Shambala Festival: Genuinely eco-friendly and anti-consumerist

With 2015’s Shambala coming this month (27-30 August), revisit our review/interview with founder Chris Johnson, published in October last year.

Described to Access as ‘the festival that festival organisers attend’, Shambala is a place where spontaneous can-canning, eccentric costumes and arty curiosities are the gleeful offshoots of a wider, anti-commercial spirit that has been in place since the event’s inception 15 years ago.

“I see festivals in terms of their place within our culture, and we like to blur the line between audience and festival,” Shambala director Chris Johnson said.

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This ethos of visitor participation is evident at every turn when navigating the event’s secret-until-the-last-moment Northamptonshire location. The picturesque country estate hosts around 7,000 visitors, the majority of whom are clad in studiously detailed, and often hilarious, costumes.

Johnson rejects the term ‘boutique’, but says Shambala’s countercultural inclination and spirit of togetherness is also evident in a small breed of modern festivals, including Secret Garden Party, Wilderness and Boomtown Fair. “We’re tapping into something that has perhaps been lost in our Western society: The need for celebration and connection on a deep level without the passive consumerist messages and corporate agendas,” he added.

The event (21-24 August) was all about creating an environment for self-expression rather than deliberately manufacturing any particular ‘vibe’, Johnson told Access. “The visitors have been defining the culture of Shambala since it started,” he said. “It’s important to us that the event remains ad-free and is a counterpoint to a culture where our motivations are constantly exploited,” he adds.

Roaming theatrics, carnival parades, food from rustic caravan units and creative workshops create a kinetic and vibrant atmosphere that helps build the event’s culture of involvement. The festival’s production is eclectic but cohesive, with a bohemian fairground bent and reassuring attention to detail. Meanwhile, a diverse line-up of musical acts across 12 stages includes Femi Kuti and the Positive Force, Kate Tempest, Nozinja, and This Is The Kit.

Shambala does not use marketing or advertising, instead engaging with its audience via social media. Tickets completely sold out in 2014 – Shambala’s strategy seems to be working.

The festival’s website and pre-event information puts sustainability at centre stage. It undertakes independent carbon auditing, and was the first organisation ever to achieve a three-star Industry Green certification from Julie’s Bicycle back in 2010. Elsewhere, a three-star IG certification was awarded for the 2013 festival, followed by A Greener Festival outstanding award in 2013.

Green innovations this year included a hybrid generator by Firefly that runs on repurposed vegetable oil and solar power, employing a power saving mode during less demanding hours. “This was a big new innovation for us, and I was impressed by the generator’s smart use of power that deals with the intermittent demand we face. The unit even stored any excess power generated into a battery,” Johnson said.

Johnson also praised the attendees for embracing a new recycling initiative in which campers were provided a box for any compost, which can account for 20-30 per cent of the total waste of the event.

Shambala will return in 2015. Expect sustainability, participation and eccentricity to remain at its core, but don’t count on getting a ticket at late notice.

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