Memorial Day weekend has long served as the kickoff of the summer, a time right before the heat and dog days settle in to take a break and catch up with friends and family. Itâ€™s a time to have fun and forget about any worries that might be weighing you down. No genre of music quite captures and delivers on this premise like reggae, which could be why the Kentucky Reggae Festival has been a local Memorial Day weekend tradition for over 20 years.
â€œI came up with the idea to have the event while I was on a vacation in Florida with a group of friends in 1990. We decided to check out a reggae bar for New Yearâ€™s Eve, and we had a terrific time! The following day, I thought to myself how cool it would be to bring that experience to an outdoor setting in Louisville,â€ says Larry Bisig, CEO of Bisig Impact Group, the organizer of the event.
Jennifer Washle is the promotions manager at Bisig Impact Group and has long been at the helm of the event: â€œI have been at the Bisig Group for almost 19 years. At the time I came on, Larry was running the event himself, and I guess he was impressed with my work ethic. I love what I do for a living. It is rewarding. Itâ€™s scary. Itâ€™s a lot of long, long hours, but there is nothing better than all the effort you have to put in your job and see the end result of all those patrons walking through our gate and having a great a time.â€
In Washleâ€™s tenure, things have never been short of interesting. Like most music festivals, one of the most common elements that can ruin even the most carefully thought-out plans is the weather. â€œWe have seen everything from snow, sleet, rain, tornadoes and some of the most beautiful days ever,â€ says Washle. â€œAnd you have to roll with those punches. I will never forget that maybe the first or second year, I took more responsibilities on my own, and it rained for three days straight.â€
Washle recalls the frustrations but also wisely points out that, at that point, your hands are tied. â€œYou have to protect your patron first. If there is ever a weather situation that could endanger staff, a patron or a vendor, we take that very, very seriously. And we want people to understand that if we close the venue it is only for the pure safety of them and ourselves.â€ So, as a patron, you can rest easy knowing that Bisig has seen it all in regards to the weather and they can handle any situation Mother Nature throws their way with aplomb.
As previously mentioned, the festival is the kickoff to summer for a lot of people. The denizens of Louisville have long been indoors, so they are starving to get outside. â€œThere are no reggae festivals that weâ€™re aware of within 500 or 600 miles of here, and who would have thought of a reggae festival in Louisville, Kentucky?â€ poses Washle. â€œSo what better way to have fun in the sun than by bringing in a little bit of the Carribean to your weekend?â€
The Kentucky Reggae Festival strictly hires roots reggae bands, and one of the reasons behind that is they are a very family-driven event. The festival makes no claims to be another Forecastle but strongly believes in its musical lineup, including veteran bands Ultra Massive and The Ark Band. â€œWeâ€™re definitely one of the most significant reggae festivals in the region, and it all begins with the music and carries over to the food. We have three Jamaican vendors this year, and normally we have two,â€ says Washle proudly speaking of the exotic fare of vendors A Piece of Jamaica,The Louisville Jamaican Association and T-Boneâ€™s Jerk Shack. â€œWe also offer more normal fare because we know that maybe not everyone wants traditional Jamaican food. Of course, if youâ€™re coming in with your young children, we want to cater to them as well.â€
Another of the unique features of the festival is free, ample parking and general affordability. â€œWe have raised our pricing a little, but only due to the facts of changing costs. We want to stay affordable and only charge enough to continue to produce the festival year after year,â€ explains Washle.
For Washle, the festival is undeniably fun, but it has taken on a new meaning for her over recent years: â€œI love what I do, and thereâ€™s nothing greater than these weeks when Iâ€™m going in 50 different directions. Over the past five years, Iâ€™ve dealt with cancer twice, and when stuff like that happens, it makes things like this so much more enjoyable. To see other people happy and be able to come to work on something else has helped me as much I have helped Bisig. Itâ€™s much deeper these last five years than it has been before.â€
That roots reggae sound is relaxing, festive and fun. It just takes you somewhere else. Bisig knows to keep looking forward and to always try to give the patron the best experience possible. Last year, for the first time, the event ran from Friday through Sunday instead of Saturday through Monday, and that will continue this year still at Water Tower Park. Whichever day you attend, remember to laugh and have fun. As the famous Bobby McFerrin song says, â€œDonâ€™t worry, be happy.â€ VT