27 Aug 2009: Mystery Location London, England
We drive up from the South of England in a small car filled with dreadlocks, glitter girls, a circus-master’s jacket, a guitar and an imaginary map. Fittingly, we take a two-hundred mile detour through Cheshire to serenade Lewis Carroll’s smiling cat, and arrive at our destination, Shambala Festival, after dark, where a cardboard space ship and its crew await us next to the lake, good enough to sing us summer joys and hand out cups of free squash and bin bags.
This mystery location (coverage must adhere to the festival-organizers’ wish to keep the address secret) has been a land of dreams to UK fringe-festival-goers for the past two years. But the place keeps pushing the boundaries. The tents go up with only minor struggles in the dark. And -baring in mind I’ve seen a lot happen here in the last two years - I can’t quite believe the first thing I see as I walk across to the festival site proper: a life-size robot horse running wild in the pathways, spitting fire and neighing furiously, sending people scuttling for cover, and sending me into a tent which provides the second opening Shambala ‘09 whammy - a bicycle-powered gig featuring a jazz band of New Orleans grace.
Moon Buggy is a tight, fantastically festive band. Two trombonists, a sax player, guitarist, drummer, bass player and trumpeter play songs that have a loose, spontaneous and concise New Orleans style. A male and female singer take turns to add vocals - interrupted only occasionally by system failure caused by flagging cyclists. The enthusiastic audience seems willing to exchange their dual rolls of cycling and shimmying all night long if they have to. And when the set ends everyone is ready to tackle the rest of this Friday night with an air of euphoria after a good work-out.
The lake is the natural place to gravitate after Moon Buggy. Everything else can be discovered properly in tomorrow’s daylight. The scene here is fantastic. The lights and luminous art structures that sit in the woods on the other side reflect on the water. A teeming hip hop disco is taking place in the small hut nearby. The large manor house hovers over the lake. Shambala is a genuinely beautiful place at night.
Simon Harries and The Bright Size Gypsies are the next live musical stop on the nearby Lakeside Stage. Fantastic grooves and rhythms are shot through with sultry double bass solos. Ebullient threads of trumpet mix with ‘60s girl groupesque backing melodies. And Harries himself has a bit of Elvis Costello about him, not only in the way he looks - his NHS glasses give him a geeky, studious air - but also in his ways, mannerisms and songs. Harries and his Gypsies have a wry, shy way of playing, in stark contrast to the cartoon-like bombast of the headlining Lakeside act that follows.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble—a multiplicity of rappers of the old school style—play the Shambala Friday out after Harries and his band in a one a.m. set. They’re a huge party-orchestra with synchronized dance moves, sharp suits, sunglasses, sharp rapping, sultry horn textures and orchestral melodies taking the audience away on a joyful wave. Epic showmanship adds to their manic on-stage spectacle, huge tunes threaten to jump and dance into the lake. It’s accompanied by the site of the first fire lanterns rising into the Shambala sky. The scenes are dazzling. Much is still to be discovered here. But for now - exhilarated and exhausted - the tent calls, via a glass of sloe gin from the Witches’ Cure tent found on the way back, for some much-needed sleep.
Saturday morning’s Shambala shower queue means missing most of the festival’s morning fair. Thai Chi, Thai Massage, a Salutation Workshop, and Qigong (a Chinese meditative art), all slip by disappointingly untried as the queue moves agonizingly slowly. And after investing in a home-made nettle beer from one of the many stalls upon entering the festival site, I’m left thinking that any of the above would be extra-good to try.
During the day, the Shambala site is like a free-for-all of trading. Jewelry-makers are set up under trees, and clothing sellers are on the grass. It’s like being in an Indian market town that is buzzing with life. A perma-culture area educates us as to the different nature of various soils - taking us a step closer to that glorious attainment of self-sustainability. A short walk over a bridge past the Lakeside stage reveals a dramatic life-sized wood-carving of a stake-wounded nude. Wooden crocodile carvings are speckled neatly along the lake’s edge. And luminous, artfully-constructed monsters pop out from the streams that run under the bridges - completing the Lakeside picture.
There’s so much to be seen that the first music of the day is not taken until late afternoon. Royal Gala on the main Shambala Stage has a crunching electro and bass sound. Their singer Louise Barnell is dressed in a multicolored, one-piece spandex suit, her stage persona swaying between Bat for Lashes’ cool air of mystery and Bonnie Tyler’s pure Celtic balls. Barnell’s voice belts out strong over the Balkan beats and dancing jazz rhythms, and Royal Gala are a mysterious and feisty mix as the sun shines down.
