Fests, finally: A look at Victoria’s summer festivals
With the return of summer in Victoria comes festivals. There's a wide variety of music, theatre, cultural, and community events to explore, even on a student budget.
There are popular spots around town to take part in festival fun: Centennial Square, Ship Point, the Cameron Bandshell in Beacon Hill Park, the Inner Harbour. The City of Victoria also has stages set up at the Fort Common, Broad Street, the Government Street pedestrian priority zone, Songhees Park plaza, and Fisherman's Wharf Park.
The TD International JazzFest and the Victoria Ska & Reggae Festival kick off the summer music festival season, but there's a lot more music around town. The City of Victoria has their free Youth Music Series on Wednesday in July from 2 pm to 4 pm at the Cameron Bandshell, featuring musicians under 24. CFUV 101.9 FM and the City of Victoria are highlighting Victoria's independent music with another free event this summer, the 10th Annual Eventide Music Series on Wednesdays in July and August from 6 pm to 9 pm at Centennial Square.
At the Cameron Bandshell, there are free community arts programs such as Garden City Harmony (a drop-in choir), Sweet Succulent Success (step-by-step instruction to building a tin can planter), Zumba, Qigong, and Swing and Latin dance classes.
That's just the tip of the festival iceberg this year. Read on as we dig deeper into some events that students won't want to miss out on this summer.
TURN IT UP
One of the first big music festivals happening this year is the Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival, taking place from Wednesday, June 21 to Sunday, June 25. And, despite its name, this one isn't just ska and reggae.
"It's a lot broader than the title indicates," says Ska Fest director Dane Roberts. "So, it says ska and reggae, but it has a lot more to offer. And there's a lot more genres that extended to Jamaican-rooted music than people may think, like hip hop and jungle. There's… global roots… jazz… soul music, folk music."
Roberts’ passion for third-wave ska and Jamaican-rooted music was influenced by his friend Matt Bishop, who hosted Skankster's Paradise on CFUV; Bishop died in 1998. Continuing Bishop's legacy, Roberts wants to introduce people to Jamaican-rooted music they may not have heard before.
"It's kind of interesting, because, you know, some of the bands that we ended up getting, we’ve been talking to them for like five years previous, and then we just ended up getting them and we’re always constantly talking to new bands," says Roberts.
Roberts says that Ska Fest competes with other festivals in the US and Europe when it comes to booking bands; the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar also creates challenges.
"It's a small miracle we can put together such a great lineup," he says.
However, word has spread about Ska Fest, and bands want to come to Victoria. Roberts says that they’ve heard about how professional the staff is; they see the photos and videos; they hear what a fun time it is. But Victoria is a smaller market, and it's expensive for bands to come because of ferry costs. Sometimes bands want to come to Ska Fest, but the timing doesn't work out and they end up either coming to the Victoria Ska and Reggae Society's Garden City Grooves festival or they just come to play their own show.
Despite the challenges of booking bands, Ska Fest continues to offer three free shows at Ship Point on the first two days and the last day of the festival; the shows at Ship Point and the Victoria Curling Club are all ages and all shows are licensed for alcohol. The fest also offers 15 free workshops with various artists that are playing at Ska Fest. It's an opportunity for fans and artists to get together in a more personal way. The focus of workshops is music, not industry.
"[It's] something to do with the historical aspect of music or something to do that will teach people about the genre of music that the artist is playing," says Roberts. "So, I think it's a good music education tool for us to do."
Of course, there are plenty of other music fests happening this year: Philips Backyard is hosting two weekend festivals again this year. Tilt runs from July 7 to 9, with Lord Huron, DJ Pee Wee, and Bahamas headlining. Reverb is from August 11 to 13 with headliners Jesse Roper, Peach Pit, and Fleet Foxes.
Rifflandia is back with two full weekends this year: September 7 to 9 and 15 to 17. The fest features a stacked lineup—Iggy Pop, Run the Jewels, Diplo, Chris Lake—including some throwbacks to the ’90s (hello, Salt-N-Pepa). Like previous years, there are two locations: The Park (Royal Athletic Park), with two stages, and Electric Avenue (Pembroke Street), with two stages and the Dome.
The Victoria Jazz Society has two festivals happening this year: JazzFest and Harbour Blues ’n Roots Festival.
Victoria has a plethora of free music during the summer months. There are also several pop-up shows with stages throughout the city at various times covering a wide variety of genres.
FROM THE STAGE TO THE BIG SCREEN
Victoria Fringe Festival—curated by Intrepid Theatre—is one of the longest-running Fringe festivals in Canada. Fringe is a budget-friendly opportunity for people to check out experimental theatre and emerging artists.
"We try to make sure that it's kept relatively low-barrier for people, cost-wise," says Intrepid Theatre producer Emmett MacMillen.
