Shambhala 2011: The Music Took Me Higher

Before I went to the Shambhala Music Festival this year, I had the feeling I already knew pretty much everything about it.

Though I’d never been to the famed annual B.C. event myself, two of my roommates attended in 2010 and had not shut up about it since. For an entire year I was told, repeatedly, how “unbelievably mind-blowing” it was and how I “have to go next year – no matter what!”

“Man, it’s almost like Heaven” they said. “Yeah … a utopia where no one judges you and everyone just parties for five straight days. You would love it man … seriously. It’s life-changing.”

They told me about the 10,000-strong crowd and seemingly endless supply of gorgeous hippy and raver chicks in skimpy costumes dancing into the wee hours of the morning.

They told me about the beauty of the 500-acre Salmo River Ranch in a large wooded valley in the West Kootenays, where the Bundschuh family has thrown the festival for the last 14 years. They said it was the perfect place for a weekend camp-out.

And, of course, they told me about the copious (but responsible) consumption of recreational drugs like MDMA, ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, DMT and a rainbow of designer drugs I had only read about in books or on the Internet. It all sounded amazing.

They also told me about the music – or tried to, at least.

Shambhala has grown to be Canada’s premiere electronic music festival, the largest in the country, with some of the biggest acts in the genre on the program.

“If you’re into electronic dance music, it is the place to be,” they said.

The only problem: I wasn’t into electronic dance music. In fact, I didn’t care for it at all and didn’t know anything about it or understand rave culture.

I’ve always been a music lover. I grew up spinning albums yanked from my Dad’s rusty metal-wire record stand, which was loaded with classic and progressive rock, heavy metal, funk, blues, jazz, and even classical.

By the time I reached teenage-hood, I had found hip-hop music and have been a Head ever since. Old-school, new-school, underground, gangsta shit: I listened and loved it all and had a pretty good understanding of and respect for sampling, breakbeats and electronic drum machines.
Many of my friends, some who were DJs, had over the years made the transition to house, techno, drum and bass, and the other various styles and sub-genres of electronic music. They tried to spread the love to me, but I had resisted all these years.

My roommates played song after song of electronic music for me on our small, treble-heavy home stereo system and encouraged me to give them a chance, but I couldn’t figure out what was so appealing. It all seemed too light and fluffy and didn’t have that hardcore badass sound I enjoyed in rap music.

After almost a year’s worth of heavy propagandizing from my in-house Shambhalers, I decided to buy a ticket to the 2011 event. I would go to Shambhala, not for the music – no – but for the Good Times.

The Pilgrimage

I was excited about the prospect of taking a journey into the wilderness while altering my consciousness with a few of my favorite psychoactive chemicals. I imagined it would be like some kind of shamanistic tribal initiation, where the energy of the massive crowd would push my already expanding horizons ever-wider and allow me to gain some deeper meaning or insight about life.

By the time August rolled around, we had a posse of old and new friends with vehicles saddled up and ready for the road trip across the province. On the afternoon of Wednesday, August 3, we set out on the 10-hour drive into the interior and blazed our way through the twists and turns of the treacherous mountain roads.

On the way, I kept thinking about the original Shambhala; the mythical kingdom of peace, tranquility, and happiness hidden somewhere in Inner Asia, as described by Tibetan Buddhists. I’d read Shambhala was believed to be “a society where all the inhabitants are enlightened” and I wanted to see how close our British Columbian version came to the Real Deal.

When we arrived at the village of Salmo, about 30 minutes south of Nelson, it was almost 6 am. After a little scouting around, we found the entrance to the dusty 6 km driveway and piloted our craft through the trees into a low valley surrounded by a ridge of steep mountains.

We had heard horror stories about the nine-hour car lineup to get in, and a few friends who arrived the day before complained of being forced to sit in their stifling cars and trucks in the hot sun while the queue inched along ever-so-slowly. We’d also heard security teams were ruthless this year and were performing rigorous searches on every second car.

I guess we got lucky, because we were inside the main gate and ready to unload our camping gear within two hours. The security team focused on finding liquor and any glass bottles or dishes, none of which is permitted at the festival. I guess the organizers figure keeping 10,000 Shambhalovlies happy and friendly for five days is a lot easier without booze rowdying up the crowd and without shards of glass cutting people’s feet. The very friendly security guy didn’t seem to care about the personal-sized sack of weed I pulled out of my pocket and laughed when I waved my hand and said “these aren’t the droids your looking for”.