Barnell would be a favorite in the Shambala musical/fancy dress parade that marches through the site afterwards were she to take part. People sit outside their tents waving as the carnival is led through the camping aisles by a rhythm section in smart white gear. Human bumblebees pull a giant hive close behind. A brass section in miscellaneous outfits follow them. Sci-fi freaks; a group of gladiators (with a random caveman); a second brass section in pink; a tea room on wheels - pulled along by more Shambala cyclists; an elaborate straw people-puller full of children; a group of windmills; a human ghetto-blaster; a pull-trolley disco; Crocodile Dundee; Elvis/Superman; the Cowboys 4 Jesus group; Beetlejuice and Santa Claus are just a few of the characters involved as the procession proceeds down into the festival arena in a comical march.
The carnival passes in time to nip back into the musical arena for Birmingham’s The Destroyers, who are in full flow with a carnival of their own. The Destroyers are a fourteen-piece band led alternately by a man dressed in a blue suit who plays festive, virtuoso, party-violin, and an Irish folk poet named Leo Altarelli. Altarelli eggs on the band with a touch of old showbiz panache, spinning gritty, euphoric poetry through their Balkan rhythms as the violinist continues with his brilliant playing. It’s a heady folk-dance frenzy that goes down a storm.
Over at The Rusty Garden tent The Brewer Street Kazoo Band use a kazoo where one would normally use a trumpet. It gives their tongue-in-cheek folk songs a cheeky musicality. They’re a happy diversion for a while, before the site beckons further. Darkness has now fallen, and night is when Shambala really comes alive. Music pours from all corners. Strangely-lit, slightly debauched dens call one in at every angle. There’s a constant state of excitement and a certain sense of suspense over what will occur next.
A quick look around reveals a DJ playing techno behind a grotesque mud-art piece while some stray revelers lap it up; a family sits huddled around a
campfire outside their stall next door; the Twist and Shout Bar is all lit up opposite with “Trash Lounge Erotica” advertised on its blackboard for later; “Wandering Word” poetry performers are on at the Rebel Soul Tent; an unnamed violinist plays lilting Celtic folk songs in a hut set out as a red,lamp-lit living room, where people sit around on comfortable sofas and occasionally visit a small bar in the corner to buy spirits.
A fire show draws a large crowd to the Lakeside area. Jugglers and performers make kids and adults smile. Then the mystery of the previously-mentioned fire-breathing robot horse encountered at the start of the festival is unraveled. The horse strolls up behind a crowd immersed in the fire show. And when his partner - a giant robot bird, flapping his huge wings, and spitting reams of fire - joins him, it makes the organized fire show seem boringly orthodox. The bucking,
fire-breathing horse is still a wild sight, but the total abandon I’d previously credited it with is taken away when I spot its owner - named in the program as Pakka the Inventor - blending artfully into the background with his remote control. And then, as if all this wasn’t mad enough, I notice that some people have made use of a nearby truck and improvised an elaborate rope swing on its side, where a queue will soon form for a ride.
After the drama of Pakka and his inventions, people who seek sanity in the Shambala Stage, featuring headliners Quantic and His Combo Barbaro, are rewarded with a set of deeply soulful rhythms, distilled with affection in English “director” William Holland’s adopted Colombian home. Holland’s multi-national band, including singers and musicians from Colombia, Peru and Panama, purvey a music rich in heritage and personality - funk and soul tinged with a little psychedelia, and it burns with a magical depth and warmth. An hour blends into a lifetime in the hands of the band. The video footage features touching images of everyday rural Colombian life, and if it were to go on all night I’d happily stand here fending off the cold.
Shambala Saturday has provided myriad surprises and delights, and a cornucopia of colors. The lake again looks beautiful with the lights from the woods shimmering on its surface. The manor house floats behind on the hill in soft colors. The music will go on late into the night. Plans are made to go back to the tent to warm up and come out again for King Porter Stomp, labeled inthe program as “an eight-piece funk/dub/ska juggernaut”. But breath shows in the air. It’s cold, and the warmth of the sleeping bag doesn’t allow any further outside adventures for tonight.
The sun is out for the final day of the festival. I’d love to sample the Shambala hot tubs that are located in the lakeside Meadow Fields, but they don’t open until 12. The sauna room is just a quick walk from the tent though, with a little café attached to its side for morning tea, and then it’s quickly out into the arena to sample the day’s fair.
Kid ID provide some orchestral Americana at the Shambala Stage. Their songs have a gentle musicality, reminiscent of London/Swedish pop band Fanfarlo in the way the orchestration flows and throws up subtle hooks. A small crowd gather to appreciate the band for a while. But this is Shambala, and the main stage during the day is possibly the least populated one of all, to the detriment of none of the bands. The rain that soon sweeps in worsens the situation for the bands here, and it’s disappointing to miss a shortened set from Nila and the Rajas, which is brought to an early end because nobody ventures out in the rain when there’s so much going on elsewhere.
