Moments of ‘farmily’ reflection: five take-aways from the 22nd annual Shambhala Music Festival [Event Review]
Somewhere along where the winding yet calm roads that run abruptly throughout the
Kootenay Mountain region flow, there’s a turn off that meets with a sign simply
reading “Shambhala Festival.” Once the tires leave the pavement and adjust to the dirt and rock packed narrow path, it’s heavily apparent from the many signs strewn along trees and bushes that you’re right where you need to be. With the sun peaking through the lush forested path, glimmers of yellows and orange becomes the backdrop lighting to one of the most simple, yet affirming, signs of the weekend: “Welcome Home.”
Funny how one small sign can truly set the magical and memorable tone for the remainder of the time spent on Salmo River Ranch, or the farm, as it is dubbed by loyal Shambhala attendees. There were so many beautifully worded messages on the way down to the line-up and festival reception. Along with the unmatched magic of Fractal Forest, those are just a few of the exceptional moments of first entering into Shambhala that one simply need witness first-hand.
The weather over the four official days of production and music was a wild ride. From the dry, dusty heat early in the weekend, to the constant lulling rainstorms that turned the dust into sparse shoe-sucking mud pits for the remainder of the festival, it was apparent nobody can rain on Shambhala attendee’s parade as they danced the nights away, and nights turned into morning.
For a majority of other Shambha-Virgins, the journey to Salmo River Ranch represents a life-long bucket list experience. Avid festival goers dream for years — even decades — of crossing that item off the list. Now, after experiencing the magic first hand, it’s a bucket item that will keep getting checked off year after year. This is how the magic of the farm captures its attendees and cultivates its festival “farmily.”
From the farm’s lush natural location, camping amenities, and unbeatable infrastructure, to the stage production, art pieces, monumental sound, and the overall vibe that everyone casts over the festival grounds, trying to capture the true essence of Shambhala is not easy to put into words. Shambhala stands as both a melting pot of all of the positive takeaways from every festival you’ve attended and the culmination of one’s wildest dreams. Not only is it hard to put into words, it hardly even seems real.
Here are five takeaways from Shambhala’s 22nd iteration that were cause for moments of great reflection.
1) The welcoming nature of the farm.
From the moment you start the drive down from the Nelson/Nelway Hwy, you’re met with multiple smiling faces in hi-vis vests. They’re stationed to greet incoming attendees with intermittent signs reading “Welcome home” and “Haaaappppieeeee Shaaammmbhaaaallllaaa.” Once reaching your desired/designated camping area, there’s a drastic shift in vibe one experiences — from the anxious feeling of traveling and preparation to the freeing nature of escape and the not knowing or caring what’s to come of the next multiple days.
Soon after that, you are introduced to a sound slowly making it’s way from all edges of the farm. It’s a chant that has become a favorite auditory farmily quirk for many: The Shambha-wave or Shambha-Woo! It usually starts off with just a single or small group condensed yell or shout. That single, simple call in unison then avalanches into one of the festival’s most captivating, all-encompassing tribal rituals. Cascading from what could have started anywhere on the grounds, it gains volume with participation and roars with momentum as the sound waves travel to touch every ear in its path. It’s message? That there’s strength in numbers. Luckily, I was glad to be in the right place at the right time as a Shambassador was gathering a small group to start one with the hit of his gong and Shambha-LOVE shout to start it all.
There are no real strangers at festivals… just new friends you haven’t quite met yet.
Welcoming first-timers, or Shambha-Virgins, as they are so often referred, is an important task for many veteran attendees. So much so, that there is a virgin train/conga line that takes place on Friday evening, welcoming all those new to the farm to join the dance. Stretched all along The AMP stage, the massive, single-file line of people latched onto one other’s shoulders was quite the spectacle to enjoy.
The official Opening Ceremony was also another one of those big welcoming moments. While taking in the carefully-crafted Grove stage and all its intricacies, many become one in the tightly-packed crowd on early Friday afternoon. Once the ceremony draws to its close, the crowd begins to disperse and that’s when you truly see the magic begin to blossom. From flashes of returners reuniting with genuine love and embrace, to the oft-newcomer looks of “we’re actually here,” the magic of the farm is the community. The power of Shambhala comes from the people.
