This past weekend my partner Darby and I donned bison and elk spirit hoods, loaded up our RAV-4 and drove out to the Salmo River Ranch to lose our Shambhala Music Festival virginity together. The annual 5-day bacchanal, now in its 18th year, has long loomed in my mind as one of those things I had to get around to eventually, so when Jimmy Bundschuh and the crew invited me to experience it firsthand, I jumped at the chance.
Darby and I left our canine progeny with my co-worker Tamara, stocked up on Tostitos, Red Bull and bottled water, and set up a makeshift bed in the backseat of our car.
Neither of us know anything about EDM music, nor have we been to many music festivals, but we were giddy and determined to give it a one-day go, if only to brag about it afterwards.
‘This doesn’t even look like Canada’
We’d been seeing the evidence of Shambhala’s approach for weeks—as we do every year—with hitchhikers, transients and costume-wearing ravers gathered on the sides of the highway and in gas station parking lots holding up cardboard signs.
As it turns out, that was nothing compared to what awaited us.
Many in Nelson are ambivalent or outright hostile to the festival and its denizens, treating it like the beautiful but irresponsibly hard-partying daughter of a conservative family. Other locals, meanwhile, talk about it with a religious fervour and count the week as the spiritual highlight of the year. I figured I would end up falling somewhere in between.
As we wound along the dusty forest road off the highway to the ranch, passing a derelict truck spray-painted with a headdress-wearing skull, mud-crusted pigs wandering in the bushes and fields full of amiably munching cows, I was reminded of my first day of summer camp as a kid.
At the entrance to the festival grounds, hyper-earnest greeters waved their arms, rainbow-clad and grinning effusively. The wacky costumes were immediately on proud display—as was the casual nudity—and all around us bandana-clad twenty-somethings roved in haggard, dust-covered packs, sporting raccoon tails, tiny bathing suits and no shortage of flamboyant headgear.
“I can’t believe this is real,” Darby said. “This doesn’t even look like Canada.”
Beyond the trees it sounded as if some nightmarish machine was clanking-whirring, the bass thumping like a heartbeat.
Tutus, body paint and spirit hoods
Upon arriving in the forest in-costume, my surroundings conjured memories of the Full Moon Party I attended in Koh Phangan, Thailand years ago. There was the same frenzied enthusiasm, the crowd-packed manic energy. At the time it has been the largest scale party I’d ever attended, and the scene of some of the most extreme tourist-style debauchery I’ve ever witnessed.
Shambhala attracts party-goers from a similar milieu—primarily college-aged kids with plenty of disposable income for body-paint, weed and river floaties—but there were all kinds of age groups and social backgrounds represented.
I spotted flags for Italy, Brazil, Quebec and even Westeros.
We quickly headed towards the stages—where Justin Bieber was rumoured to be hanging out for Skrillex’s 12:30 show—and joined the mass of humanity, attempting not to gawk too visibly as parades of bare-chested women traipsed brazenly past. Every few feet there was a wildly inventive costume to behold, or a sign hoisted up with a message like I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!
Shambhala is where you can infantilize yourself, where you can walk the grounds nude except for a well-placed sock or a creative use of sheer spandex. It’s where men wear tutus and women wear work belts over their bikinis. One lady with red-dyed eyebrows and hair, doing her best Ariel impression, was sporting nothing but Little Mermaid-style body paint.
And we’re not talking about a handful of kids here; we’re talking about a full-sized Kootenay city of 15,000 people all devoted to making the biggest spectacle possible. (You can understand why that makes some nervous…)
The people I talked to repeatedly described the festival as their yearly escape from mundanity, as the place where they feel home in a way they don’t elsewhere. It’s an annual soul-cleansing, a subversive party Mecca that gives people a chance to be someone else for a few days, to leave their ordinary existence behind temporarily.
One DJ stood before his throbbing crowd with a T-shirt that read **** Real Life.
The sentiment was widespread.
Shrines to the Party Gods
I’d heard previously that Shambhala’s primary asset is its permanent location, which allows the stages to remain in place and evolve year-round. Each year the infrastructure improves, the lighting design gets more ambitious, the special effects intensify. The Fractal Forest in particular seems to have blended into the surrounding foliage.
Darby and I clutched our water bottles and dived into the writhing crowds, squirming through the mass of bodies and trying to get glimpses of the artists through the chaos.
We hiked through the woods from one stage to the next, getting progressively filthier, checking out the sculptures and artwork that periodically appeared. I downed two Red Bulls, determined to stay awake with all these kids—I could stay up late in my twenties, no problem—and repeatedly I was impressed by the warm, collaborative vibe of those around us.
From that point, things start to get a little hazy. Sensory overload kicks in.
I found I didn’t have time to process one startling visual before being faced with a new one: a leather-clad woman hanging from a giant spider web, C3PO’s head bouncing over me on the dance floor, a cross-eyed cartoon bird squawking while the beat palm-thrusted my throat.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to stand on one of those dance floors—or on one of the elaborate, multi-storey structures erected around them—without resorting to hyperbole, but suffice to say it felt like being in Narnia, complete with anthropomorphized animals, and I only experienced five per cent of what the festival has to offer.
Next year I have to go for longer.
Evolving potential, creative development
For many of the festival-goers, our 15-hour visit took place during their third day, but I felt like I’d experienced a full week’s worth of stimulus during our frenzied tour.
The thing that impressed me the most, when I thought about it afterwards, was the culture of party collaboration. It seemed like everyone—staff, volunteers and attendees alike—were committed to ensuring everyone was safe and happy. I heard people reminding each other to visit the harm reduction tent, I saw festival-goers shaking each other awake in the grass and routinely checking in with female friends that had been approached by male strangers to make sure they were okay.
But the other thing that inspired me was all the various art projects and spin-off endeavours that had come out of the festival, all the creative relationships and new connections. The economic spinoff in Salmo is huge. According to some, Shambhala stopped being exclusively about music a long time ago. Now it’s all about creating community, and fostering creative relationships.
Basically, every year for that week the Salmo River Ranch becomes a 15,000-person family.
I honestly can’t believe they pull it off every year—it’s like a giant trust exercise where nobody’s betting in their favour—but they have repeatedly upped the ante, professionalizing their operation and claiming their spot as one of the best music festivals worldwide.
I couldn’t be more grateful for the invitation, and I hope to return for years to come.