Overall rating: 9/10
Shambala is categorical in its self-promotion – ‘Adventures in Utopia’, runs the byline; an end of season exhale for those who’ve already partied all summer. Shambala’s heart lies in its purposeful design as one last, colourful, silly fling and for that it’s very often the party of the year.
Whilst a strong countercultural mantra may be at the event’s core, year-on-year, Shambala cements its reputation as a mini ‘festival-of-festivals’. The sense of belonging to this newly sprouted community in Northamptonshire is immediately palpable the moment we are greeted at the gates. Recycling duties (a returnable levy is added to ticket prices, refunded in cash on production of a full recycling bag) are explained to us with a big grin and after passing what passes for security, we enter a realm where, bound by the rules of cooperative experience and peaceful co-habitation, we’re free to get silly and party. The large and gated family camping area, the composting toilets and extensive signage encouraging us to look after our neighbours indicate the nature of a festival that continues to quietly break ground in providing a sustainable playground for both hedonism and inclusivity – it’s small enough at 7,000 of course, to actually be Utopian in that regard, but it’s still no mean feat.
Waking up on Friday morning after a gentle warm up evening that seems more private party than organised festival we are confronted by the sometimes arresting sight of 7000 fellow Shambaholics fully immersed in the idea of Fruity Friday, an invitation to cast off inhibitions and cross dress. Martin Post from Bristol looks like a renegade drag queen from the 1920’s who has electrocuted himself, his hair twizzling high into the morning air, “I love this festival, I mean where else could I look like this other than Bristol on a Friday night”. He seems to be only half-joking. Glitz, glamour, eye-make-up, glitter and sparkle – every festival has these elements nowadays, but only here do they seem to be mandatory. Daytime dance workshops abound as dozens, sometimes hundreds learn moves from cheerleading to dub reggae to drum and bass, whilst the Chai Wallah’s tent provides quality sounds from the likes of the James Riley Band (9/10) with their string-led, stompin’ Bluegrass. Once Shambala’s stages are up and running, you can’t move for dancing, and if you move, it’s usually to go and dance, this is an infectious place.
Fridays early evening main stage performance by Shambala favourites Dizraeli and the Small Gods (8) sees the man sharing fresh tracks and intimate truths with what appears to be thousands of his closest friends. Then Gramatik flawlessly kicks the party into overdrive with his heavyweight beat-laden set (10). An unscheduled set by the Beatbox Collective in the Kamikaze Circus Tent shows just why they were crowned 2015 world beatbox champions and the beats continue site wide with Nubiyan Twist (9), a Leeds/London 12 –piece who bring horns, turntables and the amazing voice of Nubiya Brandon to Shambala – could you get a more Shambaholic band?
This year the Enchanted Woods area has lost some of the venues and late night DJ sets and it’s been returned to the less hedonistic meeting and chill-out space of years ago. It’s a great place to meet people and talk nonsense.
Saturday sees infectious daytime fun and games at Bearded Kitten’s Bollywood Temple of Love with Sumo wrestling, wheelbarrow races and dance statue competitions to a soundtrack of pop classics and Bangra beats before the Shambala stage hosts GoGo Penguin’s (9) expansive pastoral bass. Later Joey Driscoll & Sekou (8) take the stage. Saturdays Cosmic Carnival (yes, really), procession winds up at the Shambala stage and is brought to a rousing conclusion with the beats of Orkestra Del Sol (9).
There’s just time to refuel beforehHip hop legends the Jungle Brothers (9) hit the stage and rock the party into submission. Then Ibibio Soundsystem’s (8) slow, burning set mates delicious bass and Nigerian rhythms, building into a frenzied finale. The mix of world rhythms and heavy beats is making Saturday a day of dance. The night is no different with drum and bass legend Roni Size (10) showing these youngsters a thing or two – certainly about how to keep a whole dance movement alive on your own, anyway.
Sunday brings traditional British Bank Holiday weather but that doesn’t diminish the fun, there’s plenty of covered space to enjoy crafts, dance instruction, theatre, film, badge making or indeed, everyone’s favourite Sunday supplement, Cock Drawing Club. Thomas McCarthy (8) delivers a powerful and moving start to the Shambala stage and closes with a cautionary tale of spending the night with a 90-year-old maiden before Sidestepper (8) usher in the Latin beats. There’s more time to explore and meet new friends before the cocksure Afrikan Boy (9) melds grime with afrobeat whilst documenting trips to Lidl and brings the audience onstage to share the love before Stickybuds (9) closes the night in a rammed Kamikaze to a hyped-up crowd who, seriously, really seriously, do not want the party to end. Like all good parties it has too.
Whilst the organisers may baulk at the overused ‘boutique’ festival label that Shambala is often placed under, they continue to keep the numbers down and concentrate on putting on the party. Their public care and consideration for the four people whisked off to Northampton General after taking poor-quality illegal drugs is very telling – this is the party that cares. Shambala may not be the last festival of the season but somehow it seems to provide a last hurrah that sees one leaving with a sense of melancholy tinged with hope that next summer can live up to this.
There’s a trick here somewhere and it’s difficult to see how the magic is performed, the vibe is certainly not a manufactured one, yet without much apparent visible effort Shambala continues to provide the most inclusive, eccentric and downright daft festival of the season, the reveal, when it appears is a simple one… the magic is provided by those who attend.
Words by Jon Wright.