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Victoria Ska Fest celebrates 25th anniversary this week

The Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival, which spans five days of programming at four venues, enters its 25th-anniversary edition riding high.
Less Than Jake will play the Victoria Curling Club on Saturday, June 22. PARIS VISONE/PURE NOISE RECORDS


Where: Ship Point, Victoria Curling Club, Lucky Bar, and Wicket Hall
When: June 19-23
Tickets: or Tourism Victoria Visitor Centre (812 Wharf St.), Fascinating Rhythm (Nanaimo), and Area 51 (Duncan)

The Victoria Ska Festival debuted in 2000 as a one-day event at Market Square, with a meagre budget of $20,000 cobbled together primarily through sponsorships.

The festival was a surprise success, albeit a modest one. Very few could have guessed it would become one of the signature summer events in the city, let alone one the longest-running events of its kind in North America — but that is where the event stands heading into tonight’s festival opening performances.

“The fun that we had, the friendships that we created, is what drove everyone to do it,” co-founder and artistic director Dane Roberts said. “There was no other reason.”

What a difference a quarter-century makes.

Now branded the Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival, and spanning five days of programming at four venues, the festival enters its 25th anniversary edition riding high. Early tickets sales point to this being “by far” the most successful instalment to date, Roberts said. “Right now, we have almost twice as many tickets sold than we did last year. That’s a pretty good feat.”

The festival can be counted on to draw upwards of 1,200 fans for its signature events at Ship Point, which this year include appearances by Dead Prez, Macka B & The Roots Ragga Band, Gondwana, Big Mountain, and Chris Murray & The New Victorians, among others. Events this week being held at the 1,400 capacity Victoria Curling Club include The Suicide Machines, The Slackers, Less Than Jake, The Planet Smashers and more.

The positive traction can be felt through the festival, from its large-scale events to smaller ones held at Lucky Bar and Wicket Hall. “Less Than Jake has sold more tickets than any of the Victoria Curling Club show did last year — already,” Roberts said.

The festival has a history of bringing top acts to town, so it’s success in 2024 is duly impressive. The Wailers, Booker T. Jones, Toots and the Maytals, Maxi Priest, Mos Def, Third World, Barrington Levy, and Junior Reid have appeared during previous installments, which amounts to a sterling track record where ska, reggae, and hip-hop acts are concerned.

With a mixture of free and paid performances from both local and international acts on tap each year, Roberts has made good on the commitment he made to himself at the outset. “I always wanted to be a promoter, but I didn’t want to do a genre that simply sold tickets. I had to like the genre. I knew that if I didn’t like the music, even if it made money, I couldn’t do it. My dream was to make enough money to survive off things I was passionate about. Over decades, that eventually happened. But it took a long time.”

Roberts was a student at University of Victoria when he co-founded the non-profit festival, with little experience in the festival world. He organized some one-off concerts in 1997, but did not have the means to dream big. “I didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “Where was I going to find the capital to put on a festival?”

He is nothing if not resourceful. He focused his energy and enthusiasm, and despite working with a budget smaller than that of his contemporaries, got by on personality alone. He had pockets of early support, from the Times Colonist to the former Lyle’s Place record store. The latter company generously advanced Roberts money that was expected to come in through in-store ticket sales, which enabled Roberts to pay for expenses leading up to the inaugural festival.

“Every time I needed money, I went to Lyle’s Place,” he said with a laugh.

With an operating budget approximately 10 times greater than his early days, life is much easier at the moment. But Roberts never rests, knowing that some years are better than others. “It’s about what is available at a reasonable rate,” he said of his artistic offerings. “That’s the business end. But there’s a whole bunch of factors. There are some producers who want to get a great turnout so they pay so much [for headliners]. Even when they sell all the tickets they can, they still can’t pay their bills. What’s their point then? We’re not doing it for that. It’s fun, it creates community. There are all these other reasons why I do it.”

He now looks at the festival in terms of five-year segments. “So much can happen in five years. To survive two years is a big deal.”

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