Ska Fest Recap: My weekend at Ska Fest

To say I that was impressed by Victoria’s 2015 Reggae & Ska Festival would be an understatement. In my first experience of this event I was fortunate enough to attend three nights of incredible performances from numerous artists and had my eyes opened to a thriving niche in the Victoria music scene. Each night I was exposed to a new flavour of music, as the crowds remained consistently passionate and enthusiastic—a key part of such a positive experience. Ska Fest blends its namesake into other sounds like hip-hop, funk, jazz, dub, and more to create an electrifying medley that never failed to get the crowd grooving. It occurred to me that this wide range of music is a draw for a remarkably diverse crowd. After each successive show I understood how Ska fest has managed to return for 16 straight years and truly deserves its place spot on the summer Victoria music calendar.

My first night at Distrikt Nightclub featured two Canadians acts and a European. Kicking things off (all too literally) was Ydna Murd who played an entirely improvised set on his robotic drum kit. This Germany-based artist created an inspiring set of drum & bass and electronic beats fused with reggae on the spot using samplers and a part-electronic drum kit. He was so effective, in fact, that I couldn’t tell if he was playing over tracks or actually in control of every sound — the latter of course proving to be the case. As one of the more underground names in the lineup, Murd’s set was a pleasant surprise to much of the audience.

Following him was the Juno-award winning artist Dubmatix who DJ’d a set of more light-hearted party music with two accompanying musicians — one on a trumpet and the other a trombone. A long-standing veteran in the Canadian reggae scene, Dubmatix brought an extra element of live music to his set that injected the club with great energy. Headlining the night was a local favourite DJ by the name of Stickybuds who hails from Kelowna, B.C. He’s another seasoned performer who knows how to seize the reigns of an energized crowd and kept things jumping ’til closing time. From the wheels of steel he mixed dancehall with reggae, breaks, dub, hip-hop, and a splash of trap music for good measure. I couldn’t have asked for a better first impression than what I got from this Thursday night.

Friday night, I found myself in Sugar Nightclub. I regrettably missed the opening set from local act Blackwood Kings, but when I arrived, the crowd was already buzzing and sweaty, so they must have done something right. The next set was from the Red, Gold, and Green Machine, a trio consisting of Magic T, Dr. Oop, and MC Nucleus, who met and subsequently founded their group in 2010 while performing at B.C.’s own Shambhala Music Festival. The trio took the stage — and then my heart.  They gave a captivating and soulful performance fusing hip-hop with other genres, allowing even the least hip-hop savvy audience member to catch the vibes. The Canadian songstress and MC Magic T flexed her enchanting voice as they performed songs from their 2014 LP Planet Africa. I had the pleasure of speaking with each of the members briefly as I saw them around in the crowd, and they were all very humble and grateful about the energetic response their performance received.

The headliners were the legendary Jamaican reggae ambassadors Third World. These men helped pioneer the genre and were obviously seasoned performers, having played shows with the likes of Bob Marley and the Whalers on their first world tour. I likened the performance to what I imagine a Jamaican version of The Roots would sound like combined with Santana (I hope these reference points don’t offend any of the more loyal fans). Each member had their shot at a solo performances, but the most remarkable was when the drummer ran around on stage with a bongo drum firing the people up, and when a guitarist slowed things down with a stringed instrument similar to a small cello. The obviously skilled collection of musicians took control of the evening and the crowd was reluctant to let them leave by the time it was over.

The day I spent at Ship’s Point had a wonderfully diverse mix of people from all ages and demographics, with many people lining the fences outside experiencing the free version of the show. Tourists, teenagers, and families with children alike all made their way down to the harbour area on the sunny Saturday to take part in what would be the piece-de-resistance to my Ska fest experience. The day was strung together by DJ Su Comandate Espinoza who was pulling vinyl from his seemingly bottomless case. His taste was evidently cultured as he played a number of Latin-American tracks — garnering reactions from some Spanish guys dancing nearby. I arrived during the performance of Colombian band De Bruces a Mi who played a number of danceable songs, effectively setting the mood for the rest of the evening.

Canadian hip-hop heavy weights Sweatshop Union were up next, and their performance was a smash success. Playing tracks from their latest LP Infinite, while also bringing up some gems from their deep discography, this was another performance which had the crowd surprisingly engaged.

Building off the energy put down by Sweatshop Union was ska/punk act Mustard Plug who appeared to be crowd favourites. They really made me appreciate the taps made available to refill my water-bottle, because almost immediately after they started performing, the crowd manifested one of the most cheerful mosh-pits I’ve ever been a part of. People ranging from the age of 15 to 55 got caught up in the moment and bounced off each other, singing along to the ska anthems. There were occasional instances of calm but Mustard Plug’s set was almost entirely upbeat and the crowd earnestly kept pace.

Hepcat played Ships Point on Saturday at Ska Fest. (Photo by Geoff Robinson)

Hepcat played Ships Point on Saturday at Ska Fest. (Photo by Geoff Robinson)

After these two extremely high energy sets, there was a short break before the headliners Hepcat made their way on-stage. Hepcat’s presence at this year’s festival was made all the more significant when one of the original Reggae & Ska Fest organizers came on stage and explained how he has been trying to get Hepcat in Victoria for 15 years, and on the 16th year he finally found success. Clinton Fearon, Jamaican born and Seattle based singer/songwriter, came out on stage with a chair and guitar to play a bonus mini-set and warm the audience back up before the highly anticipated main act.

This was the California-based band’s first performance in Victoria and they were vocally taken aback by the scenery as well as the energy, which fed into their enthusiasm on stage. Jumping from ska to reggae to swing and back to Jamaican ska again, Hepcat put on a show worthy of all the excitement that surrounded it. The crowd danced along with every tune and all the commotion drew a full second audience outside the fences of the event.

Around 9:30 p.m. they feigned ending the set and left the stage, but this resulted in uproar from the crowd who demanded an encore. Hepcat eagerly obliged and returned with an additional musician on saxophone. As this would be my final evening of music, it truly felt like a grand finale to a weekend filled with surprises for somebody new to the Victoria ska scene.

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