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A Week Lost in Paradise at Fiji’s Premier Destination Festival

Searching for meaning amidst big, blue crabs, beachside raves, and skinny dipping house heads at YourParadise.

by Jemayel Khawaja
Dec 22 2016, 5:14pm

All photos courtesy of YourParadise

Legendarily, the first Europeans to stay on Fiji—a collection of 330 islands in the South Pacific with a population the size of Austin—hundreds of years ago were shipwrecked and stranded sailors and runaway prisoners from the Australian penal encampments. The circumstances of my arrival, however, were quite different when I washed up on the Plantation Island Resort on the island of Malolo. I was there for YourParadise, a hilariously overstuffed, week-long island rager that stretches from beachside dance-offs to floating party palaces way out in the middle of the ocean to sand bars that only appear for a few hours a day. To the tune of Skrillex, Justin Martin, and Australian favorites like What So Not, Anna Lunoe, and LDRU, the event—which is now in its fourth year—is aiming to pushing the boundaries of what a destination festival can be. The time investment alone can seem like an intimidating prospect.

Only 600 people are afforded the chance to trek to YourParadise each year, which makes it one of the more remote and exclusive festivals in the world. As more people tire of being herded like cattle around megalithic corporate festivals, destination events have presented themselves as the logical next step in the quest for music-centric adventure—if you can afford it. The BPM Festival in Mexico has led the charge, followed by SXM in the Caribbean and cruise ship festivals all over the world, but YourParadise takes the concept to the next level, so much so that it shouldn't even really be considered a music festival per se, but an island vacation experience with a bunch of your favorite DJs in tow.

I wandered to the beach in the early light on the first morning I arrived, a day before the festival began in proper. With no one else around, I was free to explore the teeming Fijian animal kingdom. Big, blue crabs shuffled across cream-colored sand, winged beasts dive bombed into the depths of the water for a quick breakfast, ants and flies enjoyed the fruits of my flesh in equal amounts. The water in a nearby lagoon, a brilliant sapphire in tone, was as still as the languid breeze. When I stepped in, it was was like bathwater, and multiple schools of glittering, translucent fish swam around my feet. I plopped into a hammock nearby and, I shit you not, a motherfucking flying fish leapt out of the water and bounced off the surface five times. My paradise, indeed. It seemed almost alien to me that, in a few short hours, this haven would be host to an unruly dance rager. But then I heard a twig snap behind me and saw Gary Richards AKA Destructo AKA the boss of HARD standing there enjoying the same view and I quickly snapped back to reality.

My fellow castaways poured onto the island by the boatload on Tuesday. The crowd would prove to be a funny sort. They were generally good-natured, but their joviality could feel a bit banal—as exemplified by their tendency to drink beer out of their own shoes and join in impromptu seafaring sing-a-longs of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." They're the kind of people who bring a double beer bong to a tropical island, folks for whom a single bong in paradise would not suffice. Many of my fellow voyagers looked as if they were lifted directly from a Hollister catalogue—rippling muscles, hairless bodies, blonde hair sparkling in the sun, and harboring a marked tendency for questionable, nautically-themed tattoos. I regretted not shaving my back hair, but it was too late, so I just tried to own it.

The majority of guests were well-to-do white kids from Sydney, with a smattering of Melbourners, Brisbanites, a few internationals, a gaggle of Instagram models (one of whom had her own drone following her around all weekend), and a sizable squad of Yankee Holy Ship! exiles who brought their own brand of uniquely deranged excess to the beaches of Fiji (more on that later, though). "Bula" is the preferred greeting in the region, which can mean everything from "Hello" to "What?" and you hear it non-stop. People yell it out of cars to each other, resort staff speak it to every passerby with an almost militaristic vigilance, and even the shipwrecked revelers had picked it up by the end of the week by way of sheer repetition.

In lieu of your standard beachside day party fare, YourParadise shines brightest in its add-on (read: upsell) parties that can run you a couple hundred bucks each. The first of such shindigs was on Tuesday at Cloud 9, a floating day club permanently anchored thirty minutes out in the ocean. From the shore, it appears only as a speck on the horizon, but the two-story, wooden structure offers a fully stocked bar, shaded beds, a dancefloor, wood-fire pizza oven, and snorkeling gear. It is probably the closest to heaven I will ever get, and in between bottles of Fiji Gold lager and twenty-foot cannonballs off the side of the structure, I made a discovery, the likes of which would have made Gulliver shit his board shorts: Thomas Jack is good now.

