I am stood in a queue waiting to charge my phone. I am staring intently into the eyes of the woman standing next to me. We've met five minutes before but already I know that she is half Swedish and half French, that she's a psychologist by trade, that she's currently outside of her comfort zone and that the only valuable possession she has is her handheld camera. Her money and phone were stolen whilst she was sleeping on Thursday night.
At another festival, I might suggest that we continue our chat over a coffee or a pint... But this is Shambala and my main reason for staring so intently into her admittedly beautiful eyes is that this woman is completely and utterly naked. I forget to ask her name!
Whisper it quietly but Shambala has always been one of my favourite festivals of the summer months. It's never been a festival about music headliners (although the programme oozes with quality). It's the sum of all of its parts where music, art, dance, workshops, secret venues, cabaret, theatre, circus, poetry, stunning landscaping and discussions add up into a glorious whole. At the core of this festival are the people that attend. Sprinkled with magical dust on entering the site, the crowd are truly encouraged to get involved, to be part of something and it's this that will always contribute to that sense of sadness when forced at the end of the weekend to return to reality. These are Adventures in Utopia.
I am absolutely convinced that it's possible to spend all of your time in just one of the many venues that Shambala offers and to have an eye-opening adventure. The quality, festival programme (108 pages) lists 16 venues across the site and this does not include the many secret and pop-up venues that exist.
Every year it proves nigh-on impossible to see it all though I've often found myself gravitating towards the Chai Wallah's tent when here. With a bar at the back and a range of quality bands, this is a fine place to sit, stand and dance. The music in here spans reggae, folk, gypsy, blues, dance, jazz and psychedelia and everything that I witnessed was dripping with quality. The Lund Quartet astonish all present over Saturday lunch with their spaced-out Scandinavian jazz. A theremin competes with a turntable to freshen up the hazy air. Playing the same slot a day later, The Real Tuesday Weld refuse to be pigeon-holed with their cabaret styled electronica. Rag 'N' Bone Man is bigged up by the compere here and rightfully so. The crowd exchange knowing glances. Here we have a splendid, soulful voice with the ability to shake a room, something that's rooted firmly in a bluesy past and yet made modern by the presence of a mixing DJ. I note that Rag 'N' Bone Man is about to accompany Bastille on their Autumn tour. I hope that that crowd appreciate him half as much as the crowd in here. By their own admission, By The Rivers have had a terrific Summer of festivals. In Chai Wallah's, on the Sunday afternoon, their impeccably tight roots reggae surges like a rushing waterfall. Amazon amazing.
Saturday morning and despite the drunken highs of the previous night, I find myself awake quite early. I've yet to buy a programme so I go for an early morning wander. I don't get very far before I'm enticed by the prospect of Laughter Yoga about to begin in the Random Workshop tent. I know that over in the meadow field I could get my fix of Kundalini, Iyengar, Forrest, Indigo Awakening, Vinyassa Flow, Hatha or Shamanic but if I'm honest that all sounds like hard work for a Yoga virgin such as me. I know I can do laughter though. For the next fun-filled hour, I am bouncing like a mad thing around the tent, making strange animal shapes and laughing with strangers. Initially, I am forcing the laughter out but before too long it becomes contagious. I need no skill to do this but by the end of this session my stomach muscles know they've had a work out. The remnants of last night's hangover have truly been released and I feel energised to seize the day. I find a portatoilet and seize the day. There's a phone in the toilet that rings. I answer it and I'm speaking to a random Shamboholic elsewhere on this site. It's these additional touches, the complete attention to detail that set Shambala apart from the rest.
I am standing in a small queue at the Wonky Cock bar to buy my first pint of the weekend. The Wonky Cock is a mainstay of Shambala, a place with armchairs, pub quizzes and opportunities to chat with like-minded punters. It's one of the many places on site where I can get ale, cider and other alcohol. I'm charged an extra £1 for my plastic cup and don't entirely understand why. This is going to get mightily expensive should I be charged an extra £1 for every pint of Shambolic Organic Lager (£4.40 a pint) that I have. But I needn't worry. If I return this plastic cup when I next go to the bar then I'm given a fresh cup and I'm not charged again. This is just one aspect of Shambala's appealing environmental practice. In a desire to tackle head on the issues of disposable plastic waste, Shambala estimate that this year they will prevent 100,000 plastic bar glasses being used once and thrown away. The cups themselves are decoratively designed and sturdy things so I've kept a couple for my kitchen cupboard.
This desire to innovate environmentally doesn't stop there. Bottled water is being sold nowhere on site. We've either been encouraged to bring our own or to buy a permanent Shambala bottle at the Frank Water stall. Free, chilled water is available at all of the main bars, the Frank stall, numerous water points by toilet blocks and at a mobile, roaming refill station. The festival believes that it'll save 10,000 plastic water bottles being disposed of after being used once which is quite a saving when it's estimated that using bottled water is 2000 times as expensive as tap water. Apart from anything else, it is so, so refreshing to walk around a site late on a Saturday night and to not feel the crunch of plastic and the slip of a knee-joint. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these innovative yet vital practices become permanent fixtures of other larger festivals by the end of this decade. This is a festival that cares and it's encouraging us to think about how we can care.
