Island Festival to move near Growler Stadium, no longer in it

With the return of a member of the Deering festival dynasty, the Kalamazoo Island Fest is getting off the ball field and returning to its June spot on the calendar.

The reggae/Caribbean music and food festival will be near the Growlers Stadium, on a grassy field at Mayor's Riverfront Park June 16-18.

Emily Deering wants to keep her family's festival traditions strong, she says, but another of her reasons for getting back to the family business is to raise awareness and funds for Huntingdon's disease. 

Her father Wayne Deering co-founded the fest, with Paul Toth, in 1996, but handed off Island Fest to Tom Jennings and David Bauman last year. 

Emily joined Jennings and Bauman as a coordinator for this year's fest. Last year was a "success," she says, but "we lost some of our ambiance by being inside the ball diamond." So this year, the festival will be out on the grassy field north-west of the stadium.

It will be packed with 50 craft and food booths, featuring art, goods and cuisine from all over the world, she says. There will be 30 hours of reggae, with local, regional and international artists. Saturday night headliner Warrior King, from Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, describes himself as "an ambassador of uplifting reggae."  

"Island Fest is, I think, one of the most diverse events happening in Kalamazoo," Deering says. "I'll walk through there on set-up day, and there are about ten different languages being spoken, from all over.... We need that. We really need events, in this day and age, that celebrate people and don't have an agenda -- we're just here to celebrate each other's cultures."

She's had much experience with the complexities of putting on a big show. Deering's family had been in the festival business "forever. I was in my Mom's belly for Taste of Kalamazoo (another Wayne Deering festival) when that started. It's so nice this year, as an adult, to be able to help my family with this."

That help for her family includes raising awareness for Huntingdon's, a hereditary, degenerative disease of the nervous system, described as  "having Parkinson's, ALS, and Alzheimer's simultaneously," Deering says.

Offsprings of sufferers have a 50 per cent chance of carrying the gene for the disease. "It affects my family pretty directly," she says. A cousin of her mother's carries the gene, and his children are at risk. 

There is no cure, and few treatment options. There is some hope, she says, pointing to a recent story that came out of Hopkins, of a family raising sheep that may help sufferers.

The sheep have a genetic mutation that produces an over-abundance of a natural nerve-protector that Huntingdon's sufferers lack. "But in order to keep moving those treatments forward, there needs to be an awareness and some funding," Deering says. 

There's one big connection to the disease and roots music -- Huntingdon's was relatively unknown in the 1950s, when beloved American folk singer Woody Guthrie was hospitalized with it at age 43. He died from the disease at 55. Proceeds of Island Fest will go to Huntingdon's Disease Society of America, founded by wife Marjorie Guthrie.  

Freelance journalist Mark Wedel has covered a bewildering number of subjects since 1992. For more information, see his website.

Festival coordinator Emily Deering on the Mayors’ Riverfront Park site of the 2016 Kalamazoo Island Festival.  Photo by Mark Wedel

Festival season is well upon us. If you weren't paying attention you already missed Greek Fest last weekend (June 2-4). Here's what's coming up:
Kalamazoo Pride: June 10 and 11
Kalamazoo Island Fest: June 16, 17,18
Family Fest: June 16
Kalamazoo Irish Fest: June 17,18
Kalamazoo Blues Festival: July 7, 8, 9
Black Arts Festival: July 11-17
Kalamazoo Ribfest: Aug. 4, 5, 6
Kalamazoo County Fair: Aug. 8-13
Audiotree Music Festival: Aug. 20
Kalamazoo Scottish Fest and Highland Games: Aug 27
Food Truck Rally: Sept. 16
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