Sunday is the popular Poetry Slam day at the festival. The small, circular Wandering World tent soon fills to the rafters with audience and participants. Judges are selected at random from the crowd by host Dreadlock Alien - a man who innovatively throws beat-boxing into his everyday conversation. Participants are nominated under Alien’s watchful eye, and they ready themselves to bravely run the gauntlet, vying for the grand prize of two free festival tickets for next year.
A journey back to the tent leads to the discovery of another inspired little festival stall called FOT, which proposes that you bring along something that the staff can break. After that they’ll re-assemble the broken item with glue and cellotape, hand it back to you with a value attached, and grant you the right to purchase any of their products with that item. And worthy products they are - including a tent locksmithing service and private detectives.
Night has fallen on Shambala Sunday. I follow an earlier FOT private detective’s tip and hop up to the top deck of the double-decker tea bus that’s parked by the lake. And I find that - just as he says - it has a collection of old vinyl and a record player which one is encouraged to use when taking tea. Then, finding myself ever more satisfied with the festival’s easy surrealism, I drink up my spiced Chai and hot-foot it back over to the Kamikaze tent, in anticipation of a circus treat.
It’s time here for the Acrojou Circus Theatre. And it seems that the whole festival has gathered to see it. The people in the front rows crouch down so that more people can see in the back. A huge circle forms stretching far outside the tent. And the first act – two male and female powdered dancers, sets the tone with a beautiful, graceful and moving set on giant white wheels. It gives the place a genuinely enchanted hush from the outset. Elegant rope art; a wondrous hula-hoop act; an innovative and beautiful rope-walking set where a lone guitarist strums the soundtrack sitting on one end of the rope; a feat of extraordinary upper-body balancing; and a daring, dramatic pole dance follow, making up an hour of wide-eyed circus wonderment. The Acrojou puts on a show of such genuine poetry and grace that will stick in the memory for a while to come.
A walk around reveals the small lakeside hut bouncing to the sounds of ‘50s rock and roll. And another tip-off takes me into the Wandering Word tent, where London’s mysteriously, mellifluously-named twosome Alabaster Deplume play a set of otherworldly, fragmented songs on double bass and sax, lead singer/narrator Alabaster offering enchanted, poetic musings that nicely wile and amuse through his be-glittered beard.
After this, I discover that the cycle-powered tent has turned into a serene, fairy-lit haven where people sit on haystacks and chat. All in ear shot of The Cakehole - another previously-unmentioned tent, which draws me in with the sounds of The Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me”. The Cakehole is a haven of music and cakes, a tent shaped like a cupcake selling flavorsome homemade confections and bouncing to the shimmering sounds of Motown and ’60s girl groups. It even has the smell of freshly-baked cakes to make it doubly-hard to escape.
I finally tear myself away, and head back to the Shambala Stage to see the night reach another high with Dub Colossus - an eleven piece band in desert robes directed by Duballah of Trans-Global Underground fame. Last night we were treated to the straight-ahead soulful Colombian rhythms of Quantic and His Combo Barbaro, and Dub Colossus are a similarly profound treat. The band mix beautiful Ethiopian balladry with sumptuously-relaxed reggae. Bass grooves shake over wondrous, primal vocal twists and melodies. It’s a soothing, enchanting show, ancient magic and timeless soul, and the crowd can’t help but show their appreciation by imitating singer Sintayehu ‘Mimi’ Zenebe’s wondrous desert calls between the rhythms. Dub Colossus make the damp night turn red with musical warmth.
This would have been a fitting ending to Shambala. But there’s time yet for new discoveries and unexpected pleasures. The Kazimier in the closing two a.m. slot at the Kamikaze Tent provide a show of shimmering, surreal circus-tinged electro-pop. Their sound is a bubbling, whirling-dervish of multi-layered melodies that keep everybody dancing until late, with all manner of surreal theatrics happening behind them. And then at three a.m. the Reggae Tent is discovered in a hidden corner, and time stands still for another hour, before we climb out into the morning with a peculiar non-gravity feeling from the shimmering tunes and passive smoke intake.
The campsite and tent is the only place to fall now. I half expect someone to have erected a glitter ball in there while I’ve been gone and invited some friends over for a last hurrah. But as it is, it’s empty, and this really is the end. Shambala has been an inspiring and engaging festival. Almost every extreme of pop culture is represented, and it leaves an exhilarated feeling. The small car fills once more with dreadlocks, glitter girls, a circus-master’s jacket, a guitar, and an imaginary map. Cheshire is rubbed off this time - the cat is asleep. And the last word comes from a late-riser as we walk past his tent on the way out: “I just wanna be fucking transported home in a time machine.” You can’t help but smile. Shambala really is a festival where little is left in reserve.
// Notes from the Road
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