I woke up with a smile on my face and extra bounce in my step on Saturday of Ska Fest, like a kid on Christmas morning. But instead of presents from Santa Claus, I was anticipating the double-headliner finale of the 14th annual Victoria Ska Fest (the longest running festival of its kind in North America), Australian/UK vocal wizard Dub FX and the triumphant-yet-elusive Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. (Fact: that name actually belongs to Stephen Colbert, whom Bey bestowed it upon after he gave up the moniker.)
As a bonus, there were to be back-to-back free workshops with each artist held at Cinecenta in the afternoon, leading up to the show. I got there an hour early with my anticipation nearly boiling over. I was an hour away from listening to Yasiin Bey, one of the men who got me to explore an entire other part of my heritage I had neglected to explore, talk about his inspirations and his life. But after some minutes waiting, we were told that Bey’s flight from Paris had been delayed by three hours and he wouldn’t make it — disappointing, to say the least. But Dub FX was still going to do his workshop and would in fact start half an hour early to make up for the gap. And man oh man, did Dub FX save the day. Kind, engaging and massively interesting, Dub FX treated the small Cinecenta crowd to a near complete oral history of his musical life and a step by step demonstration on his vocal manipulation/looping process. It was a fascinating and intimate presentation that more than made up for the missing Bey.
Dub FX pulled the same magic trick again at the end of his evening set in the Inner Harbour and played numerous “one last song”s to help stall for the tardy Yasiin Bey. It didn’t really matter, because as much as people were waiting for the legend formerly known as Mos Def, they were more than ready to groove to the bouncy, inventive rhythms of Dub FX and the smooth rhymes of his MC cohort Cade. Dub had the crowd mesmerized with his looping box and distortion peddles as he built entire hip-hop, dubstep and drum n’ bass songs from nothing but his mouth and the small bits of technology. I heard comments laced with wonder like, “He’s doing that all with his mouth!” ooze out of people.
At the beginning of his set, and indeed earlier at the workshop, Dub explained that Air Canada had “shockingly” lost his usual gear so he was working with some stuff that he had cobbled together and reprogrammed shortly before performing. I don’t think anyone would have known the difference either way. There were smiles unanimously pasted on the faces in the crowd.
There was a deep breath of anticipation followed by a sweet exhale of relief as the man now known as Yasiin Bey took the stage. As mercurial a talent as hip-hop has ever seen, it was a wonder to behold Bey in the flesh. Rumours of a man given to flights of sudden, drastic change and the even more awful rumour that a friend used as his excuse for not attending, “He doesn’t play the real hip-hop shit anymore,” were quickly and thoroughly debunked as Bey and his duo of DJs, who were surrounded by pink and white orchids, blew the tops off every hip-hop head in the crowd.
Pouring through his entire catalogue with classics like “Mathematics” from his landmark album, Black on Both Sides, and “Life in Marvelous Times” from his more recent home-run, The Ecstatic, Bey radiated jubilance, dancing and smiling his way through each and every song while spitting his rhymes with the precision of a field general and the passion of the most devout priest. It was a singularly great performance that reminded me, and I’m sure everyone else there, that Bey is still a musical force to be reckoned with.
A couple more things that need to be said:
– Near the end of his set, as he was reaching into the audience to give fives and connect with the people up close, someone from the audience grabbed at his hand and attempted to pull Bey into the crowd. The fire that erupted in Bey’s eyes cannot be conveyed in words on a screen or page. With a focus intense enough to melt something frozen, Bey yelled at his would-be assailant, “My kindness is not a weakness!” I really thought he was going to knock that guy out. But after a bit of pacing and a few deep breaths, Bey shook the man’s hand again and said, “Respect. Respect. We’re cool now.” It was a staggering display of discipline, maturity and the intense nature of the way Bey has come to live his life.
– I was reminded why the Victoria Ska Fest stands so triumphant above pretty much every other festival I’ve been to as the opening notes of the incendiary “Umi Says” (a song so important in my own life that I couldn’t help but shed some tears) came pouring out of the speakers, and the head of the Victoria Ska Society, the founder of the festival, the great Dane Roberts was the only other person backstage as excited and given to dance as I was. In the same way other festivals started, the Victoria Ska Fest is a labour of love. But unlike other, larger festivals, after 14 years Ska Fest hasn’t lost that spirit. It’s clear that the people running this thing are as in love with it as the crowd. It’s a truly wonderful thing to behold and probably the main reason that this is annually the best week of the year on the Victoria music calendar.