Shambhala is a wholly immersive, mystifying music festival experience built into the beautiful British Columbian wilderness.
While Shambhala is by far the most awe-inspiring festival I’ve ever experienced, it’s also so much more than that. There’s entirely too much to say about Shambhala, and I feel like trying to put it into words is an insult. Instead of inadequately attempting to capture its essence, I’m reflecting on my top five favorite aspects of this festival, many of which are qualities found in most festivals. I believe, however, that Shambhala is unequivocally at the apex of them all.
Shambhala is a grassroots music and arts festival that’s been fine-tuning its well-defined practice for the past 21 years. It brings some of the best artists in Western Canada’s insanely talented music base and has become an enticing destination for world-renowned artists from around the globe.
Shambhala operates without corporate sponsorship, and as a result, any sort of branding feels out of place. Rather, Shambhala is its own brand. It’s one that’s ubiquitously represented on clothes, totems, accessories, and even tattooed on its attendees.
The most indescribable yet omnipresent feature of this festival is its deeply engaging quality. Shambhala is beyond immersive. Rather it moves through the venue, the community and even beyond the bounds of the festival itself. The beauty of Shambhala is pervasive; it resonates through the festival’s stunning production, loving community, open-minded culture, and breathtaking venue.
Shambhala is one with the Farm.
Since its humble beginnings, Shambhala has taken place on the Salmo River Ranch, a 500-acre area of active farmland nestled in the British Columbian wilderness, which sits alongside the pristine Salmo River. Guests enter the Farm through a long dirt road cut into the trees. They slowly inch past a series of signs that chronicle the mythology of Shambhala, like a storybook depicting the legend of the land upon which they approach. It tells of the lore that has come to pass, the sacred energy it sustains, and the untold adventures that await.
Much of the campgrounds are stationed in lots which act as cow fields during the off-season, but further down the road are wooded campgrounds for eager patrons that arrive early enough to camp in the invaluable shade of the trees. Once attendees pass through security upon their initial entry, they are officially immersed in the festival. From then on, there are only wristband checks whilst entering the festival gates. Otherwise, the venue and the festival are nearly indistinguishable.
The festival grounds are literally built into the venue. Many of its structures remain year-round, while others are rebuilt and redesigned every year. Over the decades, the festival has grown into the Farm. And each year for five days, the Farm is transformed into the largest city in the West Kootenays.
Everything about the layout of this event feels organic.
The wooden overhangs blend into the trees and huge flower gardens with towering sunflowers enliven the downtown center. You can wander through the dirt from one stage to another, ducking under trees, climbing over roots, dancing through narrow passageways. Each stage has countless places to string up a hammock and lounge right in the heart of it all. The whole event is a legitimate musical adventure in the wilderness.
Shambhala’s cutting-edge production is literally out of this world.
This festival is a wholly immersive, mysterious wonderland, absolutely saturated with little elements that embellish its enchanting forest environment. Every little aspect adds to the mystique, and nothing is squandered.
Shambhala is an event where the stages are just as beautiful from the artist’s perspective as from the crowd’s. Each stage has its own unique character, and four of the festival’s six stages are built right into the forest environment, where lights and lasers gleam in the towering trees or illuminate the billowing clouds of dust. Wandering into each stage is like entering a new universe, each one with countless places to sit, stand, climb or perch. Elevated platforms at five of the stages offer altered perspectives and breathtaking views. Each stage is all utterly mystifying. Though, I certainly still have my favorites.
The Fractal Forest is an absolute spectacle.
This stage will always be among the most confounding feats of stage design and production to which one can bear witness. It stands in the center of an arboreous rotunda, in which a torrent of lights and lasers bathe the trees in light and color. Projection mapped visuals dance on Star Wars-themed backdrops. Bass-heavy funk tunes bleed through its laudable speakers, and the whole scene is just a wild, fun-loving party. It’s a profoundly uplifting, utterly silly, and deeply breathtaking display.
Each stage is run and booked by separate teams, which helps maintain their own distinctive atmosphere. Though every stage is uniquely incredible, there’s something about The Village that absolutely stuns me every time.
The Village’s design is allegedly modeled after an Ewok village and resembles an overgrown jungle coliseum.
The stage sits beneath an eerily dazzling chandelier behind bulbs that dangle like spiders from its large semidome frame. It is surrounded by high-rising, wooden platforms that glow with frosted multicolored light, where hundreds of people can dance and marvel at the remarkable scene. A single massive tree elegantly dominates the center of the dancefloor, dripping with radiant light.
At no other point in life do I ever feel so in my element than drenched in bass, light, and dust at The Village. Its lineup features what my soul craves most: the fastest and heaviest of bass music. When I enter that stage, every part of my being coalesces into white-hot energy with my body helplessly thrashing to the music. All sense of self is lost entirely in the movement. It is my ultimate catharsis.
