Illustration by Zohra Kassam

CISCO OTTAWA BLUESFEST has long been the most popular music event in the nation’s capital. Ever since its debut in 1994, the festival has grown greatly in size and evolved its entertainment. Initially dedicated to solely singing the blues, the festival now focuses on offering a more modern and diverse lineup. While some fans are in favour of fresh acts, others are religious blues fans and argue that the festival should stay true to its roots.

Point: Out with the blues, in with the others

Having grown from its humble roots as a small blues festival, Ottawa Bluesfest has become one of the largest and most successful music festivals in the country. Debuting to a crowd of 5,000 fans over three days, the festival now has a city full of music lovers passing through the Lebreton Flats each year. This massive spike in attendance has been largely attributed to the diversification of acts, particularly within the last few years.

With popular musicians like Snoop Dogg, K’naan, and Lupe Fiasco playing the festival, it’s clear that Bluesfest has moved away from its roots and expanded into other genres. This approach has upset many blues purists, but to me this seems like the only logical way to keep the festival exciting and current. Bluesfest never could have reached the size it is now if it had not expanded and begun to include the numerous indie, metal, hip-hop, and rock and roll artists that frequent the festival’s stages. These bands draw in crowds of concert-goers that would likely never bother with a festival dedicated solely to the blues the genre just doesn’t have the scope in Ottawa to allow the festival organizers to have such a massive party without bringing in bands from other genres.

It all boils down to the name of the festival. If you’re hung up on the “blues” part of Bluesfest—rather than the “fest” part—then I can see why you might be slightly disappointed with the increasing amount of non-blues bands playing. But overall, it’s hard to knock what Bluesfest has become. It has grown into one of the biggest and best music festivals around because of the open-mindedness of the organizers and the diversity of the acts they’ve brought to the festival.

—Mack Gray

Counterpoint: Don’t abandon the blues

On their website, Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest boasts one of the most diverse lineups of any outdoor festival in Canada, calling itself the Canadian equivalent of such festivals as Bonnaroo, Coachella, and the famed New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. What is surprising, if not slightly amusing, is that not once in its entire history page does Bluesfest mention its origins. What is even stranger is that the site actually changed its introductory paragraph to read “Canada’s fastest growing outdoor music festival,” instead of its original “Canada’s fastest growing celebration of blues and roots music.” The change in acts and advertisement begs the question: Where did all them blues go? Has the festival really come so far as to turn its nose up at its roots?

Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m all for musical diversity. I believe a true music lover’s palette is rich and able to appreciate the subtleties of a variety of musical genres without deference. I will also gladly admit that I was headbanging to Skrillex’s dubstep beats just as hard as the next kid. However, I also made sure to stop by the National Bank stage to check out local blues talent Monkey Junk, and was mesmerized by the legendary Buddy Guy and up-and-coming Quinn Sullivan at the Subway stage. While some will argue that this is intentional—get people in with big names and surely they will check out a couple blues acts—is this really fair? More importantly, is it really working?

With Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest being the largest blues- and grassroots-oriented festival in the city, blues musicians wanting to represent themselves in the nation’s capital are being asked to compete with big name bands from virtually every other musical background under the sun. Honestly, if Sherman Robertson and the Black Keys were cage fighters pit against each other in a death match, who do you think would win? I think the stage assignment for those bands says it all.

So why doesn’t Ottawa look into creating an exclusively rock or indie festival to help eliminate the number of unfortunate decisions forced upon fans, such as: “Should I see harmonica extraordinaire Steve Marriner or the quirky sister act Tegan and Sara?” In a nutshell: money. More diversity equals a larger turnout, making Bluesfest one of North America’s main musical events and with profits to boot. But what about that little thing called integrity? Shouldn’t we be showing this musical genre the respect it deserves? Don’t go all Bieber on us, Cisco—bring back the blues.

—Michelle Ferguson