There is so, so much going on at Shambala that sometimes the main open-air stage feels like it needs more of a crowd to give it more oomph. I don't know whether it's this or simply because he's omitted from the programme but Courtney Pine's Sunday afternoon set of fun, Calypso based jazz is criminally under-attended. I'd seen Skip & Die earlier this summer in Barcelona and encourage all my friends to turn up to see their impressive M..I.A thang on the Friday night but I'm not sure Catarina, Jori and all quite scale the heights of their Sonar triumph. On Saturday afternoon, we wait for the carnival procession whilst Hollie Cook warms us up with some tropical dub reggae. People really go to town for Shambala's carnival procession and you only need to look at photos (here) on eFestivals to see the fancy dress creativity on offer. Crazy P offer shimmering disco funky fun just as the Circus has come to town. A perfect party. Amadou & Mariam need less of an introduction than most but the Mali based couple romp through a delightfully, joyous set proving themselves to be more than worthy headliners.
I've always been impressed by Peter Tatchell whenever he's appeared on Question Time so early on Saturday afternoon I head into the Rebel Soul tent, a place full of intellectual debate and performance clearly designed to inspire and fire you up. In here, an assortment of young radicals and older, more jaded left wingers cling onto Tatchell's words as he describes his alternatives to austerity. It's convincing, thought-provoking stuff as he outlines his plans for economic democracy. If only there was time this weekend, I'd love to hang around this tent more to hear their sessions on creating community empowerment in neighbourhoods or to hear Rob Hopkins talk about doing stuff and setting up the Transition movement.
Friday evening and I catch up with friends who have never been to Shambala before. They arrived the day before but have yet to see the 'famed' woodland area so I offer to accompany them. I am a rubbish tour guide. Over the years that I've been to Shambala, I've never really been able to get my bearings in the Enchanted Woodland. I like to think that this is because it's constantly evolving and changing but a simpler explanation might be that I'm more often than not higher than a kite when entering this space. The art installations within (lanterns, mirrors, lights, totem poles, wardrobes, rose gardens and acorn icons) distort, confuse and project me to a different place . Amongst the trees we sit, rest weary muscles and let the music and art wash over us. The hammocks of yesteryear and the sense that this is the late night party area to be in might be long gone but this area remains a delightful addition to the Shambala sum.
For now, the late night party spaces (of which there are plenty) appear to be the secret venues that punters are encouraged to seek. By the side of the main stage, I note the Shambarber cutting hair by day. But when the sun goes down and the main stage closes, a rummage into the back of his Salon brings you out into a new space altogether, one where you can dance to disco. We spot a tardis in the field and head on inside through tunnel. We look up and see stars. Funk music surrounds. Other punters talk of the Secret Ska bar hidden away at the top of the camping field though I never manage to find my way up there. It's in these secret venues that Shambala comes alive. That's not to say that it was sleepy before though.
Sankofa's is another more established Shambala venue. It's a space that bristles with intelligent, off-beat folk, skewed Americana and world music. It's an instrument zoo in here. People come in to see endangered species, instruments they've never seen played before. On recommendation, I fall in and out of consciousness late on the Sunday night whilst letting the sounds of The Hang Massive wash over me. The Hang Drum, a new instrument crafted in Switzerland makes a beguiling, bewitching sound and in the hands of superb musicians, it proves a fine way to end my festival. More traditionally, a day earlier, I've been able to watch the stunning Carrie Rodriguez from afar as she fiddles and strums her way through an Americana roadmap. I want to ask where Chip Taylor is but Carrie proves she's an artist in her own right now. Earlier still, on the Friday evening in fact, I'm amazed that HeyMoonShaker's blend of blues-beatbox combines so effortlessly with a range of 'In Place of War' musicians. Learning later that this collaborative only met an hour before simply makes me envious of their talents.
Sunday afternoon and I make an effort to get to one of Shambala's new venues, The Play House. This is a 500 seater theatre (yes – proper fold down plastic seats). I poke my head around the door. Four dancers (two men, two women) take to the stage and for the next half hour captivate all with their beautiful contemporary dance take on relationships. Garments are exchanged, people are thrown, caught, wrapped up in blue jumpers. The dance troupe are Joli Vyann. Twenty four hours earlier in here a hypnotist appeared with a hypnodog but who needs that when this performance can be so hypnotic.
I could go on and on. I really want to. I had so many other adventures this year at Shambala and missed out on so many more. I've made no mention of ping pong in the Kamikaze tent (which is essentially the second stage). I managed to miss David Rodigan do his thing in here on the Sunday night. Kou Kou's Nest is a new venue at the end of the healing field. In here, we catch Don Kipper submit a Balkan Beat and then later a DJ mix in quotes that he's captured from people on site earlier that day. The Wandering Word tent, packed full of wordsmiths and beat poets, is another that I miss this year. Bearded Kitten offer a shipwreck as a dancing space, an impressive installation on which people rave like tomorrow will never come. Hell, I even manage to miss one of Shambala's annual highlights – the Big Burn Grand Finale – because I'm elsewhere. Impressively clean toilets, a beautiful lakeside setting. This is all too much....
We are sat in one of the many comfortable, seating areas provided at Shambala. Many of us here have travelled up and down the Country this summer seeking out festivals at which to have weekend fun, meet new friends and store beautiful memories. We talk about the perfect festival. Some plump for Boomtown with it's edgy creativity, others for Glastonbury simply because of it's sheer scale. But the majority of us have no doubt that, whilst comparing festivals is ultimately a fruitless aim because they all strive for different impacts, Shambala would be the number one festival on our list, the first name on our festival teamsheet. This is simply the best adventure that you can currently have in a festival field. End of.
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