The return of Reverend Rave Panda – a very Shambalic wedding!

The Wednesday before the August Bank Holiday. It was time for my last (perhaps) festival of the season. My last Oxfam festival anyway. The summer went so fast, and it’s been a lot of fun. There was still time to squeeze some more fun out of it though! And what better way to do that than Shambala – a festival where you can relax or rave, enjoy top-class live music, or spend the whole weekend weaving willow or carving a spoon!

When I arrived at Shambala, there was a big queue of stewards waiting for their wristbands. We had all registered our virtual ticket numbers on-line in advance, but there was a problem with the electric supply in the registration portacabins. Luckily, wasn’t a long wait, and was a good opportunity to catch up with people – some of whom I saw two days ago at Beautiful Days in Devon, but there were also some people I hadn’t seen for years, and some people who I was meeting for the first time.

It wasn’t not long until I was registered and ready to set up camp. The Oxfam stewards’ campsite was just next door to the car park, and I headed towards the big “Lazyland” event shelter to say hello to Gaelle and Graham and others, who were already relaxing underneath it. They had reserved a space for my bell-tent, and after a few trips to the car, everything was sorted and set-up.

It was time for our briefing again. I was quite pleased with my shifts and where I was working. We even had a talk from the lady who runs the accessibility camp site, where  I would be working,  and one of the main festival organisers popped along to say hello. Another lovely thing about Shambala is that our staff meal tickets can be used at absolutely any food stall around the site, which is a really lovely idea.

There was also a special announcement at the briefing. Long-term stewards Gavin and Carrie were getting married the week after Shambala in a very low-key ceremony. So Oxfam decided to put on a surprise “wedding rehearsal” for them on the Friday of Shambala. Apparently, a few weeks previously, Fraser had suggested it as an idea, and then he got landed with actually conducting the ceremony! But luckily, there were lots of people who were happy to help out and contribute ideas.

As the sun went down, the evening turned seriously freezing cold, but some people lit camp fires made out of washing machine drums. After a quick warm-up, we chatted under Lazyland, and then inside the awning of Kat and Martin’s campervan, until it was time for bed. I had a shift that started at 9.45am on Thursday – a fairly civilised time, but I needed some sleep.

Thursday morning was bright and sunny, and I managed to get a shower and have breakfast before the start of my shift. I seem to have been “typecast” at Shambala, as was down as the supervisor for the disabled/accessibility camp site and artist camping again, as I have been for the past two years. Not that I was complaining. It’s a wonderful place to work. The accessibility campers and the people in charge of running their field are always lovely, and one of our responsibilities on duty there is to make sure that the fire-pit keeps going all night, in case people need to get warm (what a terrible chore!), and there’s a small marquee where we can store our belongings. It’s also lots of fun to be working in artist camping, as all sorts of crazy walkabout performance art departs from the field into the public areas of the festival – a crazy fire-breathing mechanical horse, the Police Rave Unit,  a man pedalling a piano sideways as he’s playing it and lots of other things.

The start of the Thursday shift wasn’t so exciting though. The accessible camp site, and the artists’ car park and camping was just an empty field. We were already at work though, making sure that only people with staff, artist, or accessible camp site wristbands could get in there!

Gradually, our field started to fill up, and we helped some of the campers to put there tents up as the weather became more cold and windy as the afternoon wore on. The festival was gently cranking into action. When I went on my break, I had a quick look at the eclectic and quirky clothes stalls, grabbed a mock duck wrap from the Wide Awake Cafe, and even got to see a little bit of one of the first bands on, at Chai Wallahs, a large covered venue, which is the third largest at Shambala. The fact that I got to do all this in a half an hour lunch break gives you some idea of the scale of Shambala – it’s quite small, but there’s lots going on and lots of things to do, a far cry from corporate sponsored festivals.

At 6pm, our shifts finished. I headed back to camp. Before going out to enjoy the live music, my plan was to write a song for the wedding ceremony, and in about half an hour, a few of us had worked together and written something really lovely. I couldn’t wait to play it at the wedding.

By the time we arrived at Chai Wallahs, unfortunately, I’d just missed By the Rivers, but I really enjoyed The Magnus Pluto, who put on a brilliant show, combining ska-punk with hip-hop and electronica, and loads of energy. I can thoroughly recommend them. I was looking forward to Kate Tempest, but I was too far away from the front of the stage by then, and I couldn’t hear her lyrics properly, which is the whole point of having a poet, and I was chatting too much. We wandered around and explored the festival, going in and out of some of the many miniature and hidden venues. We found ourselves in one of my favourite places, around the fire in the meadow, and I found some people from Sheffield to chat to. There are still quite a few Sheffield people at Shambala, because when it first started fifteen years ago in Devon, some of the organisers were from Sheffield. That’s how we heard about the festival, from friends who had been to it, and had come back with some hazy tequila-infused memories!

