Shambhala is more than just a music festival.
While wandering down overgrown forest trails generously lined with serpentine lights, passing hammocks slung between cottonwoods and water pond shrines encircled with ornate rockery, participants may find themselves wondering if they’ve stepped into a utopian playground.
Further along, as the thump of electronic music echoes through the trees and the Salmo River burbles in the distance, participants will break into a series of clearings with elaborate stages that have melted into the surrounding foliage, the result of a 17-year evolution unlike anything else the North American festival circuit has to offer. Vines encircle the scaffolding and world-class lighting illuminates the towering trees standing sentry around the barrage of concerts offered over the course of the four-day event.
This year the performers providing the soundtrack to this idyllic retreat include fan favourite Bassnectar, Andy C, and international superstar Moby, as well as over 300 other musical acts.
“More than any other year, this year our lineup is world class,” said communications director Mitchell Scott. “I would say this is the most electric, top-ranked lineup Shambhala has had so far.”
Scott said Shambhala doesn’t take its cues from competitors like Coachella. Instead, they lead by example.
“Shambhala isn’t aspiring to be anything other than exactly what it is,” said Scott. “We’ve got our own trajectory. We’re being copied all across North America, but we’re not taking leads from anyone else,” he said, pointing out that the Electric Forest Festival in Maine and the Lightning in a Bottle Festival in Northern California are both modelled on Shambhala’s ethos.
He said Shambhala’s routinely sold-out extravaganza is more akin to Burning Man, where participants feel fierce loyalty to the annual event and are passionate about creating a temporary, transient community that embraces all sorts of activities — including art, yoga, meditation circles and experimental dance. Many simply attend for the atmosphere and the sense of belonging.
The festival currently has 12 staff preparing the farm grounds for the 10,000-strong audience, which is essentially a roving city the size of Nelson. By the time the first musician steps on stage on August 8, their team will have ballooned to 2,500 people.
“A lot of people from the community, we’re talking all ages and demographic, volunteer and serve every year,” said Scott. “We feel really embraced by the people of Salmo and the whole Kootenay region.”
They are still looking for volunteers and paid workers to help out as parking attendants, gate workers, nurses and “anything goes” volunteers who are simply interested in earning free admission.
“A lot of these people have it down. It’s work, party, work, party, the whole time,” he said. “If you volunteer, you get a ticket.”
Scott said the event is a boon to local business, since festival-goers tend to stay in local hotels, spend money at local businesses and remain in the area to camp and tour long after the speakers have been turned off.
“You look at how much money these people are bringing in? Ryan Martin at the Hume Hotel told me it’s his busiest time of year.”
That’s not to mention the various financial contributions the owners have made to the Kootenay region, including one that made the construction of the newly renovated, 108-seat theatre at the Tenth Street campus of Selkirk College (now called the Selkirk College Shambhala Music and Performance Hall) possible. The festival also contributed $15,000 to the Kootenay Lake Hospital Foundation’s campaign to raise money for the purchase of a CT scanner.
Organizers have worked hard in the past few years to counteract the perception that Shambhala is a haven for drug-fuelled hippy mayhem.
As Scott puts it, you don’t have to be on drugs to appreciate the mind-altering beauty and transformative energy of the festival. And he insists that any perception of rampant drug use, unsafe conditions or dangerous activities are merely the result of residents with hyperactive imaginations who haven’t deigned to actually attend.
“People come to Shambhala because they want to dance. They want to step outside their everyday life. They want to wear weird clothes and wander around in bare feet. It sounds corny to some people but it’s about love and that sentiment. It trickles through the whole festival,” he said.
“Spend any time out on those fields and you’ll realize. I’ve never had someone look at me wrong. There’s very little bad behaviour.”
Nelson police chief Wayne Holland echoed the sentiment. He said that even when he attends in uniform, festival-goers are respectful and the positive vibes that saturate the event make up for the few “turkeys” who cause trouble. He praised the event organizers for their harm reduction strategies, and for deciding to keep the grounds open longer so people don’t attempt to drive home while still under the influence of whatever intoxicants they successfully smuggled in.
“The drug thing, people like to talk about it. We often get misreported. It’s upsetting,” said Scott.
He noted that the tragic death of 33-year-old Calgary resident Jennifer Lynn Gruber-Ball last year was ruled inconclusive by the BC Coroners Service. The year before a Sidney man, Mitchell Joseph Feischacker, died from pulmonary failure as a result of illicit and prescription drug toxicity, but organizers say they take these events extremely seriously and they’re working hard to prevent future incidents.
“We’ve got world-class, military-style first aid,” said Scott. “When you have that many people together, stuff happens. We don’t encourage drug use, we manage it. We’ve got private security firms and we’re working with the local RCMP to stop trafficking.”
Officially, Shambhala is a 100 per cent dry event, but they encounter the same scofflaw attitude towards illicit substances that permeates nearly every musical event on the continent. Though Holland said some years have seen over 20,000 pills confiscated, it’s not reasonable to expect the flow of drugs to stop.
Rather, festival goers will likely be met with education and support rather than enforcement.
Participants this year can expect the Health & Well Being Zone to be open 24 hours a day. There’s also a safe haven called The Sanctuary nestled in a grove of old growth trees that provides a quiet place to rest for those incapable of coping with the festival stimulus. Options for Sexual Health, a non-profit, will also have a booth nearby.
New this year is the Women’s Safe Space, for any female concert-goers who have disclosed an assault. The female professionals there are trained in crisis intervention and have the resources to help. It will also be open 24 hours a day.
But Shambhala’s greatest asset is its location, said Scott, and the fact they’ll never have to move. The continuity has allowed them to build infrastructure that other festivals can only dream of.
“We’ve got one of the best festival venues in the world here. Where it is, the privacy it affords, how organically it was built up over time…really, there’s nothing else like it out there.”