Close this search box.

Victoria Ska and Reggae Fest Celebrates 25 Years

Featuring headliners Dead Prez, Less Than Jake, and more, we look back on the festival’s history and ahead to its future.

by Ben Boddez

With previous notable headliners including Fishbone, Mos Def, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Barrington Levy, and Shaggy over the years, the Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival is bringing its most extensive lineup yet to celebrate a quarter-century of letting the immaculate vibes of Jamaican-influenced music emanate through the Victoria harboursides.

To celebrate their important milestone, publicist and talent booker Blake Morneau and founder and artistic director Dane Roberts are looking back on the festival’s storied history at the same time as they anticipate its future. With an intention to curate a mixture of acts who have been staples of the festival and exciting first-timers that give this year’s celebration a bit more of a ska-punk and hip-hop flavour, acts like Less Than Jake, Dead Prez (pictured above), and The Suicide Machines will be taking the stage at Ship Point and the Victoria Curling Club.

“Suicide Machines have been huge in ska-punk for so long, and I don’t know why we’ve never worked with them before, but it finally happened this year,” Morneau says. “That’s a band that’s existed for 25 years, and they’re playing for the first time. Then there’s a band like The Slackers – they’ve existed for 30 years, and they’ve played the festival for 21 years. It brings our old friends back out, and hopefully brings some new ones too.”

“I wanted to have a bit more third-wave ska,” Roberts adds. “For a long time, we’ve had more reggae, jazz, roots, Latino. We haven’t had some good ska-punk and third wave. There’s been a kind of resurgence of punk in the US, especially with things happening in the world. It’s a good environment for it.”

When asked about how the genres of ska and reggae themselves have evolved in the past 25 years alongside the festival itself, ska historian Roberts was initially a little stumped while in search of something new that bands are bringing to the table. He believes that most of the innovations that still timelessly reverberate today can be attributed to the genre’s legendary originators like The Skatalites. For those not paying attention, ska might have appeared like a quick trend, but Roberts knows that its classic sounds have naturally ebbed and flowed throughout history as new generations continue to discover genuinely great music – in fact, he believes that we’re currently in the middle of a resurgence with younger listeners.

“It’s like jazz music – it’s in everything, so everyone always comes back to it,” he says. “Reggae, same thing. It’s going through generations. Good soul music. Stevie Wonder goes through the generations. All the DJs at Shambhala are sampling his music because it’s so good, and drum n’ bass people sample Barrington Levy all the time, because it’s good music.”

Roberts explains the depth and foundation behind ska and reggae music that’s lost to many of its listeners by drawing reference to the famous checkerboard patterns that often appeared on the stage outfits of ska bands. Originally a reference to the bridging of racial divides when Caribbean immigrants in London formed what were then called “two-tone bands” with locals, containing influences from both reggae and rock, many imitators ultimately put on the checkers for aesthetic purposes without an understanding of their history.


Dane Roberts – Founder of the Victoria Ska & Reggae Festival


“North American audiences looked at ska differently. They didn’t know that Bob Marley was playing ska versions of his big songs before they were reggae,” he says. “They just thought the checkers were a cool thing that was associated with ska, but they didn’t know that it had a lot more substance than that. There are a lot of elements in the music that are coming from truth and skill and cultural evolution, and foundation. That’s why it perseveres. And that’s why when kids hear it, they still like it and it survives the generations. It’s a life movement.”

Roberts’ love and knowledge of the genre rubs off on everyone around him, so much so that when asked about a favourite memory from Ska Fests past, Morneau points to being able to see Roberts backstage during Mos Def’s 2013 headlining set, dancing harder than anybody in the audience. “I knew I was in the right spot when I saw that,” he says. Roberts named his own favourite memory as being able to see Pressure Cooker playing at Market Square at the festival’s first ever iteration, after all of the efforts he put in to set things up at age 22. When it comes to acts Morneau is recommending this year, however, it’s all-in with Dead Prez.

“One of the things we always hear from a lot of people who come to Ska Fest is that they always find new bands they didn’t expect to find. Because of the way Jamaican rooted music has influenced modern music, we’re able to pull a lot of bands from a lot of genres. For instance, hip-hop doesn’t exist without Jamaican immigrants coming to New York with their sound systems and starting toasting parties,” he says. “Having Dead Prez play their first Canadian show in more than 10 years at the festival just means a lot. Especially with hip-hop at 50 years old last year, hip-hop’s really on my mind and I’m excited to see it, especially at Ship Point with the sun setting behind them.”

If you’re looking for a hidden gem further down the lineup, after speaking about his addictions to obscurities in Less Than Jake’s catalogue and toasting to his long-standing relationship with Montreal ska titans The Planet Smashers, Roberts had nothing but effusive praise for Kyle Smith, who he first encountered after an endorsement from none other than Chali 2na while hanging out at 2023’s Cali Roots Festival.

“What I love about him is he’s overcome addiction and a lot of hardship, and he’s one of those guys who’s such a grinder. He pours all his heart and soul into the band,” he says. “I just respect his hustle and his enthusiasm and his openness online, how he expresses about things he feels, and he’s not afraid to not be popular with what he says.”  

As far as the duo’s tips on how to make the most of the festival – aside from the common yet nonetheless essential advice to take care of your feet, made all the more imperative by Morneau’s past: “When I was nine years old, I went to school on a military base, and we got to talk to veterans on Remembrance Day. They all say the worst part about war was how bad your feet felt all the time. That wedged itself in my brain and it’s served me very well,” he says – Roberts suggests picking out a good mixture of ticketed and free shows to get the best possible range of genres and experiences.

If there’s anything that the duo finds in common with the festival over the past 25 years, however, it’s the kindness and positive energy emanating from its crowds. With ska and reggae’s history of powerful messages and soulful vibes, that should be represented more than ever at the festival’s quarter-centennial celebration.