“Welcome home;” a familiar phrase that most of us know all too well; that place where we feel at ease, free from life’s tribulations; a place where you are unflinchingly accepted. This simple greeting from a parking volunteer surprised me, as neither Kora nor I had been “home” before, as this was to be our first Shambhala.
At the next checkpoint the security team welcomed us home, then another staff member and finally a few other early arrivals when we stood in line to pick up our passes. We felt as though everyone else knew something that we didn’t, like a piece of basil lodged in your teeth, perfectly obvious, but no one tells you.
We stood in that cool evening air, observing the thunder and lightning echoing off of the mountain ranges into the valley as I mulled over those two words and decided something: I was going to uncover why this place, this festival, set amongst those rolling cattle fields felt like home to so many. If home is where the heart is, then something must be happening to capture the hearts of so many.
Wednesday August 7th, 2013 marked the opening of the festival gates, and the sixteenth year of Shambhala. Droves of people flooded into the camp site. People hugged. People yelled. People wore clothes. Some people did not. Emotional reunions were everywhere; we observed. Tents were arranged and campsite flags were ceremoniously raised. The arms of a bear of a man were thrown around me; I was given high-fives by a crowd of passers-by and was invited to stand in this remarkable foot-pool, while being served chocolate in a newly-acquired friend’s campsite. I took this opportunity to observe, share stories, and create new friendships. I wanted to uncover the individual and collective experiences of, what became unmistakably clear, led to the continual creation of the Shambhala Family. So let’s insert some historical context…starting now.
Beginning in 1998, Shambhala started with one stage and five hundred people. Sixteen years later, the Festival continues to be a family-run business (both literally and figuratively speaking) on the 500 acre Salmo River Ranch. Boasting a staff and volunteer army of 2000 strong, most of whom return every year out of sheer dedication to the vision of the festival, and an attendance of 10,000, the farm turns into the largest city in the West Kootenay’s over the five days.
Another critical aspect of the festival that not only gets mad respect from the music community but creates a true sense of a festival “family” is that Shambhala does not function with any corporate sponsorship. Intrigued, I looked into it further and quickly discovered that the Festival is completely self-sustaining. So why resist sponsorship? The reason is simple: the vision of Shambhala and its people is unflinchingly retained, with the attendee’s acting as the only sponsors. This lack in corporate presence not only promotes character and production independence but solidifies each person’s role and individual importance in the execution of the festival. This community of individuals working together to achieve a common goal; a.k.a the existence of Shambhala, promotes ownership and purpose for all who are involved.
Another key facet to the festival is the diversity of the six stages, with each managed, designed, booked and produced independently by their own Stage Director. Formerly ‘The Rock Pit,” the newly designed Amphitheatre was a huge success, boasting the genres of everything from Hip-hop, Funk and Electronic Mash-ups to Folk and everything in between. From the thirty-degree Celsius après ski party that funk-DJ duo Skiitour threw (inclusive of a snow machine straight from Whistler) to the knee slapping, boot-stomping Stoke-folk jams of Shred Kelly, the Amphitheatre consistently delivered. Watching Kytami’s jaw-dropping performance to Whiskey Chief and Five Alarm Funk’s throw down of huge sound, the Amphitheatre literally had something for everyone…especially when you can kick off your shoes and dance in sand.
A true highlight of the festival is the ability to post-up or sprawl-out in the beautiful meandering river, and sit adjacent to the whimsical backdrop of The Livingroom Stage. The fact that I could play floating tic-tac-toe with a man known as “The Sky Captain,” while sitting across from two guys spitting rhymes into a megaphone and an entire Bob Ross themed art session happening in the background, while listening to the beautiful music of everyone from Koosh and Pumpkin to Dubconcious and Lion-S, all from the comfort of our submerged make-shift couch…life simply can’t get any better….unless you fast forward ten hours when you enter the Pagoda Stage, The Village or the Fractal Forest. That’s on a whole new level, in an entirely different dimension.
For those of you who have not experienced the Fractal Forest, The Village or The Pagoda Stages…well, I’m sorry. I’d say close your eyes and picture this, but that would make little sense considering you need to use your eyes to read, so I will try and describe a fairly indescribable visual and sonic experience.
