It wasn’t until one of his friends complained about a lack of seating that the executive director of the Victoria, B.C. Ska Society thought about adding stands to Ska Fest’s primary venue at Ship Point. It wasn’t for the cost or effort involved, more that the fun-loving, quick-to-groove ED hadn’t even considered it. If someone is going to come to the festival, then obviously, they’re there to dance, right?
Dane Roberts laughs loudly as he recounts the oversight, part of festival lore, a story that begins 15 years ago when Roberts launched the first event as his graduating project at Dalhousie University.
“It’s a freedom festival that people can come and be themselves and dance and have a good time, no matter what their age or their race or anything,” Roberts says from the loft in Ska Society HQ, a colourful Rock Bay recording studio/office, with art and show posters adorning every angle. “Everyone is just so passionate about it, they can’t be doing it for the money, me included. That’s automatically apparent. Everybody loves the festival and the benefits we enjoy are more the music and the people that it brings together, the vibe that it keeps and builds.”
Last year 14,000 people streamed through Ship Point for the multi-day event, anchored by Mos Def. This year, the second which will see the locale beautified with more greenery and art from the society’s Rocksteady Collective, Roberts and co. expect that number to grow. Headliners include Shaggy & Rayvon, Lynval Golding of The Specials, Fishbone, The Aggrolites, Barrington Levy, Walshy Fire of Major Lazer and a host of local talent. The festival runs from July 1-5, includes free workshops and performances at Ship Point free of charge on July 1, 2, and 5, with selected smaller-venues also offering free night-time, all-ages shows.
“When we first started the festival, we were more focused on third-wave and two-toned bands. And that’s what people kind of associated with ska music – the suit and tie, the checkers, the skanking. That is an aspect, but ska has so many roots. Cuban music, Jamaican folk music, jazz music. It was the grandmother of reggae music, or rocksteady music, of dancehall, of dub – all of those Jamaican musical styles. Ska was the first on the timeline. Our festival encompasses both the influences that created ska and the different genres that came after.”
The festival is now the longest running event of its kind in North America, the inspiration behind such events as the Montreal Ska Festival and the reason behind Victoria’s global reputation within the style.
“People don’t realize with the festival how international it is,” Roberts says. “You go to South America, they know about Ska Fest. I was in Ghana, they know about Ska Fest. … In Jamaica, they know about it, it’s huge.”
And it’s huge in terms of submissions he receives, somewhere between 500 to 600 from all corners of the world: Europe, Africa, Central America, South America. But within a modest budget, some local sponsorship and a core staff of 12, directing 200 volunteers, few acts will have the opportunity to travel here. Those who do are in for something unique.
“We have a very festive mood and a very young-minded mood, no matter what age you are,” he says. “It’s a very playful atmosphere for ska music.”
A range of festival packages are available, from single tickets to harbour and full festival passes. Full ticket details and more information on the free offerings is available at skafest.ca.