Any Londoner will tell you that Sunfest has been a Forest City summer staple for decades.

Despite Sunfest running virtually for its second year in a row in 2021, London, ON’s largest summer festival shows no signs of slowing down.

Even with its move to a virtual space in 2020 and 2021, Sunfest was able to pull people together to celebrate the things in life that we all are craving — inclusion, diversity, and above all, togetherness. A gorgeous blend of great food, great people, and great music has proven time and time again to be an amazing catalyst for the people of London, and then some!

A woman with long brown hair Mercedes sits on the front steps. She smiles into the camera.
Mercedes Caxaj is the Co-Artistic Director for Sunfest, one of London’s biggest and most popular festivals. Photo by Whitney South.

One of the people bringing us these crucial cultural experiences is Mercedes Caxaj, the co-artistic director of Sunfest. Having literally grown up with Sunfest — her father, Alfredo Caxaj, is the festival’s storied founder — Mercedes is a bountiful source of radiant energy all her own. And I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with her to reflect on Sunfest as it marks its 27th-year in the Forest City.

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How does it feel having completed another successful year of Sunfest?

Fantastic! It feels so good to continue to accomplish what we’ve set out to do, which is ultimately to support artists and do so within the context of a city like London, Ontario, especially culturally diverse ones. Also, to support and serve equity-deserving communities.

Two people stand on a small stage in front of a microphone. The man speaks and the woman smiles next to him.
Mercedes and her father, Alfredo, speaking at a SunFest event at London Brewing Co-op in 2019. Image via Radio Western (Facebook).

We all know that the music industry, especially the non-profit sector, has been hit hard by what’s been happening. And so, one could argue “Why would we want to continue things digitally as opposed to waiting until ‘real life’?” Because in the end, we fill a gap in London, and there are people who need to be supported such as artists, venues, sound engineers, etc. Even though Sunfest is a vibe, the heart and soul of it is the music, and supporting the people who go into making and presenting it.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from the past couple of Sunfests?

Well, from Sunfest itself; people are still continuing to create beautiful music, and they drive us forward. We can continue to do our work; we just need to learn how to pivot. This year, we did things like never before, kept an open mind, and it led to great results!

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A woman in a white t-shirt smiles at a camera.
A ray of sunshine, indeed! Photo courtesy of Mercedes Caxaj.

Personally though; What would life have been like these past couple of years without art? What would society be like without the music, movies, and books that helped carry us through? Ultimately, art connects people, and it’s really important to know that we’re not alone. Definitely a silver lining.

Speaking of “silver linings,” what are some others that you’ve noticed?

A lot of us are realizing that we have to come together. More cross-collaboration and cross-promotion are present. I think it was far more competitive before. There’s been an outpouring of empathy. One example; with this new digital age, there are so many people who wouldn’t be able to physically be at a venue, people who need captioning, different considerations that are able to be addressed now. That accessibility factor is huge! Not only building a new audience, but serving ones that weren’t being served before, it’s wonderful.

You obviously embody and possess goals in common with the rest of Sunfest at large, but what are some of your personal goals for it?

I want to make sure it’s seen as being as important as any financial endeavour. I want to see it continue to grow physically and be supported by all levels of government and by the social movers and shakers of London.

A group of four people in blue Sunfest shirts post in front of a Sunfest sign.
Mercedes (far right), is a key member of the Sunfest team. Photo courtesy of Julian Hayda, WBEZ Chicago.

We still have a long way to go. It’s still considered a “multi-cultural festival” — and there’s an otherness attached to that.

In your opinion, what is the world woefully short on?

Understanding and empathy. A lot of people still use the word “tolerance,” and to me, that has a negative connotation — it sounds like an obligation. The pandemic has forced us to see others’ points of view, and that’s another somewhat positive to come out of this. It’s important that we continue to do practice empathy.

Why do you think music, in particular, has the ability to bring people together?

Because music is always present in our lives, whether we know it or not. It’s in the ether. We all connect to a beat, that’s who we are as humans. We hear a rhythm and we tap our toes to it, whether it’s on beat or not (laughs).

Gato Preto dancing with audiences on stage at Sunfest 2018. Photo courtesy of Sunfest.

And you don’t have to necessarily understand the lyrics in order to feel a connection to the music. Because it breaks barriers in that way and it becomes a powerful way to bring people together.

How do you maintain your prodigious level of energy? What feeds your soul while you’re doing all of this hard work?

Discovering new music and supporting live music does so much for my soul. But also, having something just for you where the benefits are also just for you is important. For me, that’s being physically active, whether that’s running or hiking, or just walking in nature, it feeds me.

A woman tands with her hands on her hips a top a mountain. There are mountains and clouds in the background and she is dressed in athletic wear.
Our Forest City isn’t the only place where Mercedes gets active! Photo courtesy of Mercedes Caxaj.

Being social. What maintains my soul is fostering those relationships with my friends and family while creating new connections. That therapy of being around others, you know?

What are your favourite parts of London?

I like to run the trails and to walk through Victoria and Harris Park. I love seeing the vibrance of the city at work, whether that’s in the park or on a terrace or patio. Speaking of the park, I think we’re so lucky to have Victoria Park. It’s an event-specific park, and those are rare. It’s centrally located, surrounded by great restaurants and bars, and has the infrastructure for a 250 vendor marketplace. Electricity, gray water accessibility, the bandshell, 60-amp accessibility for ovens — it’s all there.

What can people do between now and the next Sunfest to help support and connect with the initiative?

Donate! As a non-profit, these donations go right to the artists, the venues, the people working, and the programming, not into a savings account. Engaging with us online — whether it’s sharing or rewatching the streams, or asking for more support for Sunfest.

A owman in sunglasses and a ponytail wearing a blue Sunfest shirt holds out a donation container in a crowd.
A volunteer collects donations at the main stage in Victoria Park during Sunfest in 2019. Photo courtesy of Sunfest.

That can be to your city councillor, your boss, as long as the word continues to spread. Also, when you can again, travel, get out of your bubble! It’s so important to see that there are other ways of living, of eating, of listening, in the world.

Anything outside of the context of Sunfest that you’d like to share?

I also work with Small World Music Toronto, a global Toronto Music conference. On top of programming, we also do artistic development programs for newcomer refugees and emerging artists. There’s a center we broadcast out of and use to host community events in within this demographic. It’s an amazing group of people who believe in what they’re doing, which is a lot of amazing work.

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Let the Sunshine in!

I fancy myself an adventurous fellow, but it never hurts to shake things up even more! How are you going to get outside of your bubble? There are so many ways to view the world, and I for one am inspired and excited to go and discover a couple more!

Get Connected!

Need some more information? Want to donate? Want to check out streams of this and past year’s fantastic acts? Well, go ahead already!

Feature image courtesy of Sunfest London. 

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