The quality of sound at Shambhala is one of its utterly immersive facets.
So much of my gratitude goes out to PK Sound. PK supports five of Shambhala’s six stages, and they deliver the most indescribably crisp sound that loudspeakers can offer.
Only once did I feel the full breathtaking force of PK’s Gravity 218 subs, when I wandered to the front of the stage at The Village. I thought my organs might burst from the pressure. I was thoroughly confounded by how much force and fidelity a sound system can generate. My crew frequently marveled at how comprehensively each set could be heard at the behest of PK’s expert engineering.
Shambhala is a bass music paradise where delectable beats are blasting on every stage all at once.
Its lineup features a healthy dose of just about everything on the bass music spectrum, from downtempo psy to uptempo drum and bass, with some dark techno and house thrown into the mix. The personality of each stage complements the sound it contains, and the music is as amazing as it is constant. Each night, the music creeps progressively later into the morning until it finally comes to a close on Monday at noon.
This festival’s lineup is remarkable to say the least, featuring the best in Western Canada’s insanely talented music base as well as international headliners, all of whom are just as stoked to be there as we are. Shambhala is one of those festivals where everyone gives it their all, so nearly every artist’s set is among the best you’ll see that year.
My one and only hangup about the music at Shambhala is that I so deeply wish that psytrance would return to the lineup.
Though my soul always longs for psytrance, I am never disappointed by the music at this event. This festival is all about the music, and it saturates everything. I am constantly dancing: in and out of the vendor village, back to the campsite, to and from the stages. Every year I leave Shambhala a better dancer. This year was probably my favorite lineup to date. Though it’s impossible to mention every set I lost myself to, there were certainly ones I was particularly activated by.
On Thursdays at Shambhala, just two stages are open – The Amphitheater and The Living Room. Despite the searing heat this year, our crew made it out for the best Thursday lineup I’ve yet to witness.
The crux of this year’s immense Thursday schedule was the Sleeveless Records takeover at the Amphitheater which featured Pigeon Hole, JVMPKICKS, and JLEON. All of them are heavy-hitters on Stylust’s innovative label that I’ve become increasingly enamored by and who all delivered distinctively powerful sets. As is tradition, Thursday night was closed out by an explosive set by Longwalkshortdock, a staple artist of Day 0, and one who never ceases to create a wildly fun sonic atmosphere.
Entering The Village for the first time on Friday night is a significant ritual for me, and this year, The Village was christened by Woofax. This artist is one whose exceptional skill and design I’ve increasingly come to admire, and one whose story last summer intersected with my own.
I utterly capitulated to his set with every aspect of my being. It was during this volatile hour that I realized I am never more at peace with myself than when I’m raging in the dirt at The Village. His set was supremely heavy yet playful and interactive, with singalong throwbacks like Weezer’s “Beverly Hills”, his gnarly remix of “Tequila”, and insane originals like “Greazy”. From start to finish, any sense of composure I once had was hopelessly lost.
I returned sometime later for Dirt Monkey, my most anticipated set of the weekend. His playfully wonky style of bass music was easily the most unique of the event. We were sloshed to and fro with his wavy wobbles like buccaneers on a ship raging through stormy seas.
Another Shambha-ritual of its own is catching Stylust at The Village. He always plays on Saturday at 8pm when light turns to night, and the festival completely transforms into a whole new wild, ethereal universe. I raged beneath a rusty trash monster atop protruding tree roots to every banger from his new EP and dozens of savory tracks both new and beloved. It was one of the best Stylust sets to date and easily among my favorite of Shambhala 2018.
Saturday night is always a wholly different beast when the energy is more concentrated after night one has come to pass.
On this Saturday night, Mat the Alien played against The Librarian at The Grove with JLEON as their guest MC. Never have I felt so assured that I was in the right place at the right time. It was a deeply dark and heady yet elegantly filthy set, and The Grove was a beautiful psychedelic lily pad where we slimy bass frogs frolicked to the viscous beats.
We stayed through till the epic end, whence I was reluctantly peeled away for Subvert back at The Village. Only the last half hour of Subvert remained after closing out Mat the Alien & The Librarian, but every second of Subvert caught me off completely off guard. The entirety of what I caught was utterly insane. I was a flailing madman for every eager second.
To top it all off, he ended with a track that he dedicated to his mother who was in the crowd. It was a bouncy drum and bass remix of “99 Red Balloons”, a song, he explained, they listened to together when he was a child. All the orbs floating in The Village canopy glowed red and bounced along to the familiar tune. The entire crowd collectively awed, and I danced myself into a blur of utter heart-warmed tears.
Yet above all, my favorite musical moment of the weekend was during ill.Gates. Specifically when dropped three tracks by Pedestrian Tactics, an awesome artist with a super distinctive style who I’ve been covering since his rebrand earlier this year. The rest of the set was an epic adventure, but dropping several tracks by my favorite local artist was a serious treat.