After inventing tropical house and then almost immediately regretting it, sun-kissed, lad-about-town Jack seems like he holed himself up in the Hollywood Hills for a year with a bunch of afrobeat records, Innervisions classics, a Jupiter 8 synth, and has emerged out the other side as a very good tech-house DJ. I was very ready to write the dude off as a no-trick pony, but with nary a steel drum in earshot, I found myself genuinely grooving to his thoughtful selections on Cloud 9. And if there's a vibe the guy was born for, it's a floating party palace in the middle of the South Pacific.

Jack's newfound powers as a DJ became apparent as his rain dance conjured up some ominous looking clouds in the distance. If there's anything more beautiful than Fiji's sparkling horizons, it's watching the fragility with which that picture of paradise holds on when a storm rolls through. First, the ominous clouds, then a foreboding wind, then an unrelenting torrent of rain. We all got soaked to the bone, but Jack played on. Someone pulled out a tarp to protect the decks, and soon a crowd of 50 or so people were packed under it, refusing to let the rain ruin the party, which got even more steamy and raucous under covers. Some kids (presumably with a deathwish) increased the frequency of their drunken backflips into the water, and by the time the boats arrived to take us home, we looked more like shipwreck survivors than revelers.

The next morning, we tumbled out of bed for Doorly's Sandbank Sermon. Although it was early for me, many YourParadisers were up at 5AM every morning, heading out to surf at Fiji's legendary ocean breaks. For a few hours a day, a sandbank appears in the middle of the ocean, with knee-deep shallows surrounding it for hundreds of yards. With a rowboat moored into the sand filled with beer, Doorly and Justin Martin kicked the morning off atop a beached barge with some setting-appropriate house music. It was surreal. I didn't even know places like that sandbank existed, let alone that people could party on one. I was already tripping out, but by the time Destructo wrangled the vibe towards trap, I was about to embark on a whole different kind of voyage.

After several sleepless nights, I ended up wandering off from the party, wading in the shallows and watching another tropical storm brewing as crystal clear water rippled past my knees. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I had no idea how long I was out there doing my lysergic raindance, nor did I even notice that Skrillex had arrived on a helicopter and taken the decks for a surprise set at the party raging on in the wake behind me. YourParadise had to send one of their staff out to rescue me before the boats left.

I found myself floating in a coral reef, questioning the existential nature of a sand dollar as I watched the OWSLA Day Cruise yacht sail off into the distance. With the island mostly free of inhabitants, I went full Castaway—which, not coincidentally, was shot on the next island over! I was supposed to be raging with Skrillex. Instead, I was tossing up sand in the shallows with a new crustacean friend, babbling incomplete sentences about Captain Cook and the destruction inherent within discovery, something applicable to colonial journeymen and music journalists alike. I almost forgot a music festival was happening.

By midway through the week, unplanned pop-up parties were manifesting on the shore, even as the weather turned cloudy. Miguel Campbell played a perfectly languid daytime house set from under a makeshift tent, while elsewhere, a volleyball tournament (with a $1500 bar tab as the prize) was won by the resort staff, much to the chagrin of Aussie teams with names like "Barry's Big Balled Bula Boys" and "Team Really EZY." In the middle of the night, Skrillex arrived by speedboat—even though sailing by night is prohibited in the area—and arrived to a pulsing dancefloor. When Seth Troxler cancelled on Fiji, ostensibly for weather and travel related issues, his headline slot was rescued by an impromptu b2b between Campbell, Justin Martin, Doorly, and the Skrill-dawg himself playing house tunes.

