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TRCH David Suchet


13 September 10 words: James Walker
The lunatics have taken over the asylum and what a wonderful job they've done
Metamorphosing into strange creatures is all part of the fun of this particular festival.

This summer, over two million people have headed to a music festival. The figure seems particularly high given that we are in the middle of a recession but perhaps it’s because money is so tight that the great outdoors has become so alluring. Firstly, there’s no better way to escape the rat race than getting absolutely mashed-up in a field where the only thing you have to worry about is losing your car keys and finding your tent in the dark. Secondly, due to the appalling exchange rate of the Euro, the traditional jolly-up abroad is no longer economically viable and let’s be honest, there’s only so many times you can get fleeced by a budget airline ‘hidden extra’ before the simplicity of packing up the car seems like an act of pure beauty.

So far this year there’s been around 670 events in Britain, of these ‘the top’ 200 contributed £450m to the economy through ticket sales, and that’s before you’ve bought a lighter on a necklace or a hotdog. Food is one way in which festivals can abuse their captive market and prices can vary greatly, which is why this summer I opted to go to Shambala – one of the more ethical festivals which puts people before profit and was completely powered (100%) by the wind, sun, waste, veg oil and pedalling! They even provided free guided cycle rides and busses, suggesting a genuine concern for the environment and their impact on it. I found this quite refreshing as ‘sustainability’ is a word we often hear pedaled in the media, often by disingenuous PR execs who use it to deflect attention from their ulterior motives. How nice to go somewhere where people walk the walk and talk the talk.       

In addition to being completely powered by sustainable sources, carbon offsetting rasied £5,000 in the environmental battle that Shambala takes  seriously.

Another reason that festivals have become so popular is because they serve such niche markets. Latitude is your best bet for literature and stand-up with our very own Jon McGregor participating this year, Reading and Leeds offer more commercial entertainment, the Green Man for folk music and an extended ‘staycation’ thanks to the tranquil surroundings of the Brecon Beacon mountains whilst Camp Bestival appears the most family friendly with an adventure park, a boutique babysitting service and ballet for it’s more discerning guests. So where does Shambala fit in?

Shambala is the home of the vegan fregans, hence why there was such a massive exodus from Forest Fields. Like the original festivals back in the day it is a communal event that promotes those old school values of love, peace and harmony. It’s like a medieval carnival with the infamous Saturday night fancy dress the clear highlight. This year I encountered four legged hybrids on stilts running around with dead babies tied to their backs, like the personification of a Chapman Brothers painting, a man with a piano on wheels, a group of naked women body painted to look like Zebras, a penis, and many who looked like a mix of leftovers from Woodstock with their magical coloured hats and capes and plenty who looked like extras from Sin City. It was a right ‘carry on’, accentuated by the cheekily titled food stalls that included ‘strumpets with crumpets’ and ‘pizza sluts’.  

The Recursive Function Immersive Dome offered an awe inspiring audio-visual experience courtesy of a projection installation featuring 360º visuals.

As with the travel arrangement, Shambala is pre-emptive and provided pre-festival fancy dress workshops where a team of professional designers would help you transform your net curtains and random props into the most outrageous costumes going that fulfilled the themed criteria for this year: Ele-mental. Consequently, Saturday night felt like the lunatics had taken over the asylum and when you got to talk to the inmates, you realised they were far more intelligent and friendly than the guards.

Talking of which, policing costs have become frighteningly high for festivals. Glastonbury cost a staggering £1.4m whilst the Glade in Winchester had to cancel because the boys in blue hiked their costs of £29,000 in 2009 to a whopping £175,000 this year. So that’s why they’re called ‘the bill’. Shambala opted for a private security firm who didn’t look the type to indulge in the free face-painting tent and lurked ominously on the perimeters of the action but to be fair were quite amenable when negotiating what was acceptable recreational behaviour from those around me...

Carry on partying thanks to the Saturday night fancy dress carnival.

Shambala saw 200 acts play across 8 stages but these weren’t ‘big names’ in the traditional sense of the word. This isn’t the platform for megastars charging a fortune. It really is about the people and offering up a variety of acts in fun surroundings and smaller creative spaces that fulfil a variety of needs. My personal favourite was the Tardis tent, where you entered a blue triangle and after bending down to scurry through a small tunnel, ended up in a small intimate environment where smiles were in abundance. On the way to the main tents were numerous distractions to keep you entertained, such as art installations in the ‘wilderness woodlands’, the healing fields for the Shambala naked spa, or Rebel Soul which celebrates rebellion, resistance and the exploration of positive futures. With advice on grass roots campaigns, subversive comedy and alternative cinema, this, more than anything else, summed up the ethos of the festival, reminding people this wasn’t just a piss-up for the weekend but an opportunity to learn a little and put these ethics into lived practice.  

But it was the Wandering Word tent that I’d come down to review and how fantastic it was. Events ran throughout the weekend with some repeated on different times of the day to enable you to catch what you’d missed. The highlight for me was seeing Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, the coolest Nana in town who speaks dub poetry over the top of tunes provided by DJ Dad. Breeze complained that Glastonbury had been a miserable affair with a dour audience who looked positively shocked when confronted with political lyrics. Not the case here. Everyone in the audience sang or spoke along, creating a real sense of unity. She was so impressed that she even came back and did an encore.

Shambala took place in Northamptonshire, making it easily accessible for Nottm folk

The beauty of the Wandering Word - as with all other aspects of the festival - was its intimacy. A small circular tent with limited seating required the audience to huddle up close to one another on the floor, making you feel obliged to participate. This removed the boundary between performer and audience, enabling the connection. I could happily have stayed there the whole weekend, particularly given festival favourite Dreadlock Alien was offering workshops, but I was simply spoilt for choice elsewhere and so did a regular circuit of the surrounding tents.

The festival has come on leaps and bounds since the early days and now offers up so much that to fully appreciate it, you do actually need to plan your day and night. That’s the only way you’ll get in the death defying antics of the circus acts in the Kamikaze tent, a cuppa on the red London busses, do some yoga, learn how to make furniture out of cardboard, a vaudeville song request booth and enjoy some African drumming. In fact, looking back over the Shambala website I’ve realised that I’ve missed so much I think I’m going to sack off my plan of reviewing a different festival each year and just come back here again. There simply isn’t a better festival out there. 

Shambala's website
James Walker's website

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