After we figured out where to unload our gear and park – which was a bit of a hassle and expensive if we wanted to park somewhere close to our camp – we went on a mission to find friends who had come a day early to claim a great spot and get set up. Once we found them we enlisted the help of the by-donation trolley service who moved our supplies to our camp in a snap.

Our camp was tucked away in the shady trees at the far side of The Ranch – out of the heavy traffic areas – and felt nice and cool hidden under layers of tarps. Though some of our team would have preferred a more social location, I was happy to have a place we could retreat to and relax for a while when the big crowds started crowding. Being off the beaten path also cut down on the amount of dust in the air; however, we all still ate our fair share of dirt and went home filthy.

The Festival

The history of Shambhala goes back to the mid-90s when husband and wife Rick and Sue Bundschuh bought the Salmo River Ranch. In just a few years time, their ambitious and entrepreneurial children had convinced them to convert the Ranch into an psychedelic electro-wonderland for a few days annually and held the first Shambhala in 1998. There were only a few hundred people in attendance the first time around, but it wasn’t long before news had spread far and wide by word of mouth. Now, every year, the 10,000 tickets made available sell out months before the start of the event and the entire place is completely packed.

The remainder of the crowd is made up of volunteer staff, a group of die-hard Shambhazens who agree to work three 8.5-hour shifts over the five days in exchange for a free ticket to the show. All of the volunteers I spoke with were the picture of kindness and courteousness, and I felt safe, secure, and well-looked-after when they were around.

Security is handled by a third-party company, and was a little rough around the edges sometimes. Though I didn’t see any trouble myself, I did receive numerous reports of security people acting like meatheads to nice people, and I was told that a wooden jail had been set up for anyone found without their Shambhala wristband. A good friend of mine who lost his wristband but had his ticket in his truck told me of his nightmare experience being stuffed in the cage in the sweltering heat without water for more than four hours. Eventually he was kicked out of the festival and not allowed to return, even though he had a valid ticket.

The cops were at the festival as well. Media reports in the days after the event suggested considerable law enforcement activity at Shambhala, with cops admitting they provided uniformed, plain clothes, and K9 (police dog) officers. When we first arrived in Salmo, a police roadblock stopped us on the highway but let us pass quickly. The Trail Daily Times reported that police made over 96 marijuana seizures. Glad I didn’t show them my bag of weed.

Go to the Cannabis Culture Flickr Gallery. Photos by Ryan Dee

I soon explored the grounds of The Ranch to familiarize myself with the layout of the campsites, stages, and vending areas, and was amazed at the raw size and scope of the property.

One of the first things I stumbled upon was the beautiful river that streamed through one side of the property. By Thursday afternoon, the rocky shore had already been invaded by sweaty campers who couldn’t wait to cool down with a dip in the icy waters. I soon realized that many Shambhalers were as free-spirited as had been advertised, and they had no need for bathing suits. Nudity is quite common at Shambhala for both women and men, and l was soon desensitized to naked body parts hanging everywhere.

When the sun began to set, the clothing returned in the form of elaborate costumes of all shapes, sizes, and fuzzy fabrics. The time and effort put into some of the costumes I saw must have been epic; it was all very impressive to look at. Nearly everyone was covered in a rainbow of glow-sticks and electroluminescent wire, which made the dance floors come alive with pulsating colors.

To walk the longways from one side of the property to the other takes at least 30 minutes, so it’s smart to make your trips into “town” (what everyone calls the vending and information area) really worth it. I carried a large water jug with me and stopped at the one-and-only Watering Hole on nearly every trip. The lineup for water can be quite long, so expect to kill a lot of time chatting with other thirsty campers.

Lineups can also be very long outside the bathrooms, which are actually long rows of outhouses at several locations on the property, and if you are drinking as much water as I was you will be frequenting them often. The toilets are cleaned daily, but by the end of the night were totally disgusting and some were literally overflowing. Not a pleasant site or smell while coming down from my high.

The vending area was better than I expected, and I became addicted to a tasty chicken caesar wrap from one of the food stands. On mornings when I had barely slept and was feeling a little rough, a cold cherry-lemonade was the perfect remedy.

The Stages

Six impressive music stages were the focal-point of our audio obsessions, each a stunning feat of construction with a unique and stimulating artistic design. They were designed to be far enough apart to prevent cross-signal noise pollution, so the ground-shaking sound systems didn’t interfere with each other at all.

