Victoria gains international recognition for ska scene

Ska Fest still going strong 13 years in

Ska Society artistic director Dane Roberts in front of Babe

Victoria is known for its connection to the queen’s country, but at home many locals aren’t aware of our international reputation in a community borne from Caribbean culture.

Next to the cherry red double decker tour buses winding through local roadways, two brightly-painted Ska Fest vans hint at Victoria’s bond with ska – the precursor to rocksteady and reggae that originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and influence on popular music today.

July 10 to 14, the Victoria B.C. Ska Society presents the 13th annual Ska Festival – an event that forged ties between lovers of the genre in Victoria with their counterparts around the world in Latin America, Europe and the U.S.

“It has really connected us with a lot of people and brought us close to cultures outside of our own,” said Dane Roberts, founder of the festival and artistic director of the Victoria B.C. Ska Society, who has picked up basic Spanish skills through his role. “This music is giving us connections with all these cultures abroad.”

Roberts, a Mount Douglas secondary school grad, orchestrated the first Ska Festival for his final work term project as a student of leisure studies administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax. It began during the height of third wave ska and put Victoria on the map as a hub for artists of the genre. The society’s efforts were buoyed by the rise of social networking via Myspace.

“It was huge. All of a sudden it exposed us to other bands from other countries that had the same passion and taste for the music and we were surprised how many of them were interested in coming here despite the fact that we weren’t a big budget festival.”

Venetian Califfo de Luxe was one of the first international acts to support the event. That same year bands also came from Germany and Jamaica. Musicians continued to join the festival from the United States, Mexico, Columbia and Europe, often for little reward outside of a place to stay, and the experience.

Local five-piece fave Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra started covering festival headliners Toots and the Maytals and were given an early break by Roberts, who scheduled them to play a Ska Fest after party in 2006. Now touring on the eve of a full-length studio album release this fall, Tequila Mockingbird returns to join the lineup along with the legends.

“There’s a lot of support from the festival and from (Roberts) as a person to the local music scene. And you get a lot of diverse groups from Victoria playing alongside the world’s best ska bands,” said Peter Mynett, vocalist and stand up bass player for the band. “Victoria has really seen us grow up.”

Support for the festival has come from all levels, from a reinstated B.C. gaming grant to the Bogota Chamber of Commerce, which in 2010 flew Roberts to Columbia to participate in the Invest and Inspire music conference, where he met musicians that later made the Ska Fest lineup.

“I think it’s about sharing. People want to share their culture, their message, their experience,” Roberts said. “I don’t know of any ska scene that’s as strong as ours anywhere throughout Canada. It is quite a phenomenon.”

Last year Ska Fest drew 10,000 people to a mix of all ages, free and ticketed club shows across town. With headliners that also include Katchafire, The Pietasters, Leroy “Heptone” Sibbles and Adham Shaikh on the bill, as well as three free shows downtown, workshops and art from The Rocksteady Collective, that number is likely to grow.

“It’s not the biggest festival, but it’s big enough for us and it’s fun,” Roberts added.

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