All proceeds from ticket sales go directly to the artists; a $6 Fringe button is needed to purchase tickets, with proceeds from the buttons going to Intrepid Theatre. One change at Fringe Fest this year is that ticket sales are transitioning to online rather than at the door (buttons can also be bought online and picked up at the show).
MacMillen says that Fringe Fest is not just for the regular theatre patron.
"There is something for almost anybody. And it's a really great way to get out into downtown," says MacMillen. "It's a really great way to see people who are from all over the place, because we do have people who are all the way from Australia coming to the Victoria Fringe Festival to perform. So, it's a great programming opportunity for everybody. But I do think that it is a great space for young people and for students to come and experience something maybe they haven't experienced before."
Curated through a lottery draw, Intrepid Theatre ensures the selection process is unbiased. Intrepid has a percentage breakdown for the number of acts that are local, provincial, national, and international in the lottery to create a diverse festival; this year there were 100 applicants for 30 shows.
Fringe Fest runs for 11 days from August 23 to September 3 with two to four shows a day. There are five venues in or near downtown; Intrepid tries to keep venues close together to allow festival-goers an opportunity to see multiple shows at different venues in one day.
Fringe Club is also running this year but with a new name: Fringe Cabaret. Held at the Intrepid Studio, it's a place to go after a show, have a drink, and potentially meet some of the artists and hang out for the evening.
Another opportunity for inexpensive theatre is SKAMpede, a walk/bike tour of performances along the Galloping Goose Trail, Songhees Walkway, and David Foster Harbour Pathway, where various stages are set up for outdoor performances.
The Victoria Film Festival is bringing back its Free-B Film Festival at the Cameron Bandshell in Beacon Hill Park. Running on select Fridays and Saturdays in August, the festival kicks off on Friday, August 11 with Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Movies are family-friendly and free; bring a blanket, as seats at the bandshell fill up quickly.
Victoria offers various opportunities to learn about diverse cultures throughout the summer. Returning for its third year, Viva! Victoria Latin Festival (VVLF) aims to share the rich and diverse Latin culture with everyone through a wide range of live music and dance performances.
"We have a Cuban band," says VVLF promoter Moises Del Olmo. "The band that is coming from Vancouver is Wasakaka All Stars and they play a little bit of salsa from Colombia, merengue from the Dominican Republic… Cumbia is from Mexico, and salsa is from basically all over Latin America."
There will be two dance performances—one with salsa, bachata, and kizomba, and the other showcasing folklore dancing.
"So, they’re very traditional," says Del Olmo. "They wear costumes like the dresses that they used back in the days where they, our ancestors, used for dancing and doing all those shows."
There will be a zumba class, which is an exercise class infused with salsa, merengue, and kizomba moves. Del Olmo also points out that sometimes when hiccups happen with sound or changing over the stage between bands there can be spontaneous dance classes to fill the time, as many dance instructors attend VVLF.
Foodies interested in trying some Latin flavours will have an opportunity to try food from El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Colombia, and possibly more. There will also be an arts and crafts market, which Del Olmo hopes will expose people to the Latin American culture.
"We always encourage [vendors] to try to teach people a little bit of the culture of the articles that they’re selling or the stuff that they’re producing," he says.
Del Olmo describes VVLF as a fiesta.
"[It's] something that we don't get very often in Victoria," he says. "So having something like this is an amazing activity for everybody which is free, another thing that our students like. But I think that being a multicultural event, the students of Camosun will definitely find something for their taste when it comes to music and food and drinks, of course."
VVLF runs on August 5 and 6 at Centennial Square, and it's not the only cultural event happening this summer. Mabuhay! brings Philippine culture, food, and music to Centennial Square on June 10 and 11. There's Rendez-vous Victoria, which promotes Francophone culture and community together at various locations from June 22 to August 8. Returning for its 17th year is the Annual Festival Mexicano on July 8 and 9 in the Inner Harbour. The Flamenco Festival is an opportunity to explore dance and song from southern Spain from July 22 to 29 at the Cameron Bandshell.
FEEL THE COMMUNITY
FernFest, produced by Fernwood NRG, is back for its 26th year on June 16 and 17, with three stages, a beer garden, barbecue, and a 60-vendor artisan market. The main stage is in Fernwood Square, which is also where the beer garden and barbecue can be found. The Field of Dreams stage is behind the Fernwood Community Centre in Stevenson Park; the Little Fernwood Stage is in the Fernwood Community Association building at 1923 Fernwood Road.
"The Fernwood Community Center was called Big Fernwood and then Fernwood Community Association was called Little Fernwood," explains Fernwood NRG director of community development Mila Czemerys. "So, it's kind of an homage to that history that we’re calling that stage Little Fernwood."
An easy way to remember where to go to (other than where the beer and barbecue are) is that the main stage is where to find the music to get you dancing while Field of Dreams is more chill and relaxing. Little Fernwood hosts kids’ art activities and all-ages shows. The artisan market runs down Gladstone Avenue between Fernwood Square and the Fernwood Community Centre, with a few vendors at the Field of Dreams.
