Shambhala 2017: An Inexplicable Moment of Beauty and Bliss

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“One of those Moments” at Shambhala

Crafting abstract memories into digestible words for others to to read can feel futile; in that the moment itself only has significance as part of a bigger story leading up to it.

I recently had one of those moments during the 20th anniversary of Shambhala Music Festival. It was a situation when too many variables to count synchronized in perfect harmony; when nature itself decided to join in the tension release of an entire weekend by dropping the beats through millions of perfectly-timed rain drops.

It’s Saturday and a nervous tension continually rises throughout the day as word on the farm says that tomorrow might be cancelled due to a looming wildfire in the region. We had been on alert since before the festival began that we might have to get out of Dodge with roughly 24 hours’ notice.  By dinnertime pretty much everyone has heard in one way or another: Sunday of Shambhala is cancelled.

shambhala fire evacuation 2017

People packing up and leaving on Saturday thinking the party’s over.

To some it it’s a huge letdown. I hadn’t seen such disappointment since Santa told the Elves that Christmas might be cancelled in the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Thankfully I’m of the habit of having my phone off at Shambhala but the times that I do get online are pretty embarrassing. My heart goes out to the PR and communications team who have to deal with the onslaught of trolls, many of whom aren’t even in attendance but following along online with nothing better to do. In some ways Shambhala’s worldwide recognition is a solid case study in the abstract relationship between online communities and their real world counterparts.  Rumors of both the verbal and digital kind are spreading  faster than wildfire; admins can’t keep up with the deluge of questions and irate comments. But for anyone to criticise the organizers who ultimately made the call to shut down a private party due to a FOREST FIRE, it’s one of those moments where I feel completely justified in telling people to check their privilege.

As monumental an event that Shambhala is, it comes down to the fact that it’s a party, people. A damn fine one, but still a celebration that shouldn’t be callous when people’s lives are on the line.  In spite of a dedicated team of thousands pouring their heart and soul into throwing a high candidate for best festival on the planet, there exist variables beyond humanity’s control. Seeing just a snippet of the hateful frustration from the keyboard warriors confirmed two things to me: a.) The Internet will always be a relentless wasteland of negativity that even one of the world’s most loving festivals can’t escape, and 2.) There are many out there whose idea of a festival experience values consumption over participation.

The second had me feeling a bit sad for those who might be classified as such. Trepidation over the fire situation unearthed a reality that I tend to ignore, and what draws me to Shambs. On the farm there are many natural truths that you don’t often see in the outside world, such as unhindered acceptance, freedom of expression, and active participation toward making one’s surroundings better than you found it. To everyone the methodology is different, yet the feeling is the same: a desire to give as much as you can. Yet from the entitlement expressed by some who felt the need to leave early and complain about it online, I shed the proverbial tear for those who simply didn’t get it.

Not everyone, of course. In fact, the majority of us take the news in stride and when we hear Sunday is cancelled we do what any good raver would do: We party like there is no tomorrow. Saturday night shall go down as one of the most energetic and musically inspiring nights of my life. For over 8 hours I become immersed in the feels of the Fractal Forest.

fractal forest in Shambhala

The madness of the Fractal Forest. Photo courtesy Fractal Forest Facebook page

Skratch Bastid, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Z Trip, A Skillz A Trak, Fort Knox Five, Qdup, and more curate the rhythm and melodies of a night of true celebration. I celebrate being alive… not just in the face of nature’s wrath but getting down on behalf of friends who had passed or are not as fortunate as to call this place home one week every year. I dance and celebrate because the collective joy you feel when you do so is one of the only things we as humans have going for us these days. Most of the time I seek to avoid big groups but there’s something to be said about the energy you feel when everyone is on the same vibe.


Early on Sunday morning as I prepare to go to bed, I feel satisfied having set the party meter to a solid 12 out of 10. I get several solid sleep cycles in, only to eventually stir from the steadily increasing collective cheer around me, a sound that is usually reserved for first-day enthusiasm. Soon I hear over the loudspeaker on a passing golf cart: “Sunday is back on”.

It’s a decidedly first-world luxury to be given the good news that the final day of a four day festival will ultimately continue. After all the tension and uncertainty surrounding Saturday, everyone I talk to is pumped for the night ahead. But I had some work to do to fulfill my creative vision for the weekend.