Picture this: darkness is all around you. Stars litter the sky and music vibrates through your chest. The forest is transformed into a masterpiece of light and sound. Everywhere you look, images appear on blank canvasses set- high up in the trees. Streams of light move throughout the canopy, breathing life into the black backdrop that is the evening, and somehow you realize that yes, this is real life.
I’d heard for years about the sheer magnitude of the production value of these stages…from the structural assembly to the visuals, these stages for many of the artists who played them are the best in the world. And let’s not forget about the incredible talent who played them. From Fort Knox Five v.s. Thunderball to A.Skillz, Big Gigantic, Datsik, A-Trak, The Funk Hunters, Griz…the list could go on. Probably forever. Want to talk about a family? These artists are a tight-knit breed and it was an honor to watch them operate both on and off stage. Like so many, Shambhala is an annual reunion for these savants of sound.
One of the large misconceptions about Shambhala is that it books a line-up comprised entirely of electronic music. Arguably, you could attend the Festival and never watch electronic-based talent; but then again, why would you limit yourself? That’s just silly. There are artists ranging from Hip-hop, Folk, Funk, Rock, Rap and Indie, to a variety of electronic genre’s that mistakenly get blanketed into the term ‘electronic’ but are as unique as the colour purple is to red. From Trance, House, Dub-step, Bass, Futurist, Love Sauce, Electroswing, World fusion and Psychedelic (both live and pre-mixed), there is literally something for everyone… unless you don’t have a taste for the sonic endeavours. Indeed, the umbrella term of ‘electronic’ based music is the new black; just ask Jim Morrison, who predicted in 1969 that electronic music would be the way of the musically-inclined world. Interesting prediction, but it is the musical genre that is dominating our generation.
So, what if your ears need a break for a while? What else is there to do? Well young grasshopper, let me show you a whole new world. Call it the magic of Shambhala. Call it the amalgamation of a Kootenay-born artistic renaissance, or the essence of a psychedelic trip. Around every turn, on every bathroom door, from the tops of the tree’s to the rocks on the river, activities and art are being created.
Have you ever witnessed a unicorn stampede? What about a unicorn versus zombie fight? Fancy early morning Yoga, or lectures on life lessons? How about getting your mind lost in the KaleidoAct (world’s largest kaleidoscope), or watch a dragon breath fire for hours on end in the evening? Do you like being a stage prop? You do! Oh great, well head on over to Super Tall Paul under the Wishing Tree. You’re sure to be entertaining…and the star of the show.
Kora and I were led by a fantastic hula-hoop queen named Dani to her campsite as we needed to coordinate costumes for the evening. Not only was I struck by the true length of our journey, but came to realize that at every moment through our hour long trek, we experienced some kind of creative expression along the entire way. From the painted faces and the costumes etched in dazzling gems to the statues peeking through the flora there was art everywhere. You could spend years at Shambhala and never see it all. I will say this: I dare you to try. Go get lost in the garden, the imagery of the Fractal Forest, make a wish at the wishing tree. Just go experience it all, and even when you aren’t even looking for it…there it is.
That week flew by and on the Morning of August 12th it was like having to pass back through the wardrobe of Narnia. I sat on the back of my neighbours tailgate eating warm pickles and stale chips watching the slow pilgrimage limp down that dusty road. It was a sombre experience, waving good-bye to those who you never had the chance to meet and embracing the ones who you shared this incredible experience with.
Then it hit me.
A moment of reflection please (insert a long and drawn out mental pause here), as my attempt to contextualize this week long experience is remarkably difficult to put into words. I will say this: Shambhala Music Festival is not just another festival. It captures hearts and without a doubt it captured ours. It has a crucial element that most festivals lack: a true sense of community. From the incredible team that work on this event all year to the ones who travel from near and far to attend, this is what is known largely as the Shambhala Family. This collection of individuals collides to create a festival that not only celebrates the incredible talent that plays each year, but also builds a platform for seamless friendships to form, individual self-expression and a true sense of self within a place that many consider to be, for those few fleeting days within the year, home.
Written by Emmalee Brunt (a.k.a. Betty) from www.bettyandkora.com