Eventually, I stumbled into bed, but I was up, relatively bright and early. I was a bit annoyed that the showers I’d used the day before were now blocked off, and the showers next closest to our field had a massive queue. It wasn’t a big problem though, because the accessibility camping field didn’t have a very big queue, and it was nice to say hello to some of the campers I’d met the day before. When I returned, I persuaded Fraser to come to a Klezmer music workshop. It said in the programme that musical instruments would be useful, so I brought along my ukulele.

At first, I was the only other person with a musical instrument, apart from the workshop leader Anna Lowenstein, who played the violin beautifully, but then gradually, other musicians came to the workshop – and they were all far better than me! I didn’t want to let myself get intimidated though, and I was delighted to find out that even though what some of the others were playing along with the melody we were singing sounded complicated, in fact, I just had to strum two chords! Perfect! And when the musicians went into a klezmer jam at the end, I just got out my kazoo! It was great to learn about the history of the music too, and by the end of the session, it felt like a bit of my musical knowledge was coming back to me, understanding scales and different singing techniques, as well as just thrashing a few chords out. I love music, and I love playing and singing it. I think the reason why I stopped learning was because I was afraid of being rubbish and not understanding it. But that’s the whole point of learning, isn’t it?

I came away from the session singing the melodies we’d learned in the workshop. But after running through my song for the surprise wedding a few times, that tune had taken over instead. I wrote the chorus of the song on a whiteboard. Fraser had gone away to prepare the wedding ceremony. We tried to keep our preparations secret, but we were nearly rumbled by the groom, Gavin, when we were writing on the whiteboard. He didn’t seem to notice that anything unusual was happening.

As we entered the marquee that we’d borrowed from the other stewarding organisation, Green Stewards, it was a riot of bunting. Fraser had even borrowed champagne glasses from the bar (although there was no champagne!), and rigged up a PA system. The marquee was crowded with stewards who had come to celebrate with the happy couple, and the night-shift team had even designed and printed an order of service for the ceremony. I put my ukulele in the corner. Fraser, resplendent in his Rave Panda outfit, did a fantastic job, with wedding vows pulled out of a cardboard box, a cardboard cake, loom-band rings, a light-house shaped wedding certificate, and even official photographers. My song went down very well, and everyone joined in with the chorus. The happy couple were whisked off in the Oxfam buggy, but unfortunately, there was no honeymoon just yet, as Gavin had to start his shift at 3pm.

And I was due on shift at 4pm too. It was a pleasant shift, making sure that the stewards were happy in their various positions. The most exciting thing that happened was when several hot air balloons were inflated in the next field, and floated low across the camp sites and across the festival in the still evening air. There were lots of performers arriving to park up in the artists’ field, and we got to see the Rave police, stilt walkers, and fire-breathing robots set off from the field we were working in! We also had lots of lovely chats with the residents of the accessibility camp site. I even had a break and got to watch some of Public Service Broadcasting‘s set, which was very enjoyable. If you haven’t experienced them yet, they’re an instrumental duo who use samples from old newsreels and public information films in their music.

After my shift finished at midnight, there was still lots of entertainment on offer. I headed back to the tent to grab some cider. I watched a bit of the Hackney Colliery band in Chai Wallahs, who perform powerful brass renditions of funk and soul classics. They did a very good version of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. But they had competition. Over in the Social Club, most of my friends were watching Smerin’s Anti-Social Club, another brass-driven outfit. Another legendary festival band I’ve always missed, but this time I saw them, and they were fantastic.Virtuoso musicians, with a real latin vibe, and definitely waiting all those years to see! The band were followed by an outrageous drag queen disco, courtesy of Sink the Pink, a drag super-group. It was brilliant fun. Finally, after a quiet chill-out around the dying embers of the fire in the meadow, the sky was starting to get light. In some ways, it was good to start my evening at midnight – it felt like I was a “dirty stop-out” when I was actually fairly fresh!

Saturdays at Shambala are special. It’s dressing up day. You can dress up every day at Shambala, but it was time for the “Seas of Shambala” theme, so I put on my pirate outfit! I went to the Klezmer workshop again, and really enjoyed myself, learning a new song and remembering the ones from yesterday, even though my voice wasn’t in its best shape after all of yesterday’s partying. We even did a bit of dancing! Then I had a spot of lunch, and hid from a rain shower while listening to an entertaining and thought-provoking talk by Ed Gillespie, who’s written a book about low carbon travel – because he actually circumnavigated the globe by using any mode of transport apart from aeroplanes.One of the great things about “The Emporium of Invaluable Insights” is that there was an artist drawing a cartoon of each talk, building up to a brilliant bill-board.

I met up with Fraser again, and we wandered around in the woods, enjoying a freshly-prepared calzone pizza and a cup of chai. The woods are full of art installations, and we were amused by trees which had hundreds of Trivial Pursuit cards stuck to them. We did quite well at answering the questions. As the afternoon wore on, more and more people appeared in fancy dress. There were some really elaborate outfits and costumes. We watched the fancy dress parade go past, and the amount of effort people had gone to was amazing.

