Shambala Festival. There’s nothing like it. Once initiated, you will return because you’ve tasted heaven.
So what bands are on? Who cares. It routinely sells out before the line-up has been announced because it’s not about the music, although you will see some amazing acts, some forgotten and many for the first time. For the record, Oumou Sangaré, Benjamin Zephaniah, Stereo MCs, Dojo and The Breath were all amazing.
It’s a visual spectacle, and much of that is down to the crowd – literally everybody is getting their freak on. And this is not your off-the-eBay-peg fancy dress. This is where you become a work of your own imagination. There’s a buzz. Having just arrived from Green Man, which is a lovely independent festival concentrating on some great music, the difference is nonetheless astonishing. Once you’ve trudged from the car park with your gear, you’re greeted by beautiful young disco-dancing people in jumpsuits, with glittered faces, handing out stars. The “Police Rave Unit” (a police van with a sound system and DJs dressed as cops) has arrived. It’s kicking off. The vibe is very high and excited – everybody’s talking to everybody as we dig the amazing Beatbox Collective on the first night in Chai Wallah’s. Feels like a Sunday-night climax but it’s only Thursday.
On “Freaky Friday” everyone cross-dresses. The women, taken as a group, display less of a need to re-gender. But the men… The sense of liberation is palpable as the guys shed the threads and get their frocks and wigs on. From barrel-chested and bearded six-footers wearing skimpy cocktail dresses and a daub of lipstick (that joke never gets old) to slinky glittery androgynes. But don’t be thinking this is anything sleazy or even tacky. This is inclusive, safe and non-judgemental. All ages are here from 0 to 70+. It’s light, joyful, sociable. And hilarious. A bearded man in a gorgeous striped dress is admonishing his teenage son, in a pink sequinned dress, about punctuality. And it’s about being who you want to be, even though you might not realise it. Son: “Dad, I don’t want to wear this wig: it’s threatening my masculinity.” Dad: “Son, it will help you *find* your masculinity.”
“Power Ballad Yoga”, a quintessential Shambala event, finds us being lifted off the ground by an oddly dressed/undressed someone we’ve only just met, to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. There is street theatre everywhere. A bunch of guys dressed as sperm run through the crowd being an ejaculation. Much of it is strange and beautiful alongside the silly stuff. Everybody’s laughing. Everybody’s happy.
The coming-up party buzz all around me was electric as the Stereo MCs smashed their set at Saturday teatime. Oh the costumes: revellers were emerging from tents and vans in small squadrons of camp and crazy butterflies, fairies and cosmic navigators. Men with naked top halves covered in a ridiculous amount of glitter with brightly coloured tight lycra bottom halves. Female angels with nipple tassels. Mermaids, lizards, clouds, the Love Heart Fairy. People have been working on these for weeks. Then you get to show off in the parade. It’s a carnival. Venusian “Cosmic Dross” from Henge late on Saturday night captured the mood for me.
In the bright sunshine that blessed us this year we treated ourselves to a spa: basically sitting in a large warm cup of tea like a couple of happy digestives late Sunday afternoon. Later, just after dusk, we all sit before the serene lake like infants at assembly, eyes forward expectantly. Beautiful illuminated figures move across the water; an acrobat gyrates within a flaming hoop in the sky. Then the fireworks. We were moved; tears were shed.
There is much more to be said, given space, about Shambala’s sustainability commitment, notably that it’s been meat- and fish-free for the second year running, and the serious stuff: the talks, the films, the workshops, the healing fields and the Poetry Slam. And this is an amazing adventure for kids as well. Look into its history and you’ll find out why it’s full of Sheffield and Bristol people.
So how about being who ever the hell you want to be for four days? How about being where we all engage with each other, drop our defences, make friends, and talk about how it could be, with no drugs required? We have all discovered something beautiful and amazing and unbelievably silly and this unites us in affectionate and unguarded comradeship. This is the best (and longest, and most outrageous, and happiest) party you’ve ever been to. If you allow yourself to take some of it home with you, it can change you.
Words & Images (except top image): Dean Bargh