Alfredo Caxaj: His Story and the History of SunFest
- By Ryan Labreche
"A community without live music is a community without a soul."
- Alfredo Caxaj
We know SunFest well. It’s an immense cultural phenomenon with its roots planted deep in our community’s soil. As we all know, with every phenomenon usually comes a story that lives up to its hype, and the history of SunFest is no exception!
To truly appreciate its history, we should get to know the story of the man who started it all: its founder and artistic director, Alfredo Caxaj.
Although these are his titles when it comes to SunFest, he’s a very well-known and distinguished figure in the community with a fantastic personality known the world over. Being an accomplished international musician himself, Alfredo has a profound understanding behind the meaning of art and diversity. Having played with many bands over the years, he is most known as the percussionist in his own Latin Jazz Ensemble and performer with world fusion group, Antler River.
With SunFest fast approaching, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Alfredo last Friday, in a quiet corner at downtown’s William’s Café for a coffee and what I thought was going to be an article interview. Rather, it turned out to be an insightful discussion about everything that makes SunFest and its history so incredible.
And so we begin.
The story starts in 1985, during the boiling point of political repression in his native country, Guatemala. Alfredo came to Canada to begin anew, arriving in Toronto. What he saw was a city thriving in diversity and art.
At this point in our conversation, he let out a playful laugh and said, “After seeing all the diversity and multicultural art and celebrations in Toronto, I thought this is how Canada was. When I came to London, I saw the art and diversity, but I didn’t see anything happening that brings people together to celebrate it.”
Being an artist and performer himself, he had a vision to create that very thing London was missing – and thus the idea of SunFest was born. From its humble beginnings 23 years ago, it transitioned from a small venue into one of the biggest international/multicultrual festivals in Canada. With passion, determination, and a deep understanding of the harmony between art and diversity, it's no wonder SunFest has garnered the reputation and praise it receives today.
We're likely all cusious to know, so I asked him how SunFest separates itself from other festivals in Southwestern Ontario. With a prideful smile, he responded, “Sometimes, when we talk about SunFest, we call it the ‘global village’ because we appeal to everyone. More than 25% of our attendance comes from outside of Southwestern Ontario, and some even come from around the world.”
“What makes SunFest a beautiful thing is we keep the experience fresh. Many festivals in the world recycle their performers - we like to find new performers to play every year,” he continues. With the exception of their smash headliner, Five Alarm Funk, playing their 8th year at the festival, his focus is to curate a diverse list of accomplished international performers to discover. “We have performers from around the world who come here just to play at SunFest and then go back home."
“Lots of festivals seem to depend on mainstream musicians for their success. We want our success to come from the experience, which is very organic.” Quite modest in nature, Alfredo’s views on the festival industry are the opposite of begrudging. “They do what works for them, we just do what works for us.”
And does it ever work! Beginning with a handful of friends and volunteers, as well as few musicians and a small rented space, SunFest has literally blown out of proportion! Not only is TD Canada Trust now the official corporate sponsor, the festival now features 4 days which host 36 musical acts (4 of which are affiliated with London) and over 300 artists. Music aside, the festival’s international food has becoming a major attraction.
Did you know that Sunfest employs 6 part-time students and receives the help of over 400 volunteers?!
“So many people want to be a part of SunFest. We are very appreciative for the help we get, however this is the first year we reached the volunteer limit” he said. “We had so many people want to volunteer and, unfortunately, we couldn’t find any more positions to fill. I hope they try again next year, we don’t like turning people away.”
Alfredo is in the process of establishing a charity under the SunFest name to assist in its growth and expansion in the years to come. With that said, the festival faces a big challenge - it’s maximized its use of Victoria Park! Alfredo explained to me that, 12 years ago, the city invested in generators to host festivals in the park, but they don’t transmit enough power to meet SunFest’s growing demand. By 2019, for the festival’s 25th year of operation, SunFest is looking to carry the festival out onto the streets. So there are some major plans in effect for SunFest’s to get bigger and brighter in the years to come!
Some final thoughts.
Before wrapping up, I asked him if he could share his thoughts with us on live music and the impact it’s had on his life. He was delighted to oblige.
“When I arrived in Canada, we created a salsa band and played within our community. These were hard times, coming to a new place. Live music became a therapy. It was a way to face and challenge racism, discrimination, and social pressures we were exposed to.”
He told me that he would take his family and children to see live music instead of going to theme parks or the movies. Instilling and promoting the spirit of live music was his legacy to his family - and to us all.
“There’s nothing better than live music; no question. Live music is the most beautiful reflection of life. A community without live music is a community without a soul.”
If that isn’t quotable, I don’t know what is. When I heard this, I almost dropped my cup of coffee mid-sip - it was so eloquent.
He then graciously enlightened me on his views as a performer. “As a performer, it’s a way of disseminating your art and skills to the hundreds or thousands of people who will appreciate what you do. It’s crucial, you know? It’s an essential venue for artists to grow in their career. It's a way to learn and progress, while being able to share what you love.”
After exchanging a few more words, we realized how much time had gone by. What was supposed to be a quick interview turned into an hour and a half of insight and history, transforming my perception of what SunFest stands for entirely. After a picture and a handshake, the 'interview' was over and we parted ways.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed recounting my experiences with Mr. Caxaj.
If you'd like to support SunFest or would like more information, you can reach them by email at: email@example.com or by phone at: 519-672-1522.
All the best, London. See you there!
All Ages?: Yes
Licensed Event?: Yes
Local Acts: 4 (affiliated with London)
Total Performers: 36 + over 300 artists
Volunteers: over 400
For the SunFest 2017 event calendar click here.
- Filed Under:
- London Music Office