Wednesday afternoon, I drank kava, a vaguely hallucinogenic drink made from the pulp of a pepper-related root vegetable that tastes like dirt and makes your mouth go numb. It's a long-standing tradition in Polynesia, and I was handed five bowlfuls in a row by a group of Fijian DJs and musicians who go by the name of Technical Glitch. Earning their chops in the New Zealand scratch and jungle scenes and the Japanese psytrance movement, the TG guys—also sometimes known as The Duck Squad—have been blazing the slow trail of the Fijian underground dance scene for almost two decades now. Because of Fiji's multifarious influences, DJ sets in the area are on some extreme open format tip, and can feature reggaeton, bhangra, dancehall, trap, hip-hop, tribal house, and funk, all in one set. Although the underground scene in Fiji is finally starting to pick up now, it is still a tiny community.

"I know of every bit of DJ equipment on the island," Alby of Technical Glitch told me. "There are seven sets of Technics, four that work. There are five CDJs, a vesta battle mixer...And a couple of Numarks." The Fijian scene enjoyed a short heyday of renegade parties in the early part of the millennium, but that was kiboshed after a bloodless coup (there have been four in recent memory) ushered in a more conservative government. Since then, the internet has kicked off an era of the tacky tropical bedroom remix, and the Technical Glitch crew see it as their job to maintain standards of quality on the island now that kids in the village are blasting moombahton tunes. The whole TG squad was losing their shit with excitement about seeing Skrillex perform. "Man we would have gone Navy Seal, swimming to the island and hiking over mountains to see this," they told me as my face went numb from the kava.

Most on the island shared the locals' excitement. The cult of Sonny was strong. Kids with OWSLA tattoos, shirts, caps, the whole get-up, seemed tepid towards other DJs at times, but the mere sight of the OWSLA boss was enough to get them convulsing with joy. This all came to a head on Wednesday night, when Skrillex closed out the main beachside stage and everyone absolutely lost their shit, particularly when he bought out the whole bar in the middle of his set for the audience to drink. Classy move, but it led to some of the most interesting dance maneuvers I've seen in my life—somewhere between jazzercise-on-ketamine and the kind of contortions that usually call for an exorcist. The night closed out with a Skrillex b2b Justin Martin drum and bass set, which was a satisfactory ending for those who I heard complain about there being "too much house music" earlier in the week.

Although Skrillex was the star of this show, the MVPs of YourParadise have to be Justin Martin and Cut Snake. The former must have taken the decks on eight different occasions over the week, and made himself really available for anyone that wanted to party, sharing booze and hugs in equal amount. Cut Snake might just have been the two maddest individuals on the whole island, as exemplified during their Fiji One Yacht set when Fisher (one half of the Aussie house duo) removed all of his clothes and dive-bombed 30 feet over the railing and into the choppy storm waters with his penis helicoptering in one hand and his underwear flailing in the other. That the two are pretty handy DJs makes them more than just party animals, but they're always there to put the cherry on top of your shitshow when you need 'em.

By week's end, word began spreading of an impending storm. Earlier in the year, Fiji was torn up by Cyclone Winston. 40 people died, the damage topped $3 billion, and many in the lower-lying parts of the country are still living in tents. With the possibility of another Category 2 storm in the offing, the festival ended with a whimper rather than a bang, as we were all awoken at 5AM to take the early boat back to the mainland before shit really hit the fan. Bleary-eyed and soaking wet, we departed Malolo Island with the positive news that the storm would likely max out as a tropical depression and not a cyclone, but by that point, everyone looked so worn out from five nights of beer and bass music that a rescue from paradise was welcome enough of an option.

YourParadise was one of the more unique festival experiences I've ever taken in. It took the concept of destination festival to such lengths that, at times, I was more interested in the destination than the festival itself. That's not a knock, either, that's kind of the way it's supposed to be, and it's not something I've seen any other festival achieve. With everything from skydiving to jet skiing to shark dives offered by the resort, you're able to get your kicks whichever way you please and make it to the dancefloor at your own leisure because most DJs play on multiple occasions, often impromptu and unofficially. Although the music programming skewed too deep into Flume-influenced pop-bass, shimmery trap, and barely post-EDM for my tastes, I do believe that YourParadise is a harbinger of a festival trend that will grow in coming years. If you're gonna spend three grand (YP starting price in USD) on a festival experience, wouldn't you rather it be on a tropical island than in a parking lot?

Jemayel Khawaja is a Los Angeles-based writer and you can find him on Twitter.