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Ithaca Reggae Fest ready for Stewart Park return this weekend

Mad Professor

The fourth Ithaca Reggae Fest returns this weekend after a two-year hiatus, bringing two days of positive vibrations to Stewart Park on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake.

With an emphasis on sustainability – no plastic bottles are allowed inside the festival grounds – the event also seeks to raise awareness of water preservation, in keeping with its official mission statement: “Ithaca Reggae Fest is dedicated to the protection of Cayuga Lake through a conscious celebration of Ithaca’s legendary reggae community and its history.”

The festival kicks off with a free event at 5-9 p.m. Friday at the Large Pavilion, with famed U.K. producer Mad Professor performing a special tribute to the late, legendary Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry at 7:15-9:15 p.m.; Ithaca’s Double Tiger also will do a DJ set at 6-7 p.m., and performances by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) Jumpers (5:30 p.m.) and the Mohawk group Ononkwa (7 p.m.) will round out the evening.

Saturday, the festival continues with the music beginning around 1 p.m., with performances (in order) by The Far East, Drum to the Beat! with Otha Da, Root Shock, JohnyGo Figure, the Sim Redmond Band, Thousands of One, Kabaka Pyramid, and Mosaic Foundation, leading up to a headlining 8:30 p.m. set by northeast reggae-dub rockers 10 Ft. Ganja Plant, mixed by renown Jamaican producer Scientist.

“We put this lineup together in an effort to be a little bit more current and relevant,” said Russ Friedell, head of marketing for the Ithaca Reggae Fest. “10 Ft. Ganja Plant is a mysterious, exciting, revered band that is very closely associated with John Brown's Body and has been around for a long time, but hardly ever performs live. But they have roots in Ithaca, and Nate Richardson, who was a big part of John Brown's Body in their heyday, is in the band.

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Kabaka Pyramid

“Kabaka Pyramid is a fresh face on the Jamaican scene, part of the next generation of Jamaican up-and-comers that blur reggae with hip hop and rock, but yet are really true to the roots,” he continued. “Root Shock, from Syracuse, played the first Ithaca Reggae Fest in 2017, and Thousands of One and Mosaic Foundation played in 2018. I’m also excited about bringing the Sim Redmond Band this year, because of the impact Sim had during those free Ithaca Festival Sundays back in the day.

“In addition to the local and regional bands, we’re continuing to reach to New York City, and in this case Brooklyn, to bring up Jonnygo Figure and The Far East, who are two incredible young bands that are not huge yet, but are very prevalent on the Brooklyn scene. Their musical styles fit perfectly into this festival, so we’re very excited to bring them up here.”

The previous Ithaca Reggae Fests featured pre- and post-show parties at the Haunt, but with that venue defunct as of 2020, the organizers decided to make use of Stewart Park for the whole weekend.

“One of the strongest points of the whole festival is Stewart Park itself, so we decided to add the free Friday night welcome party with Mad Professor,” Friedell said. “He has played in Ithaca many times, so we had been in communication with him. And then when Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry passed away during the pandemic, he offered to make a tribute to his late friend.”

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Mad Professor

Back to the Roots

Friedell said the festival is looking to get back to its roots this weekend.

“The first year, in 2017, was our biggest year – we had about 4,000 people to John Brown’s Body, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and a lot of other regional favorites,” he said. “But in the next two years, we tried to scale it up a little too fast by bringing in larger legacy acts and increasing the ticket price. And what we realized was that that was kind of straying away from our goal to bring the community together.”

He said the festival organizers wanted to recreate the Sunday afternoon vibe of the Ithaca Festival, which for years moved its last day to Stewart Park until financial constraints a few years back forced it to remain downtown for the entirety of the festival

“All of us who were there for those days remember them fondly, so to bring that back requires a really low barrier to entry,” Friedell said. “So what you’re seeing this year is a lineup and a plan we had originally put together before the hiatus to return to our roots into that we had started in 2017, which is a lower barrier to entry, meaning a lower ticket price.”

Indeed, early-bird tickets were priced at $10; they’re available for $20 right up to the first day of the festival, and then they’re $30 at the gate. And children under 16 will be admitted for free with a guardian.

“In summation, the changes to this year are going back to the roots of what the festival is about – getting it back to be an essentially free festival to achieve our mission of bringing communities together,” Friedell said.

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Jim Catalano
A scene from the 2018 Ithaca Reggae Fest.

An Event of Many Parts

The Ithaca Reggae Festival also has several other components that contribute to its unique character:

• Yoga Farm, a partner of the festival, will start off Saturday by leading 108 Sun Salutations on the shore of the lake (pre-registration required on the festival website) at 9 a.m. That will be followed by a Qi Gong breakfast and tea ceremony before a Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ' Cultural Celebration and Community Drum Circle led by Otha Day before the music starts at noon.

