First Staging of Kitchener Reggae Festival features Konshens, Luciano, Gyptian, Stylo G, and Kranium

Living in Toronto, you become accustomed to having your favourite artists perform frequently, close to home. In the summer in particular, every weekend plays host to reggae and soca artists, stage shows, special events, boat rides, and other celebrations featuring the singers and DJs we have grown to appreciate over the years. In Canada, we are blessed because our city is a definitely must on any island entertainer's tour itinerary.

Over the years we've also, unfortunately, had to witness the closing down of venues in Toronto, the logistical difficulties for even the most experienced of promoters and event teams "due to circumstances beyond their control," and an overall decline in the availability of space and the decline in faith of some of the systems that used to be reliable. We've witnessed the closing, demolition, and gentrification of some of our favourite concert locations of the past (Guvernment and Kool Haus, for example). We've seen Richmond Street and the infamous Entertainment District of Toronto go from a bustling weekend environment to a relatively uneventful downtown street now.

The systems are changing, but the demand for musical acts and entertainment events is still high. Our need for live performances and interactions with our favourite musicians is increasing if anything, and yet somehow the city that once used to host and openly satisfy our insatiable musical appetites has been letting us down.

We have decentralized: while downtown Toronto used to be the hub of activity, now we find ourselves being entertained in Scarborough, Vaughan, Mississauga, and getting used to taking a longer drive for the sake of a more comfortable atmosphere, reliable regulations, and a guaranteed execution of events.

This past weekend, the drive was even longer than normal for those of us commuting from Toronto to attend the first annual Kitchener Reggae Festival, yet the additional 100km was well worth it.

Presented by Beyond Oz productions, in association with Bingeman's On the Grand concert space, the Kitchener Reggae Festival was an excellent way to spend a summer evening, as well as a nice change of pace from the regular hustle and bustle of Toronto. Not only were there new faces (I imagine travelling in from other parts of Ontario like Windsor and London, in addition to the Kitchener/Waterloo residents and other Toronto commuters), but it was a fresh energy as well.

Bingeman's concert venue, On the Grand, is a part of the 170 acre property that also hosts a camping grounds, conference centre, water park, and volleyball facilities. The outdoor stage area is ideal for crowds from 200 to 30,000 and is parked on a flat surface, with a natural incline grassy area where hundreds of reggae fans were able to sit, secure personal chairs, or dance freely. At the top of the hill: food vendors were parked, as were bar facilities for this wristband-accessible all ages event.

For Kitchener/Waterloo locals, Bingeman's is no secret. In fact, the Beyond Oz team also hosts a huge electronic music festival there each summer, the Ever After Music Fest with upwards of 30,000 attendees each year. It's a great space for music lovers, and a particularly dope environment to host a reggae festival.

The lineup alone was a draw, with the headliners for the Kitchener Reggae Festival including Toronto-based singer/songwriter Shalli, in addition to Jamaican performers Luciano, Stylo G, Kranium, Gyptian, and Konshens. Collectively, they are powerhouses with an impressive catalogue of hits over the decades. Individually, they are respected artists each in their own unique ways, and they each brought something different to the festivities.

Scheduled from 6pm to 11pm, the concert started promptly as advertised in the bright hours of Saturday evening. Parking was ample, the drive in was easy (despite a little bit of construction traffic on the way out of Toronto on the DVP), and entrance into the venue was hassle-free after a quick security check and ticket scan. No heavy lineups.

We arrived just in time to see Luciano touch the stage, sharing that cherished baritone voice with his fans. He gave us greats from "Never Give Up My Pride" to "Sweep Over My Soul," he spoke to his supporters about guidance and leading the next generation, and he sang praises to the sound men for keeping the reggae music industry vibrant. Luciano never disappoints, and it was a joy--as always--to hear that voice live. And to see the cartwheel. Just like he did at Rebel Salute earlier this year, I was happy to catch one of his signature cartwheels up close and personal. Luciano is full of energy, wisdom, and a regal grace.

Following the Messenjah, was British resident Stylo G, who has had one of the year's biggest hits with "Just Touch Down" that the audience waited until the end of his set to enjoy. Stylo G, a newer addition to the dancehall scene, was also full of electricity as he performed, and brought a current element to the evening's agenda.

After Stylo G, Kranium blessed the stage also singing some of his recent current smash hits like "Nobody Haffi Know" and urging his fans to sing along. Despite the mix of conscious reggae and current dancehall, the crowd of reggae fans from late teens to elder Luciano's peers seemed to have an appreciation for all of the artists, regardless of genre or style.

Kranium was followed by Gyptian, another recent legend in his own right who saw much international success with his songs "Hold You" and other favourites like "These Are Some Serious Times." He looked great, sounded great, and held his own like a veteran.

Worth noting: the production was excellent from the sound to the staging, and as the night progressed I continued to be impressed with how smoothly the itinerary was flowing, and how everything was on schedule to conclude as advertised.

The final act of the evening was Konshens, who has also seen great widespread success over the past few years with his staple dancehall classics like "Bruk off Yuh Back" and "Gal a Bubble." Another highlight of the evening, preceding Konshens' set was the interlude from his tour DJ, American DJ International Starr who led the crowd on a singalong with many dancehall favourites from Buju Banton to Damian Marley.

This festival moved, with only brief DJ and MC interludes between sets. I was impressed with the flow, the content, and the attendance overall...particularly for a first-time event. Few things can compare to live music: the energy, the sound, the vibrations, and the joy of getting to see your favourite entertainers and hear the raw talent without filter or distraction. The Kitchener Reggae Festival proved to be a smooth presentation of reggae music, and reliable with time restraints (which was convenient for those who had to head back to the city afterwards).

Now that I've experienced it once, I can't help but prepare for the next edition. Yes, there are a multitude of reggae shows in the Greater Toronto Area to take part in year-round, in addition to catching stage shows in Jamaica. This goes without saying. But what the Kitchener Reggae Festival offers is a change. A change of venue, a change of pace, a change of patrons, and refreshing appreciation for having reggae artists in that space.

We take it for granted: the accessibility. For example, I know that Beres is here on Friday and Koffee here on Monday. It's the week leading up to Caribana, so it's safe to say that most of the top Caribbean artists will be passing through Toronto at some point this month. This is a given. While it's nice to know this, it's also nice to know that there's an option for those of us who like to leave the city every now and then...but can't squeeze in a full fledged "vacation" for entertainment. It's a great alternative for a road trip, and there's plenty of space to park chairs, spread picnic blankets, and enjoy the summer weather while still taking in a few full, high-energy reggae performances.

Stylo G
I'm looking forward to the next edition of this festival. Most importantly, it was a reminder that outside of the Toronto entertainment bubble, there is green space, music lovers, and some of the elements of entertainment that we take for granted here in Toronto...or have been denied access to, by no fault of our own. This festival has inspired me to think outside of the box where entertainment is concerned and realize that this province is full of locations and professionals who also love what we love, and are just as committed to putting on a good show as the teams and names that we are familiar with through experience, and routine.

Vocab Communications and the entire Kitchener Reggae Festival team were excellent communicators from start to finish, and these are the elements of production that truly make the experience special from a media standpoint, from a fan perspective, and generally where organization is concerned. For the first time presenting this festival, they have proven to already be experts and will no doubt follow up in 2020 with an equally impressive--if not better--celebration of the music that touches so many of us in our spirits.

The artists and patrons of reggae music deserve nothing less than this level of execution and solid entertainment. This is an example that I will hold as a standard for reggae music here in Canada: musically, and logistically.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.


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