Ska Fest marks 20th in fine form

Founder Dane Roberts says it started with a dream that grew with a mix of appealing acts and low entry fees


What: Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival
Where: Various venues, including Ship Point, Capital Ballroom, Lucky Bar and Distrikt nightclub
When: June 19 through June 23
Tickets: $13-$39.50 at or in person at Lyle’s Place, Tourism Victoria Information Centre and Vinyl Envy

While other local festivals much bigger in scope — and with more mainstream music as their foundation — struggle in 2019, the 20th annual Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival is still going strong.

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Founder and artistic director Dane Roberts started the festival in 2000 with a dream and little funding. With a dedicated team at the non-profit Victoria BC Ska Society, he steadily built the Inner Harbour festival into one of the leading outdoor events of the summer, with plenty of cultural variety on offer over five days.

The festival gets underway Wednesday and continues through June 23.

“It has the most cultural diversity of any festival that I can see,” Roberts said.

“A lot of the bands in the festival are exclusive — they are not playing Vancouver. They are all flying in — they’re not even playing Seattle. It makes it even more of a destination for Victoria to have these bands you can’t find anywhere else.”

In a year that saw the demise of large-scale rock festivals such as Rifflandia and Rock the Shores, Roberts is unshaken in his belief that quality programming from unique corners of the world still holds an appeal for music fans.

Argentina’s Entangados, Mexico’s Ganjobassman, Britain’s Macka B and Mexico’s Mama Pulpa are part of this year’s lineup, which is headlined by Bob Marley’s son, Ky-Mani Marley, Jamaican legends Sister Nancy and Leroy Sibbles, and American ska favourites Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, the Pietasters and Less Than Jake.

There is also an extensive roster of local artists, from large ensembles (Apex Breaks, the Capital Collective) to smaller groups (One Drop, the Leg-Up Program, Sweet Leaf) and solo artists (Mt. Doyle, the Funkee Wadd).

Three free shows are being offered in addition to workshops from some of the festival’s top names. The remaining performances — many of which are family-friendly — take place at Ship Point or the Capital Ballroom, Lucky Bar or Distrikt nightclub.

It wasn’t always rosy for Roberts and Co. Profits were slim during the first decade or so, but the festival turned the corner in 2015, and in 2016, it had a record year.

“That’s what got us out of the hole,” he said.

“We weren’t comfortable operating at a big loss. We’re not rich people — we’re a non-profit — and none of the people in the organization have the ability to float a huge debt. We always tried to make sure we were not overextending ourselves.”

He knew fans wanted fair value for their money, so he made sure entry fees for the festival’s 2019 edition were reasonable, priced at between $13 and $39.50 per show.

Despite the low admission prices, the festival has always attracted top talent — everyone from Barrington Levy, Booker T. Jones and Toots and the Maytals to Mos Def, Chali 2na and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have appeared at previous editions.

Big names are nice, Roberts admitted, as they help sell tickets. But the festival doesn’t depend on big-name talent.

“We’ll always have a good festival, even without those big, flashy headliners. But we do pretty good. The goal is to have a good time, sustain and bring out quality music that isn’t what people might recognize. You discover music with us.”

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