As I spent more and more time at each location, I started to learn a little about the styles of music being played, and was soon able to understand and identify the musical elements that differentiate genres. My once-closed mind began to open slightly and a new appreciation for electronic music was growing.

The first stage I came across was called The Pagoda, a multi-level structure with an Asian-looking, tiered tower placed front-and-centre. Hazy smoke drifted upward from the corners as bold laser-light sprayed across the sky in a series of beams. This stage was once called the Main Stage, as it is close to the centre of town and is always jumping. Each night the Pagoda played host to a different taste of musical deliciousness, including house, disco, funky breaks, and more. During climactic periods of intense sound, the mesmerizing lightshow became even more captivating and mind-bending 3D holograms were projected onto the front of the stage. The entrance to the main dance area became my posse’s meeting spot when our group got broken up. As we found out, getting separated from one’s friends during the course of the night is inevitable.

A little further across the town vending area and Watering Hole sat the Rock Pit stage, a large crater dug out of the earth covered by a high red-and-white-striped canvas. The stage was designed for live music performances and featured an eclectic mix of genres over the course of the festival. It was one of the first stages open to the public, and was packed solid with bodies on Thursday night.

Nestled deep within the bushy trees was The Labyrinth, a complicated maze of passageways, nooks, crannies, and interactive gathering areas filled with bizarre artwork. The tunnels eventually opened up to an impressive main stage area. Dreamy psy-trance beats and tribal drums filled the air, making the vibe considerably more mellow. This was a great place to chill out when we were feeling overwhelmed by the crowd and I had an excellent time sitting in one of the natural alcoves, sharing intimate conversations with one of my new friends until the sun came up.

The Fractal Forest was undoubtedly one of the most powerful stages. A blinding array of sparkling laser lights bounced off the smooth sides of large white pyramids and blanketed the crowd with a nuclear-green and purple glow. It looked to me like the inside of an alien spacecraft, with music to match. Dancing in The Fractal Forest felt like pumping 1.21 gigawatts through my five senses and ripping a giant hole in the space-time continuum. We spent hours there without even realizing it!

Another favorite stage was The Living Room. Located right on the beach, The Living Room was the perfect place to dance the night away to funk, soul, dub, glitch, crunk and downtempo tunes and then sit in the cool sand and watch the sunrise while coming down from my high. It was also a cool place to watch pretty girls spin glowing hula hoops and poi until I was just the right kind of dizzy.

Of all the stages, The Village had the strongest effect on my fragile psyche. The remarkable construction was obviously designed to look similar to the Ewok Village from Return of the Jedi, but as if it was on fire with a multi-colored spectrum of glowing flames. Two giant chandelier-shaped trees hung above the main front stage that exploded with light in sync with the massive bass drops.

A breakthrough experience hit me like a speeding bus on Saturday night at The Village. There, I was introduced to the planet-shattering sound of Canadian Dub Step artist Excision, who tore a hole in my skull and melted my brain. My mind felt like it was completely flattened then torn into one million pieces, then reconstructed as a towering, gnarly skyscraper encased in thick glass and metal as strong as titanium.

For those who aren’t familiar with the electronic music genre known as Dub Step, it sounds to me like two giant machines in a violent fistfight overtop of a dope hip-hop beat. Robot Heavy Metal. Excision’s particular brand of Dub Step was so powerful and hard-hitting it felt like I was caught between a jumbo jet and a freight train as they smashed into each other. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. At that moment I was successfully re-imprinted as a fan of electronic music and the Mighty Dub Step.

Excision’s entire Shambhala 2011 set will likely be uploaded to the web soon. Until then, if you want an idea of how I was feeling that night, please watch the movie below and listen to his Shambhala 2010 set and crank the bass and volume on your stereo until the fucking knobs rip off.

The 2011 set is now available:

After the Excision Experience, I started to enjoy the music in a different way. I started paying very close attention to other amazing Dub Step performers like Bassnectar, Doctor P, and Datsik, who each ripped it up and tore my head off, respectively.

I enjoyed the rest of my time a Shambhala incredibly and was sad to leave it all behind when we hit the long road home, but that moment at The Village towered over my battered consciousness like a stone Obelisk. It was carved like a bottomless gash into my grey matter and it stuck with me until long after the glow sticks had faded. The shamanistic experience I envisioned earlier had indeed been realized, but it was not induced solely by the high doses of MDMA I was consuming. Instead, it was the music that turned me on and brought me to a higher level. I was initiated – yes – but into the world of electronic music.

The music took me higher.