The word "Shambhala" is enough to send a shiver of anticipation up the spine of anyone who has attended it before. Now entering its 17th year, the festival can be considered a founding father as far as large-scale electronic events go and has amassed a North American cult following matched only by Burning Man and Tarantino fans. I first heard of the festival in 2007 and over the following years, Shambhala came up in conversation with people from all walks of life; tramps, kids, musicians, merchants, professors, and even accountants all swore by it. If I were to pick a stereotype of a typical fan that I talked to, it wouldn't be douche-bro, drug fiend, or hippie, but a grounded music lover that wants to feel at home.
This year, curiosity got the better of me and I got in touch with a contact at the festival to learn more about its history and how it operates. Expecting to be sent the name of a publicist or to a press release, I find myself sitting outside JJ Bean a few days later on a sunny Friday in Vancouver, waiting for Shambhala's founder Jimmy Bundschuh and his long-term girlfriend, Jenna Shea. I looked at his car keys (Fiat) as he placed them on the table and the car that Jenna got out of (a 500) and knew right away that I liked him. Jimmy, a down to earth 34-year old native of Nelson, BC sporting a clean, casual t-shirt and jeans, didn't rush into business talk. Throughout our 45-minutes on Alberni Street, I came to learn three things: that the pair really were as composed as they seemed, that they live and breathe the festival they've grown, and that they unquestionably value experiences over ticket counts.
Following several teenage years in the techno and trance rave scenes, Shambhala got its roots as a series of parties at whatever venue would hold them. Moving from the city complex to the badminton hall, the parties grew from 200 attendees to over a thousand and the alibis grew thin (you can only pass a rave off as a wedding party so many times) before the city finally banned raves within city limits outright. The consequence of this decision was an unexpected blessing to Canada's music community: Shambhala moved to the 500-acre cattle ranch in the Kootenays belonging to Jimmy's parents in 1998. Affectionately referred to as "The Farm," the property would become a mecca for musicians and avid fans alike.
"My dad has always encouraged us to be entrepreneurs," Jimmy says, "he always said don't go work for the man, do something for yourself, so then he got what he asked for and I started the festival." Unlike today's festivals, there were no business plans, corporate sponsors, or bank loans. Jimmy describes the first Shambhala as a locals-only affair featuring Kootenay DJs and "zero budget." From its humble beginnings, Shambhala has grown to include a team of 15 full-time, 1000 part-time, and 400 volunteer workers encompassing everything from security guards and talent buyers to food cart chefs and counselors. Expecting to hear "logistics" or "security," when I asked what the greatest challenges they face year after year Jimmy responded immediately, "[people] shit too much [laughs]… a lot of places now would book an arena or sports grounds with washrooms already built, but we've built everything ourselves: a water treatment plant, power systems, washrooms, permanent buildings, roads." Jenna chimes in, "I don't know if you've ever been to the Kootenays, but we are the biggest city there for those five days. There were probably fourteen thousand people last year, including all the staff."
For all the infrastructure pains, owning their own property has many creative benefits that make Shambhala what it is now. Jimmy points out, "There are six different stages and they are run by six different companies (or individuals). They each book their own talent and design their own stages. They get to be creative, it's not really taught down where we tell them what they have to do. We give them a budget, we support their ideas, we give them materials, and they just go off on it. They have engineering backgrounds, carpenters, etc. When other festivals rent stadiums, they're lucky to get it a week before the show so everything is portable and they set it up. But we've got heavy equipment, the sawmill, we make the concrete, so we really get to build things from scratch year-round. In the beginning it was kind of just having fun building tree forts in the backyard, and it grew from there, we just got bigger toys, bigger tools, bigger lasers." From setup to teardown, the whole team remains hands on driving skidders, tractors, and heavy machinery. Jenna laughs, "At the end of the festival you can see [Jimmy] driving around in the dump truck cleaning up the ground, he leads from the front lines for sure."
When I talk to people who have gone to large EDM festivals, the consensus is always split between people that I would never want to hangout with saying it was amazing and people I would want to hangout with saying don't ever go. When I talk to people who have gone to Shambhala, the response is always the same: it's not just a festival, it's a trip. I wasn't at all surprised to hear a similar story from Jenna. "I did a lot of the interviewing for our staff," she says, "I asked people to tell me what they knew about Shambhala, and 8 out of 10 people would say, 'you know, maybe this sounds cheesy but it has changed my life, how I feel about myself, where I am where I'm going.' I think the drug culture we find ourselves surrounded by can be really about escapism; it's about finding yourself, being at peace, loving yourself, and going in, rather than going away from things. I think that concept in general, without [drugs], is in the experience of Shambhala. Making people think, 'I am really loved and lovely because everybody is reflecting that back at me.'"
Like most musical events, Shambhala now finds itself inexorably tied to drug culture—a culture that Jimmy is quick to dissociate himself from. Since I first heard about the festival in 2007, my impression of Shambhala has always been one of a mecca for left-field music and experimental excess. If anything was clear, it was that this wasn't the vision that the two worked so hard for each year. "Some [people] consume anything put in front of them regardless of consequences," he says, "the cocktails are the big problem, when people don't understand they're mixing different things. The last five or ten years people have been blaming electronic music culture, saying it's the raves that are bad, but rock concerts, country concerts, there is no area that is immune to this and people are realizing that now. The cat's out of the bag: people are making these choices and its not just at our festival, it's at all festivals, in all cities." This obviously being a sensitive subject, I was curious to know how they were prepared to deal with casualties in the face of all the recent drug-related deaths at EDC, Coachella, and the like. The two stressed the importance of harm-reduction strategies rather than relying solely on response measures, but it isn't just drug-related incidents they're prepared for. Working closely with nonprofit ANKORS, they have professionals performing drug identification/purity testing, volunteers helping people make informed choices regarding sex and drugs, and counselors at safe zones away from the action where attendees can seek help, free from condemnation or punishment should they find themselves overwhelmed. They even have a women's safe space to act as a shelter should anyone feel threatened by overzealous or malicious advances. Jenna put it best, "There is never going to be a harm free society. Rather than having people scared to come for help, we make information and support available."
With all the risks, it's hard to immediately see why Jenna, Jimmy, and his family host an ever-growing horde of attendees each year. Despite boosting the local economy, helping transform budding musicians into superstars (Bassnectar, Datsik, and Excision all got their start at Shambhala), and the important cultural position that the festival has in the music community, Jimmy says sincerely, "It means a lot to people."
Shambhala takes place between August 8 and 11. It features a smorgasbord of food trucks serving locally sourced ingredients, sixty craft vendors, these amazing artists, and 500 acres of freedom. Tickets and more info can be found here. Also, here's a video.
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