weekend, is as much a labor of love as a moneymaking opportunity. Any conversation with Malley will inevitably touch on an act he's seen recently (often at a show he's promoted), a festival he's attended or his latest reggae-related project - such as clevelandreggae.com, which he's maintained for the last three years, promoting a full spectrum of area reggae activity.
Malley, who discovered reggae music in 1982 after repeatedly listening to a Bob Marley tape while on a camping trip, quickly turned his passion into action, hosting a college radio show and promoting shows, first at OSU and then in Cleveland. Inspired by the rock and reggae events headlined by First Light and Oroboros at Meadow Ridge Farm in Huntsburg, as well as Robert Lockwood Jr.'s Bluesfests there, Malley booked the facility for an all-day multi-band reggae show.
Last year, the fest took a giant leap forward when he moved it from Meadow Ridge to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park, where, thanks to the availability of camping, he could put on an event lasting three days instead of one. The festival took another big step this year: Five major headline artists are slated, not just two.
"Last year we had Ken Boothe and Lucky Dube," he says. "This year I have five big international artists, and I have other acts on the bill who could also be headliners. And the main headline guy is Beres Hammond, who's one of the biggest names in reggae. Nobody has come close to having as much chart success in Jamaica."
Besides Hammond, who's in the unusual position of straddling the usually separate partying dancehall scene and the socially and politically aware roots-reggae scene, this year's festival features St. Croix roots-reggae act Midnite, in its first Midwest appearance; Culture, now led by Kenyatta Hill, son of founder Joseph Hill, who died two years ago; Yellowman, one of reggae's '80s stars; and rapper Shinehead. Also on the bill are Hawaii's Matty Dread, who moonlights in Willie Nelson's band, Cleveland ensemble Carlos Jones and the PLUS Band and, doing a Soca steel-drum party on the beach, Deighton Charlemagne, who formerly led Columbus' hugely popular Identity.
Other acts include the Ark Band and Taj Weekes & Adowa, both from St. Lucia, and two young Ohio bands, Umojah Nation and Newleaf. The show will also feature the Roots High Power Sound System from Columbus, DJ Carlos Culture from San Diego, a Sunday-morning gospel set from a Cleveland group that Malley's dubbed Hallelu-Jah and KC Platinum, a Cleveland-based Jamaican MC. He's bringing in Marley expert Roger Steffens, who will promote his new book and do his "Life of Bob Marley" presentation at midnight Friday to entertain night owls without disturbing the early-to-bed crowd. Steffens will also interview the performers for posterity."I'm having them professionally videotaped, and I'm donating them to the Rock Hall, so they can have a reggae archives," says Malley. "It's a wonderful opportunity, and I'll take care of the expense. That's one of the main reasons I'm having Roger."
Malley's actively trying to compete with the major events he's attended around the country.
"I'm trying to make this one of the top two or three reggae festivals in the country," he says. "I've started to advertise in Columbus and Pittsburgh. I've done some advertising in national magazines. One of the main things is the camping. You're not going to get many people from more than an hour away if they have to turn around and drive back. That afforded me the opportunity to make this a big festival, because it's a whole weekend. And Nelson Ledges has so much better of a camping facility than any concert facility out there."
In addition, Malley adds, "the swimming can't be beat."