This festival’s approach to harm reduction is legitimately next level.
Shambhala has numerous distinctive harm reduction teams that genuinely care about the safety of every individual on site. I have personally never felt safer at any festival than I do at Shambhala. Though that’s not to say people still shouldn’t always look out for themselves and each other in any space with large crowds.
Shambhala is a huge supporter of AKNORS, an outreach program that’s been serving the Kootenays for the past 20 years. ANKORS provides free services, resources, and educational information to everyone, free of judgment. For the first time, this year they brought a mass spectrometer to substantially increase the safety and awareness of Shambhala’s responsible patrons.
The results of their tests are always publicly posted outside their tent to spread awareness of misrepresented substances. Dance Music Northwest published some of the findings of this year’s test results, providing yet more evidence of the supreme importance of realistic harm reduction methods.
The harm reduction teams at Shambhala also realize the importance of emotional wellbeing as equal to physical. As such, they have the Sanctuary – a cozy enclave nestled in a grove of trees where people who are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, isolated, or otherwise can chill out, chat with friendly staff, or curl up in beneath a blanket and relax.
Another of my favorite aspects of Shambhala’s approach to harm reduction is the prohibition of alcohol.
Shambhala is a dry festival, where alcohol can neither be brought nor purchased on site. Removing alcohol from the equation not only makes harm reduction more effective but decreases the horrible effects and behaviors associated with the drug. I always feel much more at ease without tons of drunk, aggressive attendees wandering the festival grounds. This also helps elevate the loving, open-hearted vibes that permeate every aspect of this event.
The unconditionally accepting vibes at Shambhala are unlike any other space I’ve ever experienced.
This community genuinely comes to experience the festival together as one cohesive entity. Its collective atmosphere moves through every individual and is something that everyone can appreciate. People come to Shambhala with their hearts and minds open to feelings and experiences they may not otherwise encounter. The result is a pervasive energy, an indescribable force that can only be described as Shambhalove.
The community at Shambhala is really just that: a community. It’s a collective of warm, open-hearted people ready and willing to share this incredible experience together, often finding clever ways to engage each other, through things like the Trading Posts, the Compliment Bar, the Kissing Booth, or the Free Hugs camp. When there are countless friendly people to vibe with, it’s sincerely difficult to feel alone.
One of my favorite examples of spontaneous community interaction at Shambhala is the port-a-potties. Specifically, the random streams of consciousness people write in them. Some are wise and uplifting, others bizarre and humorous. Regardless of the message, it’s always entertaining to read what someone else was thinking, days or even years ago, while you’re inside a festival port-a-potty.
It’s also an intriguing way to encounter blips of experiences from strangers you may never actually meet. I’ve gained many insights and had even more laughs from random port-a-potty wisdom. This year’s most notable port-a-stop was the 90s-themed port-a-potty where headshots of 90s actors and pop stars lined the walls from top to bottom.
Beyond its supreme level of goofiness, the community at Shambhala generates a genuine sort of magic that’s impossible to describe without witnessing firsthand.
The collective energies of thousands of well-intentioned people concentrated in a single space activate a swell of inexplicable synchronicities. I’m far from the only person to experience circumstances that are all too serendipitous to simply write off as happenstance. Some attribute this magic to the land, but I feel the community should get more credit.
In the past, I’ve experienced the resolution of long-running issues in my personal life, or seen things that are entirely too coincidental. Every year, Shambhala opens me up to believe that things can come full circle. I always leave the Farm convinced that everything will be okay.
Shambhala always seems to fill my soul with what I need most, regardless of what that may be. This year, it was allowing myself to surrender and let my anxieties melt away so I can fully appreciate the breadth of my good fortunes. Shambhala always breaks open my soul and leaves me with a profound sense of peace.
Shambhala is ultimately the pinnacle of festival experiences. It is the apex of music, production, sound, and community.
I’ve been to grandiose festivals like Burning Man and EDC, which are obviously groundbreaking in their own right, but there’s still something so humbling about Shambhala that makes other festivals pale in comparison. It holds something entirely more moving than every other festival combined.
I often cry at the very end of profound festival experiences. But at Shambhala, like clockwork, by Saturday night the floodgates open and I can’t hold it back. I cry about how beautiful life can actually be. I cry about how fortunate I feel to have been led to this place and about those who will never be able to join me. I cry for those who don’t care for this music and will never appreciate this experience. I cry for having ever felt so alone and being so sure in this place that I’m not, and for the souls whose heartfelt dedication has gone to creating something so special.
Every year, I’m floored by the beauty of this festival. Shambhala’s profound energy and the lessons I bring home move through me far longer than my few days spent on the Farm.
Shambhala is legitimately impossible to describe. As lame as it sounds, I genuinely think the world would be a better place if everyone had a chance to experience such profound, unlimited, and pervasive beauty.