Another welcoming feature that makes Shambhala’s vibe so radically unique happens at the structural level. Shambhala has been paving the way in harm reduction for the past two decades through its pioneering harm reduction program — so much so, that CE even wrote an in-depth cover story on it’s trailblazing ways. The program takes shape through the ANKORS-led drug testing tent, which uses cutting-edge medical devices to test substances, and The Sanctuary, a chill-out zone to relax and receive good energy if you’re having a hard time.
Some say the program encourages elicit drug use, but its opinion that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just look at the statistics. From sampling results in minutes, with anonymously listed results posted up all throughout the booth, the ANKORS tent serves as a much-needed one-stop information shop to ensure everyone is aware of what drugs are going around. But, most importantly, it reveals the more dangerous substances going around that are being passed off as drugs. Staffed by medical and mental-health professionals, The Sanctuary is a similar safe, nonjudgemental space. It’s available 24 hours a day where volunteering professionals are present for aid in anything one may need — whether it’s just providing a space to step back and recoup, providing someone will vital medical care, to simply talk to you.
2) The stages and artists
One of the aspects that makes Shambhala’s infrastructure so unique is its stages. Each artistically crafted by a stage designer and their team, the stages never come down. As permanently rooted as the towering trees above, the stage identities are as strong as the Canadian pines themselves. And they only get stronger as they get added to year after year, with young new structural additions meeting older features that have begun to meld with nature, becoming more weathered or melded with forest plant life.
It’s a feature that many US festivals aren’t able to boast for their stages, mostly because they aren’t allowed to. In the US, festivals face zoning laws and required building permits from local authorities, which becomes a huge chunk of change for festival promoters. However, because the space at Shambhala is privately-owned by the son of a cattle farmer and hosted on his father’s ranch. Festival founder Jimmy Bundschuh says this is one of the things that makes Shambhala stand out from any other festival in the world. It’s not a temporary uptopia like Black Rock City. It’s a permanent one.
As for the individual stages, being able to go just about anywhere in regards to viewing areas is another thing that sets Shambhala apart from most American festivals. Typically, those spaces would be reserved for higher-paying VIP packagers in the US. However, at Shambhala, most of the stage structures feature elevated viewing areas around the forest clearings. Every stage builds it’s own unique little atmosphere around it, like a tiny solar system in a larger always-expanding universe. Surprisingly, the stages are all erected within close proximity to each other, carefully charted with walkways between each, without colliding sound waves polluting or drowning each other out. By stark contrast, one wouldn’t even be able to bounce back-and-forth betokening stages for those conflicting set times. All of that is possible at Shambhala.
The AMP stage was one of two operating during during Thursday’s start. With
the back of it’s semi-enclosed tent area adjacent to the arterial downtown of the fest
grounds, it makes for one of the iconic first structures to feast your eyes upon as you take those first few magical steps into the festival’s fairytale domain. Production was top-notch of course, with the three sphered structures spanning the performance platform. However, after dark is when the AMP stage showed its brightly shining true colors.
Thursday afternoon started off with the heavy-hitting antics of bass music super trio, The Trifinity, the three-pronged project of Yheti, Toadface, and Mt. Analogue. Manatee Commune held onto that high energy during his time as the sun set with his dreamy and moving melodies into the evening. Other acts all brought explosive performances to Shambhala’s unique amphitheater, such as S2, TYNAN, Left/Right, Mersiv, A Tribe Called Red, and Redman and Jayceeoh’s joint 1000volts project, among many more.
Nestled along the shores of the Salmo River, the Living room stage plays host to another one of the Thursday opening stages. Having beach/river access with an additional array of speakers facing the water completely added to the lounging nature of it all. With unique bustling views, along with a wide array of furniture and fixtures, the Living Room really sets itself apart. It was here where you could find yourself surrounded in the wide variety of sounds provided by the likes of Mat The Alien, Z-Trip, S2, and Frase just to name a few.
