I spent a lot of this year’s Ska Fest in the same place, with the same people as last year — in the middle of the dancefloor at Ship’s Point in Victoria’s inner harbour with my favourite troop of Argentinian clowns, the Entangados.
The festival started on a Wednesday and an endless to-do list made the mid-week feel like a bigger hump than usual. I was frazzled, but I had a job to do, so I put on my face, grabbed my camera, and headed downtown.
As I arrived at the ticket centre, the first raindrops of the evening began to fall. Dane Roberts, founder of the festival, came up beside me and said, “We will get through today and then we’ll see about tomorrow.” He was talking about the weather but I took it to heart. If in the midst of his own crazy production, Dane could smile, raise his dread-lock graced shoulders towards his ears and drop them with such ease, surely I could relax too.
It’s no small feat for Dane to look so relaxed in the midst of all that. Victoria’s 17th annual Ska and Reggae Festival was a five-day event, with a main stage in the inner harbour and multiple after-parties at club venues around town. It’s grown into a big production since its humble beginnings as a one-day event in Market Square, which was the final product of Dane’s last work term towards his BA in education with a major in (appropriately) leisure service at UVic.
I remember checking out some of those early years, but as a hip-hop-turned-raver kid, I didn’t know anything about ska music. I thought ska people all danced in a kind of stiff, jumpy way. It made more sense after Dane explained that the early years were all about third wave ska. Third wave was born out of the punk scene in Britain, and has roots in traditional ska, but it tends to be bigger on aggressive guitar riffs, vocals, and horn solos, which explains the funny dancing.
Over the years, Ska Fest has branched out. This year, styles as diverse as funk, hip hop, and world-beat were heard over the five days. A big part of Ska Fest for Dane and the Victoria BC Ska Society is educating people about the music. Dane says ska music is like the grandfather or grandmother of so many different styles. “When we say ska, it’s not just that. It’s more of a root of a tree that is branching off into other things. Like all things groovy, danceable, and fun.”
After a ridiculously long line-up for beer, I pushed head first through the crowd, a menace with my big camera and an overflowing plastic cup. In the middle of the packed dance-floor, like an oasis, I found the Entangados. Having grown up in the inner city of Victoria, I knew a lot of people at the festival, but I spent most of it with these guys. I don’t know what it is about them — maybe its a clown thing, or something that happens when you unburden yourself from the daily grind — but they have a very calming effect on me. I added my bags and coats to the pile at their feet, gave a round of hugs, and joined their party.
The Entangados are from Còrdoba, Argentina, and they arrived in Victoria shortly before Ska Fest last year. I met and mingled with them because a member of my boyfriend’s band, Compassion Gorilla, joined their troop in Suyalita, Mexico, then invited them here. As we grooved, Fabien the tall, long-haired guitarist leaned over and said, “This is like a dream for us. Being away from home and being here, it is very special.” If I ever doubted why people like Dane and the Ska Society do what they do to make this happen (because it’s definitely not for the money, which is minimal at best), Fabien’s spirited comment reminded me.
Beyond giving us locals an opportunity to shake off the adult life that threatens to contain us, Ska Fest provides an opportunity for both local and international acts to live their dreams. In Dane’s words, “Ska Fest has been a big promoter of local music, and the local bands create community and a healthy scene, a lot of them have known each other for many years . . . and now a lot of the international bands, they love it so much that people think they are local, they keep coming back.” The Entangados made a lot of connections last year and may have come back to Victoria anyways, but getting the esteemed closing slot for the festival certainly sweetened the deal.
The rain was coming down hard and the crowd was soggy when Toots and the Maytals, a pioneering ska and reggae band from Jamaica, took the stage. As the band, the clouds and the crowd poured out our hearts and souls in catharsis, my cheeks began to hurt from smiling so hard. Despite the rain, the pressures of modern day living that could have kept us at home, the other places we could have been, and the other ways we could have acted, there we were at Ska Fest again, dancing like madmen. Then Dane appeared beside me out of the crowd and for a brief few moments we danced and celebrated how lucky we were to have such a legend playing for us. As we cheered Toots on, I was also celebrating Dane and his crew for making it happen.
Looking at it from Wednesday night, five days seemed like a long time; but with so much good music to take in, including some of my favourite acts like DubFx and The Black Seeds, and so many good people to connect with, it went by like a fast-moving train. By Sunday the wind had blown away all of the clouds, it was a gorgeous day, and the crowd was relaxed and ready to party; so send in the clowns!
With Argentinian flare, the Entangados swung their axes, their brass, and their hips, slowly working the crowd into a frenzy. As they sang “Estaciòn Felicidade” (Happiness Station — or perhaps, next stop: happiness!), the crowd formed, surely, the longest dance train in Ska Fest history. In the words of the band’s front-person, Petito Titareli (a.k.a Demian), “It was a unique moment, not repeatable, lots of connection. The people were fired up.”
After the show I was pretty fired up myself, and without thinking I invited the band, and a good portion of the Latin contingent currently residing in Victoria, back to my house. It was Sunday night in the quiet, straight-edged district of Oak Bay, so a Còrdoba-style barbecue, which involved drinking and cooking meat over an open pit in my front yard, was a little risky. Added to that was the coming week’s to-do list and and it all threatened to undo the cool I had achieved over those days.
But, as I sat back under the stars eating my barbecue, half listening to the Spanish conversation all around me, I thought of Toots keeping it fresh all these years, Dane facing his big production with a smile, and the hundreds of familiar people I’d seen and hugged over the weekend, and I felt grateful for the colourful clowns Ska Fest brings into my life.