"We’re partnering with Vinyl Envy record store," says Czemerys. "We love working with them because they’re great supporters of music in the community and we love that they have that accessible all ages [venue]. Especially since so many stages have closed down in the past few years."
The musicians that are performing aren't just local—they’re coming from Prince Rupert, Lillooet Nation, and Vancouver. And music won't be the only thing going on in the Field of Dreams. There will be a community art project with Knotty by Nature and live art with Chai. Kids can enjoy magic shows, a bouncy castle, bubbles, and live games. The Good Food Box, Fernwood NRG's food access program, will be there; Heart & Hand Health Collective will also be giving acupuncture treatments in the Field of Dreams.
"Everyone is invited to come take part in FernFest; all ages are welcome. And yeah, we just love seeing the community come out," says Czemerys. "And we encourage people, if they want, wear costumes, just be yourself, and come and have a great time with us."
For more community spirit check out the Village Block Party in Cook Street Village on June 11 and VicWest Fest on June 25.
After a summer of fun (and hopefully many festivals) is the return of school. After surviving the first week of classes filled with instructors going over their syllabi comes the Great Canadian Beer Festival on Friday September 8 and Saturday, September 9; seems like a happy accident, but it's purposely timed that way.
"One of the things we learned from [the original founders] is that part of the reason why they scheduled it for the weekend after Labor Day when they adopted that as the regular dates," says Victoria Beer Society beer director Joe Wiebe, "was exactly because that's right after all the students would be coming back to school, because they figured a big part of their target audience was, you know, university and college students."
Ideally, GCBF would like to bring in beers from every province and territory, however, that's not an easy feat. Only a small number of breweries from outside of BC are already established here. "If they don't already do it, then we have to work with a distributor who is willing to put in the effort to establish a relationship with those breweries and sign some sort of partnership agreement with them to represent them in the province," says Wiebe. "And then, they have to worry about shipping the beer here and getting it all organized. And that's a lot of work."
It takes a good deal of developing relationships with breweries and distributors to get the beer here. Wiebe also notes that, ideally, breweries would send a representative to GCBF to answer questions from beer enthusiasts about the beer and brewery. Unfortunately, that's not always financially viable. Alternatively, breweries are encouraged to send marketing materials to have available at their booth.
And while there is a program guide that lists all the breweries, the best-laid plans to taste beers can be easily thwarted.
"I think the other thing that happens at the beer fest I really love is just that old thing of you meet people, and they say, ‘Oh, have you tried beer from Smithers’ brewery? It's so good.’ And you’re like, ‘Smithers? I didn't even know they had a brewery.’ Then you go running off to find that booth and you try the beer," says Wiebe. "You talk to someone else at that booth and they say, ‘Oh yeah, did you try this beer from Halifax? Wow, is it ever good.’ And then you go check that one out. And that's one of my favourite things about Beer Fest is you just randomly get recommended, and you just follow that lead. You just end up having a really fun kind of scavenger quest."
Even just going from point A to point B might include stops along the way simply because a booth looks interesting. A lineup at one brewery might cause a change of course to another brewery. It really is a scavenger hunt for new beers to try; budget beer tokens accordingly.
If September seems too far away for Beer Fest, don't worry: Langford Beer Fest is returning to the Starlight Stadium on July 15. This year it will be bigger, expanding onto the field and creating a similar vibe to GCBF.
"We’re thinking, well, we need to find some other things to fill out some other spots in the year," says Wiebe about the Langford fest. "And Langford really seemed like an obvious choice because the community has grown so much in the last decade. So many people live there. A lot of those people were travelling into the city, to downtown Victoria, to go to our events, and we thought, well, why don't we bring an event to them?"
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
One common sentiment among the festival promoters and producers I talked to for this story is that the events couldn't exist without volunteers. The people behind the fests are grateful for everyone who helps with their events, and those who return year after year have built a sense of community among volunteers.
"I think that you get to meet an amazing array of people," says Roberts about volunteering at Ska Fest. "Like, very passionate, very nice and very intelligent people."
Volunteering at a festival has various perks, ranging from getting free entrance into the event, free food and beverages, or volunteer appreciation parties.
"Fringe Festival could not happen without our very dedicated volunteer base. So, usually how we do it is volunteers get to see the show that they’re volunteering for," says MacMillen. "If you wanted to, just go see what the shows are, you can sign up to volunteer for it." (Fringe is also working out details for a system that will allow volunteers to see multiple shows based on the number of shifts they work.)
Volunteering has a variety of benefits: it looks good on a resume, it builds community, it gives back to that community, and, in some cases, it saves money.
"It's always a super fun time," says Fern Fest's Czemerys. "A great way to get involved with the community, meet new people and learn new skills. [Fern Fest has] an amazing crew of volunteers, there's lots of people that have volunteered for five years plus and it's just really nice to get to know folks in the community and also give back."