Shambala Festival takes more forms than simply a music festival, it is rather a celebration of arts, crafts, music and theatre. This August bank holiday saw Shambala’s 16th year, held at a secret location in Northamptonshire. For me Shambala was worth leaving the sunny beach of California for, as I cut my United States holiday short to spend four days camping in a rainy field in England, and here is it why it was worth every minute.
The organisers behind Shambala describe it as ‘pioneering, intimate and truly innovative,’ a mix of ‘perfectly blended creativity and participation,’ describing the experience as ‘adventures in utopia.’
First impressions on arriving at the festival are of stepping into another world (always strongly reminding me of J.K Rowling’s description of The Quidditch World Cup in the Harry Potter books) as someone walks past dressed in glittery leggings and a tutu, another person dances past dressed as a dragon and a mother pushes her daughter in a pram converted into a Viking boat. The costumes and props from festival attendees alone are pieces of art and an excellent example of the arts participation that makes Shambala such a unique experience.
Setting up camp is a delight; this is no ordinary festival camping experience. Each camp has a hub, providing information and security services. There are hot showers, regularly maintained composting toilets, saunas with a neighbouring cafe selling cafetiere coffee and and on top of all this the entire site is powered by renewable energy. The campsites are a maximum of five minutes walk from the main village, further lending to the intimate experience.
The village consists of large tents, stalls and areas offering over 200 music acts, but also a wealth of dance, arts, music and craft workshops, lessons and demonstrations. There are numerous art installations throughout the site, some of which are exhibited in their completeness and some which evolve over the course of the weekend with input from festival-goers, such as Joel Martista’s Live Mural Painting project.
Over the course of the weekend, we made bracelets in a leather craft workshop, observed a group doing power ballad yoga, participated in an African Drumming workshop and ate a lot of homemade cake.
The highlight of the festival each year is the themed carnival on Saturday night and is the perfect example of participatory theatre. Festival attendees spend months creating ingenious costumes, dance routines and characters, which they may adopt for just the carnival parade or for the entire weekend. Thousands of people follow the parade route, singing, dancing and acting, around the festival site, culminating in the main outdoor club area where the evening’s festivities really get started.
Whilst there are programmes available, it is worth just wandering around and seeing what you end up getting involved in. On Saturday night, my husband and I found ourselves sitting in a bathtub drinking beer, before wandering to the theatre tent to watch ‘Boogie Wonderland’, a circus and cabaret show by Playhouse Circus. Whilst initially the show felt like being at Butlins in the 1970s, it quickly stepped up a gear with amazing silk and hoop acrobatic displays.
Further exploring led us to The Enchanted Forest, which can be found across the lake on a small island. The island is beautifully lit, with motion-sensitive smoke machines adding to the mystical atmosphere. In the centre, the woods opened up to reveal a DJ in a tree house with a full dance floor, framed by towering trees.
Back in the main festival field, we were amazed as a seemingly static steampunk-style airship not only became a fantastic pyrotechnic show, but also the set of a breath taking physical theatre piece depicting intergalactic travellers being ‘adopted’ by a sentient airship. The show is the result of a Kickstarter project ‘The Marie Celestial’ from Bristol’s Ruby SoHo and Juliet Webb.
Finally, we stumbled upon a parade of people carrying illuminated umbrellas and decided to join in. We were given an umbrella and led through a series of choreographed moves as part of a procession throughout the festival grounds. It later transpired that we had been taking part in ‘The Umbrella Project’, an arts project by Bristol’s Cirque Bijou. Although I am somewhat sceptical as to whether it could be considered art or whether it was a marketing gimmick to promote their product line of illuminated umbrellas. Either way, it was fun to be involved in and the official photos looked magical.
‘The People’s Front Room’ music project was an open mic session held in a tent filled with chintzy sofas, armchairs and assorted furniture which gave me the vibe of visiting the home of a very musical group of friends.
We then moved onto the Swingamajig tent to catch a little of the Birmingham’s Electric Swing Circus’ theatrical electro-swing set; a hybrid of cabaret and a music gig, before finishing off the night making friends with fellow ‘Shambalians’ with a chai tea by an open fire pit.
Shambala is simultaneously relaxing and wild, exciting and incredibly calm, family friendly and rather adult at times. There really is something for everyone and it is a truly magical and unique experience.