A Musical Awakening in the Peace

Friday, July 12. The temperatures outside are pushing historic high levels and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

46 km up the Sukunka Forest Service Road, the largest electronic music festival ever held in this corner of the world is already underway, the music having started at noon at one of two stages set up for the festival. Over the course of the weekend, more than 60 DJ’s, artists and other performer, will have played.

There are a few hundred cars stretched out along the tree line, campers looking for whatever bit of shade they can find on this spectacularly hot weekend.

Nearly smack dab in the middle of this stretch of campers is a converted school bus with speakers and lights set outside, pumping music into the still, hot air. It’s not one of the stages set up for the festival, but a renegade stage set up by a festival attendee. There are a number of these set up around the festival: on the banks of the Sukunka River, powered by a solar panel. In a tent in the bushes.

Across the large open field is the main stage, the Hyperboria Stage, a white, plywood pyramid with a hole cut in one side facing the audience. In front of the stage, a row of bass bins creates an almost deafening rumble while smaller speakers and lights are set on racks to each side of the stage. In the heat of the day, the sun hammers down on the stage and dance area, and few people brave the heat. One or two people pop out into the main area in front of the stage, dance for a few minutes, then retreat to the scant shade offered by a shack across the dance area from the stage.

The music emanating from this stage and the second stage (the Magic Cool Bus, set in the woods a few hundred metres away) is mostly electronica. Electronica is the term used to describe a wide range of contemporary music. Unlike its more popular cousin, electronic dance music (EDM), not all electronic is created for dancing. In fact, much of what is now considered EDM was once known as electronica, muddying the already confusing waters.

At Awakening, DJs and performers take per-recorded clips, samples from other songs, beats and even sounds and loops they’ve created and mix it together into something never heard before and possibly never to be heard again. Many of the performers at the festival toss everything and the kitchen sink at the wall to see what sticks with few artists sticking to a particular musical style in their hour-long set, and most sets run from downbeat to dubstep and back again. While some artists compose much of their own music, many others remix other songs, often stripping the vocal track from a song, then changing the beat, tempo, instrumentation, adding effects, repeating section and otherwise messing with the music.

A lot do electronica is interchangeable to the uneducated ear and, to mine, the artists tend to blur one into another. With the performers mostly hidden, visible as floating heads over the high walled DJ booths constructed well above head height, it is nearly impossible to separate one from another. I find out midway through the festival that a small piece of paper has been posted at each booth, but even then, I don’t bother to look. While I know some artists are ego driven, many are just happy to be here playing for whomever will listen.

While some musicians sniff at the push-button nature of much of electronica, the ability for people to mix pre-existing elements into new works of art opens up the ability for people to express themselves musically. And that’s what it’s all about, personal creative expression.

At least, that’s what J says. J is staying in a tent next to our tent trailer, having pulled in well after midnight on Friday, driving all the way from Vernon to here in 12 hours after work. He is accompanied by Maddie. “Mad-Dog”, she introduces herself through the screen of our First Up, where we are trying to hide from the heat. She is topless, the harsh mid-day sun catching the purple highlights in her hair.

She says that this festival has an interesting blend of cultures, attracting both the hardcore festival tweekers and regional rednecks; dudes in ball caps and Bermuda shorts dance next to girls in rainbow dreads and Bob Marley banners worn as skirts.

Many of the latter are not local. J has come from Vernon, but over the course of the weekend, the majority of the people I meet are from outside the Peace, from as far away as Vancouver. These are the people that come for the music, but also come for the culture, for the chance to stay up until five in the morning dancing and partying. While the festival is supposedly drug and alcohol free, a sign at the gate admonishes attendees to use the “buddy system”, a means of having someone to look after you to prevent ingesting too much alcohol or other substances.

J says that this is a good warm up for some of the bigger festivals, like Shambalah. “You’ve got to go,” he enthuses, when I mention I’ve considered attending. “It’s a whole different league than this.”

Considering that there are maybe 700 people here, and that Shambalah has over 2000 volunteers and staff alone, yes that festival is on a completely different scale than this. But at the same time, this festival has a nice, chill vibe. While a few more people would be nice, the atmosphere is very relaxed, slightly bohemian, but not outrageously so.

The Magic Cool Bus Stage is the festival’s second stage, with a DJ booth build atop a school bus stuck in the woods between the Sukunka River and the large, open field that serves as camping area and main stage area for the Festival. The underbrush has been cleared for the dancers, and hammocks have been hung from a number of the trees for people just wanting to listen. For people wanting to be even more energetic, there is a pair of stripper poles on either side of the DJ booth.  Even though this stage is sheltered by trees, it is too hot for most people to dance during the day.

This changes when the sun goes down and the temperature drops like a stone and the A list acts hit the stage. The sun goes behind the mountains just after eight and by nine it is starting to get uncomfortably cool, at least, if you’re not moving. But for the hundreds of people who now crowd both stages, it is perfect. The bikinis (or less) and shorts of the day replaced by more elaborate outfits and costumes. Many of the festival goers wear or carry LED items. One wears a pair of LED glasses, an LED hat and flashing LED gloves. Another carries a six-foot-long stick that he twirls like a staff, LEDs shifting colours as he spins it. Still others twirl LED hula-hoops, or LED poi pots which they twirl at the end of ropes like traditional Polynesian dancers. It’s all colours and lights and sound and noise and a swirl of nearly overpowering sensory stimulants, lasting long into the night and even past sunrise, until the last act of the “evening” wraps up at six in the morning. Truly, it is a rave in all but name.

We leave Sunday afternoon, just as folks are winding up to do one more day and night and morning of music. Neighbour J has already left, facing a 14 hour drive back to Vernon. And, while many people are staying, many are leaving, too.

From an attendee’s view, the festival was a major success. While there were a few first year issues (like running out of toilet paper for the porta-potties by midday Saturday, meaning a long drive into Chetwynd by a festival volunteer to buy more), there are no major emergencies. The atmosphere was terrific and the music was decent. One can’t help but expect next year’s festival to be even bigger and better.