The Grove also sets itself apart from it’s many neighboring stages within the festival. It boasted an incredible amount of elevated areas, all set within a strikingly dense arena of trees and surrounded by an immersive network of artwork installs. Being the only stage that doesn’t use a full onslaught of PK-sound, it alternatively boasts a very rich and balanced Funktion-1 system that just swept through all areas without any compromise. From the moving opening ceremony to world famous acts like FKJ, Bonobo, Ivy Lab, and others, the area was a wonderful place to explore and take in some of those more sought-after sets and bucket-list artists. Booming towards the far back of The Grove area was The Cedar Lounge, where a wide array of artists threw down more intimate sets throughout the weekend.
For the Shamb-Virgins whom have yet experienced Fractal Forest, it is highly recommended to not go through Fractal Forest until after sundown. With unique 360-degree views of the DJ booth immersing you deep within the forest, simply looking up is a sight for sore eyes. With it’s “see it to believe it” aura, the Fractal Forest is really one of those features that makes Shambhala so difficult to put into words. It begs to be experienced first-hand to fully understand its power. Likewise, attendees are asked to respect the integrity and reasoning behind the enforced no photo/video rule. But photos are the last thing on your mind once immersed in the sounds driven mainly on the old school, phat funk, and house vibes of JPOD, Slynk, Stickybuds, DJ Jazzy Jeff, JFB, Goldfish, plus many others. Pro-tip: don’t miss the iconic Monday morning fractal set by Rich E Rich.
The Village houses a fascinating array of elevated walkways, sided stage paths, and a massive partial geo-desic dome. After this years festival though, The Village is apparently getting a massive overhaul and make-over. One that actually started within a
few days of all attendees dispersing.
The grueling PK sound system pounded body shaking bass throughout every single set, with every deep low note resonating on a very physical level. Ear plugs are a must here, especially as one make their way down on the floor level and up to the rails. Excision‘s first return to Shambhala since 2016 was a highly anticipated set and was a definite highlight of the weekend. Bringing their own sprinkle of the old school dubstep and drum and bass era, were carried in by the likes of Rusko, Subvert, Chase & Status, Jungle Cakes Takeover and Nero to name a few. Equally massive sets from some fresher faces on the Wakaan Takeover, along with Jauz, ill.Gates, Downlink, Reid Speed, and others, rounded out the eclectic collection of bass driven acts at The Village.
To the unsuspecting attendee, walking by the Pagoda during the day just seemed like a
massive all white temple inspired facade for a DJ booth. But once you passed the
entrances adjacent to the slushie stand, you see the grounds open up on both sides. A
unique waterfall and elevated viewing area sits to the left as some partially enclosed, vined viewing areas are tucked away on the right.
Once the sun starts begins to set is when the Pagoda truly shines. With an impressive amount of sweeping lasers and moving lights, the rain drops made their presence known during the night time sets, bringing a wholly unplanned natural wonder to the magic of the visual production. Now pair that with some of the most crisp and unique projections, all mapped onto the white back drop of the Pagoda, and the visuals are truly something to admire from any angle.
Black Tiger Sex Machine got to dominate with their unique visuals and sound for the third time in a row and one definitely got the sense that they were at home with it all. From DEATHPACT‘s world debut performance and Kaskade’s first Shambhala appearance by Kaskade, to high-powered performances from Zeds Dead, Boogie T, No Mana, Grandtheft plus many others, the act each created their own individual spectacular universes that left everyone with something to talk about.
3) The visuals
Apart from the digitally produced visuals on each stage, there was much to see and enjoy
all around the farm. From two separately curated galleries at the Grove and Village to
massive murals, expressive camp signs, immersive installations and multiple crafts/vendors. A plethora of various flow arts were being represented and could be
admired and appreciated at just about any stage.
Along the right side entrance of the Pagoda was a seemingly normal looking train car. That was until you noticed someone in the drivers’ seat. Each window also had a differently projected passenger that would constantly be interchanged. You can truly get immersed and swept away by just all of the art and wonder that is laid throughout the farm. Sometimes just in the designs of the signs for the stages themselves.
4) The signs and totems
The Creativity and just downright chuckle-worthy puns on signs witnessed in the crowds of Shambhala were truly unmatched to anything I’ve ever seen at a festival. Conversation starters asking for hugs in exchange for visibly displayed gum. Technical infinity mirror structures on a pole. Even some punny interpretations of a certain type of shoe.