The Ewok Project

I had it in my power to improve an already wonderful festival experience for those around me. I have learned many times over that the more you put into it, the more you get out of it, and “it” can be whatever you decide or allow. I’ve always been a fan of performance, and even though my name was not in the lineup to perform on stage, that didn’t mean that I couldn’t entertain those around me. And so, I channeled my own Shambhala spirit animal: the Ewok.

 Shambhala has a hint of Star Wars nerd peppered throughout the premises. This is most obvious within the Fractal Forest as you see some of the classic characters bouncing lasers and custom projections off their face, but right next door is the home to the delightful furballs from Endor who helped bring down the Empire in Episode 6. The Bass-fueled thunder factory of the Village stage was originally called the Ewok Village, so I invoked my own Shambhala spirit animal to get down in the forest as one of my favorite childhood creatures. Saturday I wore the hood and rocked out in the Forest, but by Sunday I am full Ewok.

Being that signs are all the rage these days, I craft one using wood from my campsite and some discarded cardboard off a food truck with the duct-taped words Yub Nub. Hell, Ewoks were never fancy artists.

As I tend to roam in small numbers and am not much of an accessorizer, the sign becomes more of a nuisance than anything else. And so I turn it into an art installation in the garden outside The Village, adding my own flair of Ewok love giving all who pass by a reminder of the true residents of the place that so many others delightfully occupy for three days every year. Less than 10 seconds after I install the sign a guy stops in his tracks and calls his friends to his side for a photo and a laugh. Mission accomplished.

All my rambling up to this point has a very specific purpose, and that is to set the stage for what follows.   I try to explain to people what happened, but unless you were actually there, it just seems like a nice enough story. But those who were there know exactly what I’m talking about, and the emotions ignite the moment I bring it up.

The Village Stage is Set

The view as Z Trip takes the stage at the Village in 2017

The view as Z Trip takes the stage at the Village in 2017

So it’s close to 1AM in the Village. DJ Z-Trip is wrapping up a legendary set he crafted around the theme of the Wolf: rallying all those who go about their daily lives alone in the outside world without support yet find solace in the den amongst a pack. It was a perfect analogy, as all of us who come to Shambhala are seeking a type of connection that is difficult to find off the farm. Explaining such a feeling to those is a challenge, and hopefully these words can lend some sort of credence to the fact that it is, in fact, a thing.

So there it is, three and a half days of hard raving underneath the feet of many who have overcome an insane rollercoaster of emotions. It wasn’t just the Shambha-drama we were shaking off. The world is in a very strange place right now. Part of the attraction to coming to festivals and the power of dance is the ability for anxiety and uncertainty to shed away with the primal act of collective movement to a rhythm. Dancing has a special ability to allow oneself to go inward to find rhythm and connect outward to a group, all at the same time. Z-Trip curated a wolf pack, and everyone is feeling the vibe. The night before, in the Fractal Forest, he called everyone to do a rain dance to a rendition of The Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain”. Soon after he did something I’ve never seen any DJ do before: He got everyone to sit down and shut up, and listen to the lyrics of Mikey Mike’s “Doin Me”. It takes a certain level of skill to bring a crowd to their feet, yet it takes a much higher state to make them take a seat.

Back to the Village on Sunday. I could almost sense it coming. Maybe it was just the urge to get down and dirty amongst the crowd. I try not to overanalyze situations like these; instead to just accept that I had the feeling to move from backstage out into the crowd. Not before grabbing my sign that I found where I left it. Just as I grabbed the sign and walked in, the skies opened up and the rain poured down.

Now of course this could all be a coincidence, and that idea has beauty. However at the same time there is also beauty in considering the power of humanity’s ability to collaborate. We have no understanding of this power but that is not to say we intuitively chase it by coming together as a collective force. Music helps align thoughts and intentions, and some may write off collective dance as self-indulgent celebration. But as the rain came down and we all danced together, rinsing away the dirt and uncertainty from the weekend and immeasurable time before, you could feel the single unit of the crowd. It felt really good.

My mission as an ewok was complete, and the celebration I was amidst gave the inner Star Wars nerd in me great comfort in sympathizing with the little furry creatures who partied all night amidst the burning embers of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. This wasn’t the death star exploding, it was all the tension of a year’s worth of worries, compounded into one day with uneasiness and helplessness to just let the party go on. The soundtrack certainly helped; uniting a few thousand people to move to a rhythm to celebrate a practice that is as old as humanity.

...and all the dirty ravers rejoiced as if the Death Star just blew up.

…and all the dirty ravers rejoiced as if the Death Star just blew up.

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