At the main stage, we enjoyed Gentleman’s Dub Club, who are smartly-dressed and funky, a real party band, followed by current festival favourites, Slamboree, who describe themselves as “Pyro Circus Rave Massive”. That kind of sums it all up, really – they’re like a cabaret of different styles of music, from dub to electro-swing, accompanied by amazing circus acts, including fire juggling and acrobatics. Definitely a spectacle! It was amazing how quickly time was going, chatting, dancing and listening to the music, and I had time to watch the whole of the legendary Femi Kuti and the Positive Force before the start of my shift. Femi is the son of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician who invented the musical genre of Afrobeat, which combines funk, jazz and African rhythms. He put in a great performance, and the Afrobeat dancing ladies certainly had a few guys’ eyes out on stalks.

It was time to start my final shift, and I went back to the tent to put on a few warmer layers and grab a few snacks. It was a fun, lively shift, with lots of revellers still up, and the enviable position of being able to sit around the accessible camp site fire, chatting to the campers. Things were steady, but pretty peaceful, and as dawn broke, we were treated to more hot air balloons setting off over our heads. I felt quite emotional as I swapped my tabard for Oxfam badge, which said “Shambala, Glitterati Party”, because this was my final Oxfam shift of the year. Time for bed before my final day of partying.

Sunday got off to a gentle start with the annual Shambala poetry slam in Chai Wallahs, which started off with special guest performances from Wordlife Sheffield, amongst others. It was fantastic to sit down and enjoy a great show. The poetry slam contestants all did really well, and one of them was my old festival friend Harry Squatter, which was a brilliant surprise. The audience was huge. I wonder if I dare to enter the poetry slam next year?

Over the course of the weekend, I was thrilled to find out that one of the accessibility field campers is actually a writer and performer who was recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, a lady with Tourettes who helped to run a group for young people with the syndrome. It was moving and inspiring, and just a little bit naughty to listen to the occasional swear word at 10am on Women’s Hour. I wanted to see Jessica Thom aka Tourettes Hero perform together with Captain Hotknives. It was a brilliant performance. Tourettes Superhero is on a mission to reclaim this misunderstood syndrome, and she does so with a surreal sense of humour derived from her tics, such as “biscuit” and “hedgehog”, and they sung songs about “Bob the Amazing Sheepdog” and animal sex and ending with biscuits being thrown into the audience at high speed. I think you had to be there, but check out the website above for a taste of it. My stomach was hurting from laughing so much, and the duo received a standing ovation at the end of the show. What I really admired about the show that it was about the performers being themselves (albeit one of them was dressed as a superhero) and enjoying themselves. Just a few simple chords and a great sense of humour and a large marque was packed to the gills. There were lots of amazing musicians at Shambala, but sometimes, talent doesn’t mean being able to play a fancy solo or sing in several octaves.

A quick change of clothes into evening-friendly layers, and I headed back into the festival. We relaxed in the 1920s themed Swingamajig tent for a bit, which was fairly quiet, and then we headed into the Kamikaze marquee for My Panda Shall Fly, abstract electronic soundscapes, which sounded immense. Fraser felt quite under-dressed as he wasn’t wearing his Rave Panda outfit for once, whereas the DJ/sound artist was wearing his panda outfit with pride. We then explored some of the secret disco areas for a while, clambering through a caravan to get into the hidden funk disco at Shambarber (actual hairdressers shop by day, disco by night). I was keen to watch Mulatu Astatke, the final act on the main stage, the founder of Ethio-jazz (Ethiopian Jazz). It was a bit slow at first, but built into a mesmerising performance.

The music wasn’t finished yet though, as I was keen to enjoy a bit of Manchester techno legend A Guy Called Gerald in the Kamikaze marquee, followed by Zion Train and Batida in Chai Wallahs. Batida perform electronic and live music, combining samples from old 1970s Angolan tracks with spacey samples and Kuduru beats. Kuduru is the African dancing I do in my friend Angelina Abel’s dance class in Sheffield, Mulembas D’Africa, so I had a good dance, right at the front of the audience, and got a free whistle! The trouble was, it all went so fast! We weren’t quite ready to go to bed yet, even though it had started to rain. We quickly checked out the Ska bar in the woods, before we got kicked out because it was closing, and caught the end of the disco in the Wandering Word yurt, before everything finished. My friends were still keen to find some entertainment somewhere, but I was exhausted! It felt like I’d squeezed the maximum amount of fun out of Shambala.

I wasn’t in such a festive mood when I woke up in my tent on Monday morning to the sound of the steady rain, coming down with a cold. Bank Holiday Monday was a terrible festival come-down, cold, with constant rain, but despite the gloom of the weather, I left Shambala with lots of happy memories and experiences. I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year!

 

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