The Education Village returns to spotlight a variety of water-protection organizations, including the Audubon Society, Community Science Institute, Cayuga Nature Center, and others that will offer information tables and interactive exhibits.

The Youth Village returns, presented by the Childhood Development Council, New Roots Charter School, and its Youth Entrepreneurism Market (YEM); it will feature youth programming all day Saturday, including family yoga, storytelling, drum circles, and a special performance of the Hangar Theatre’s “Three Little Birds,” a reggae musical part of the Hangar’s summer KiddStuff series.

• GIAC and local artist Jay Stooks will once again host the Art Village on the Stewart Park tennis courts, which will feature many local, regional, and national artists painting live murals, graffiti, etc. on canvasses and boards hanging on the outside of the tennis court throughout the day. All artistic creations will be sold through an online auction after the festival, and all proceeds will be donated to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) in celebration of its 50th anniversary. The Art Village is located outside the festival itself, so it’s free and open to all; no festival ticket is needed.

• In collaboration with AJ Kohn of the Philadelphia Skateboard Academy, Etnies, Real Action Sports, and USA Skateboarding, the festival also will present the first annual Flat Attack US Pro/AM Championships of Flatland Freestyle Skateboarding, which is free to attend apart from the festival and open to participate for all who register on the festival website (entry fee is $20-$30). Qualifying rounds take place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, with the championships held at 2-7 p.m. Saturday on the Stewart Park tennis courts. That’s followed by an open invitation to area skateboarders to compete in a game of S.K.A.T.E., Highest Ollie, and Best Launch Ramp Trick for a $10 fee, with prizes and a raffle offered.

• There also will be a variety of food, crafts, and health vendors on-site throughout the festival. Food Vendors: (Saturday) Silo, Super Fresh, Caribbean Bar & Grill, Asempe Market, Copper Horse Coffee, Congo Square Italian Ice; (Friday) West Indian Flavor, Smash Bros World Foods. Craft Vendors: Lumin Artz, Indigo Moon, Mellow Slow Minerals, Lunch, YEM. Health Vendors: Your CBD Store, Ithaca Chiropractic, Chair Massages, CompleteShakra

• Festival organizers are still looking for volunteers to help run the event. If you’re interested, you can sign up here. Volunteers get free admission, a t-shirt, and a meal in exchange for working a four-hour shift.

• As noted above, no disposable plastic bottles will be allowed within the festival boundaries; bring a reusable bottle, as free water will be provided throughout the day. Coolers, folding chairs, and umbrellas are welcome but will be searched at the gate (no outside alcohol is allowed). No dogs are allowed in the venue, as well.

Kevin Kinsella

Related Events

There are a few related events in downtown Ithaca during the festival weekend:

Kevin Kinsella, a founding member of John Brown’s Body, will perform a show that includes classic JBB material backed by Dub Apocalypse. Part of the Downtown Ithaca Summer Concert Series, the free show is at 6-8 p.m. Thursday at The Range on The Commons. (This concert has been moved inside due to inclement weather).

• Rochester reggae-rockers Personal Blend will play The Upstairs at 10 p.m. Friday. The septet released its debut album “Skin Deep” in 2016, and continues to expand its repertoire of “feel-good, party-vibe music” that has earned them fans around the region. The band’s latest release is 2019’s “Heavy Currents.” There’s a cover charge.

• The official Ithaca Reggae Fest After-Party will take place at 10 p.m. Saturday, with Double Tiger returning to the Range for a “soul shakedown party.” Frontman Jay Spaker will be joined by an all-star band that includes members of Jimkata, Mosaic Foundation, John Brown’s Body, the Analogue Sons, The Comb Down, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, and the Sim Redmond Band to perform songs from his two albums released by Easy Star Records. DJ Hill will spin tunes throughout the night. Cover is $10.

Double Tiger
Double Tiger

If You Go

What: 4th Ithaca Reggae Fest

Where: Stewart Park, Ithaca

When: 5-9 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday

Cost: free on Friday night; $20 in advance (tickets are available online here), $30 at the gate for Saturday. Children under 16 will be admitted free of charge with a parent or guardian.

Parking Info: Parking is available in Stewart Park until spaces fill up. Overflow parking is at Boynton Middle School and Ithaca High School parking lots on North Cayuga Street. Or take a TCAT bus (Route 13 or 13X) and let them know you’re going to Ithaca Reggae Fest for a free ride. The bus drops riders off inside Stewart Park near the front gate.

Event Info

Official website

Read about the 2019 Ithaca Reggae Fest here!

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Jim Catalano
Jay Spaker of John Brown's Body performs at the inaugural Ithaca Reggae Fest in 2017.

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, WITHradio.org) and its affiliates.