Guest post by Holly Robbins
Celebrating its tenth birthday this year, (The People’s Republic of) Shambala has everything a festival-goer could possibly desire – without being the size of a small town (yes, I’m talking to you Glastonbury). Set in the grounds of a manor house in Northamptonshire and playing host to around 10,000 punters, Shambala’s organisers have managed to create an atmosphere that encourages free thinking, boundless energy, and an obscene amount of dressing up. With an exhilarating mixture of music genres – from political punk and folk through to thoroughly danceable klezmer and Balkan-influenced music – and a strong focus on DIY, crafts and direct action politics, it’s hard not to feel like a part of something bigger than yourself, just for one weekend.
When I sat and thought about my experience of Shambala, I realised that the music is never really the main focus as it is with a lot of larger commercial festivals. The line-up is not released prior to the festival, and only a few bands would be considered even vaguely ‘mainstream’ – namely Zion Train and the King Blues. That’s not to say the music isn’t worth seeing; we discovered a lot of fantastic independent artists over the weekend. It’s hard to over-emphasise the variety of sounds that play at this festival; some surprising favourites included Los Desterrados, a band that mixes the music of the Sephardic Jews with some Balkan and folk elements, Dub Colossus, heavy dub with a powerful brass section, Boy, an incredible four part female acapella group, and Hatty Hatstar, a folk singer and accordionist who got the whole of the Rusty Garden audience joining in enthusiastically with Windmill in Old Amsterdam (‘I saw a mouse!’ ‘Where?’).
The musical highlight, partly because of the wonderful atmosphere, was one of the final acts of the festival – Hakuna Pesa playing on the tiny Lakeside Stage (did I mention there’s a lake?) when the festivities on the main stage were winding down. Lots of bewildered people, desperately clinging to the last remnants of the weekend, were drawn like moths towards this glowing corner of the field to dance like maniacs for the last hours of official music. Hakuna Pesa definitely provided a great beat; a world-influenced ska-punk band that sounded much like The Aggrolites’ eccentric English cousin.
Something that makes Shambala different from the rest of the jumble of festivals around today is its strong sense of politics – its own as well as the wider issues. If you’re after inspiration and a kindred spirit to chat to then Rebel Soul is your place. Apart from politically conscious musicians (Bristolian Clayton Blizzard being a good example), they hosted talks on issues such as food production’s effect on the environment, the recession, pharmaceuticals, and Palestine. The organisers of Shambala hold a ‘Parliament’ on Sunday, asking people to comment on their ‘green credentials’ and how the festival is run. Anarchist newsgroup SchNEWS also have a strong presence. Next door is the Permaculture area, which runs workshops on useful skills for sustainable living in the modern world. Practical skills are a bit of a theme for Shambala; the craft workshops are a massive part of what makes the festival unique. Wherever you look, adults and children alike are engrossed in making placards (for the ‘protest’ themed carnival on Saturday), creating wallets out of scrap leather, felting pictures, carving spoons, or even joining the Shambala Knit-In. One woman spoke to me enthusiastically (perhaps drunkenly) about the willow basket she’d woven earlier in the day. She showed me pictures of it on her phone.
The unexpected highlight for me was Wandering Word – the spoken word stage – and the Wandering Word poets’ showcase at Rebel Soul. This was never somewhere I really explored the last couple of years, but after a bit of miserable weather I found myself in their yurt, and the talent in that tiny space truly blew me away. Kate Tempest’s poetry left me lost for words, so I’m just going to suggest you to look her up (find ‘Cannibal Kids’ on youtube) and go see her perform if you can. I imagine she’s the first former MC to be compared to William Blake. But that’s just a guess. Wandering Word also hosted Boy (mentioned earlier), the charming young storyteller Stanley Wilfrid Mertenns, and many other wonderful poets. The perfect place if all the bright lights and painted people are just getting too much.
Shambala this year was a world of surprises. Have you ever seen a full set of crayons barn-dance? Now I have. Been on a walk with a herbalist? Seen a shaman on a blow-up rodeo bull? From the circus acts accompanied by the brass section of Smerin’s Anti-Social Club, to the People’s Front Room, from the healing field (with cake) to the Mind’s Eye Cinema showing independent films through the night, Shambala is an extravaganza that encourages adults to act like children, children to learn and grow, and everyone to dress up and join in. It’s clear every year – although the festival is always growing a little – just how much love and attention to detail the organisers give to making this festival so special. There’s handmade bunting on the stages. There’s free hot tubs. There’s a cock drawing workshop. There’s the most fun you can reasonably have in one weekend without hurting yourself.