Aside from the crowd carried and made signs, there was a feature of purposeful signs that were positioned throughout the separate camp areas. Making it a whole lot easier to remember a general area of where you pitched your tent. Each camping area had it’s own theme of signage alphabetically separated by rows. Space and astronomy themed (Asteroid, Big Dipper…etc.), fruit themed (Apple, Banana, Cherry…etc.), and animal themed. By far my favorite sign in the camp area was one telling you to slow down because a turtle said so.
5) The camping grounds
Tent Camping is separated into three main areas, with the exclusion of Shambhalodging.
Sunshine, Starlight, and Metta.
Sunshine was more of an open field type with the option to camp with your car, if you are sleeping in it (vehicle has to be permanently camperized). Although Sunshine camping is furthest from the stages and general fest activities, it’s probably the best option if you have to park your car in the free parking area and haul all your stuff in. Without a shade structure, could be pretty brutal.
Starlight camping is fairly similar to Sunshine as far as general layout goes but main differences are that only camperized vehicles are allowed and it’s a whole lot closer to the stage entrances and downtown.
Metta camping is the furthest away from the free car park lot but is the only naturally shaded primitive style walk in camp option. Metta is also the closest to muscle beach where you can go for a dip on those hot days. No camping is allowed on the
riverbed/beach areas. A really awesome amenity for campers confined to a far walk from their car with all their gear is the provided school bus shuttles that allow you to
load your gear with a variety of stops through all three main camp areas.
While strolling through camps or even while looking for a space to claim, you’ll notice
many theme camps and uniquely decorated areas. Camp Hugs, Camp Stranger Danger, and a tropical-themed camp with inflated palm trees all served as a full fledged renegade stages taking place into the wee hours of daybreak.
Portable restrooms were a-plenty through all the campgrounds I visited. Oh, and they’re air conditioned, sort-of. With a generator powering an air ventilation system that blows air from the bowls of the toilets, it was quite the refreshing surprise on my first visit to them.
Always make sure to stake down your tent and canopy down before going into the festival. While on our initial walk back to our car for more supplies and such we were met with the spectacle of seeing a tent and canopy floating in the air above starlight campers at least 100 ft high.
Another highlight to camping that I saw was the inclusion of Camp Clean Beats. Which
is for 100% sober and recovery attendees. Not only is clean beats away from most of the
other camps to help aid in sobriety and distractions but they also hosted daily meetings
for those in need.
Honorable Mention. Port-a-potty Wisdom.
Restroom graffiti is something you normally see at a truck stop and in some port-a-
potty’s in various locations. Nothing like the way Shambhala embraces it though. With
witty epiphany moments to back and forth conversations between several “users.” Extensive nonsensical story telling and wisdom written all over these well populated walls, really made me wish i had packed a set of sharpies.
After 2012, Shambhala did away with renting the port-a-potties and bought their own “fleet” to use and service. That being one of the reasons so much of the writings on the walls have remained for so long. Just another tiny, community-inspired feature that makes Shambhala so unique.
At the end of the festival, word began traveling amongst attendees that Shambhala was changing its dates for the next year. The decision to move up two weeks came on the back of an ongoing conversation between Shambhala organizers, the Regional District of Central Kootenay, and the provincial government.
2018 marked the worst fire season on record for British Columbia, the province which houses Salmo River Ranch. It’s a huge change for the festival, which has hosted its gathering on the second weekend of August for the past 22 years. But it a change based on Shambhala’s commitment to its attendees and Mother Earth, providing another shining example of the festival’s unique ethos.
The 23rd annual edition of Shambhala will take place July 24 – July 27, 2020. Witness the magic of Shambhala when tickets go on sale, September 16, 2019.
Hailing from the north Texas area; photography and capturing the moment to share with the masses has been a passion for as long as I’ve had the opportunity to handle a camera. Open to capturing all styles but have been primarily versed in live events, music festivals and the like for the past few years. Candid moments and detailed fire photography are my prided strong suit. Travelling and capturing as much as I can for those who might not be as fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get out is something that really drives me more in my passion of photography and media. coverage.