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The Secret Behind Ska & Reggae's Success on the West Coast

Victoria Ska & Reggae Festival founder Dane Roberts on community roots and this year’s 24th anniversary lineup.

by Stephan Boissonneault 

Photo by Colin Smith

The Victoria Ska & Reggae Festival is the longest running festival of its kind, bringing out heavy hitters in the genre throughout the years like Fishbone, Booker T. Jones, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Toots and the Maytals, and more.

This upcoming year marks its 24th iteration, and that’s all thanks to the hundreds of festival volunteers and the dedication of the founder, Dane Roberts. Roberts began working on the festival in 1999 as part of his work term permit for his Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at University of Victoria. His school advisor told him he would only pass if the festival went well. Fortunately, the festival went better than ‘well’ and grew year after year, leading Roberts to start the Victoria Ska Society in 2004 to keep ska and reggae alive and represented in Western Canada.

The spirit of the festival was based on Roberts’ developing passion for hosting community events, but the event itself was made to memorialize his friend Matthew Bishop, a youth worker and radio host of CFUV’s Skankster’s Paradise who tragically died after a rock climbing accident in 1998.

“I was introduced to third wave ska from that radio show, and even co-hosted some at UVic,” Roberts says. “When he died, during my eulogy I said I would continue his work with youth outreach and continue to keep ska alive. It’s been my mission and my life ever since.”

Since its inception, the festival and the ska society have also vowed to change peoples’ perceptions of ska, and also educate them a bit on the genre’s history. 

“A lot of people who just don’t know or haven’t been to a ska show think of the music as a lot of white dudes in skinny ties and pork pie hats,” Roberts says. “That’s totally only one aspect of ska from a band like No Doubt or Mighty Mighty Boss Tones, but Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were playing ska before reggae. There’s a rich history with ska and it’s interesting how it has continued to change and adapt.”

This year’s Ska & Reggae Fest headliner is Maxi Priest, a real legend responsible for popularizing reggae fusion music. “He’s 60, but he plays and looks like he’s 40, y’know?” Roberts says. “The music keeps him young, and that’s really reassuring to see and hear.”

Another group Roberts is excited for people to see is the Pan Wizards Steel Orchestra, a high school 30-piece steel drum band from Edmonds, Washington led by steel drum director Gary Gibson. 

“There’s different sizes and talent levels in the band,” Roberts says. “I’ve always loved steel drum. And I mean, it’s not exactly reggae music, but as you can notice, the festival’s a lot more broad than the title indicates.” 

Roberts has a number of stories about forming bonds with the musicians who play the Ska & Reggae Festival. A recent memorable interaction was meeting Cayeto, the lead vocalist and bassist of Ojo De Buey, a Latin reggae fusion band he has been trying to book at the festival for years.

“I travel a lot and meet many people, just from having this festival,” Roberts says. “But I met Cayeto through a mutual friend when I was in Costa Rica, and we had a great time at this Jamaican restaurant and really bonded over music. In fact, I’d say there is some personal connection between 80 per cent of the artists and myself or someone from the society. We’ve really built a little community.”

The Victoria Ska & Reggae Festival runs June 21 t0 25 | MORE INFO + TICKETS