Chances are that, if you’re reading this, you don’t need much convincing; transformational festivals are simply amazing. Representing what could quite possibly be our generation’s most vibrant onslaught of creative energy and artistic enthusiasm, these astonishing events have proven to be a defining element of today’s counter-culture movement, of it’s power to displace the social status quo of pre-packaged, money-hungry mass entertainment, and our youth’s desire to regress to a more simplistic – though ever-more technologically progressive – paradigm of creating beauty for beauty’s sake. From Symbiosis to Gratifly, from Sonic Bloom to Lightning in a Bottle, the spirit of these gatherings has traversed the continental United States with such ferocity that it seems impossible to keep track of which new festivals one wants to pin on their summer wish-list. There is an undeniable, palpable sense of power and purpose behind what we are doing; through wacky art installations, eco-spiritual workshops and groundbreaking music, we have built an increasingly conscious community that numbers in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, a community that believes at its core that life and love and enjoyment can be brought about in an ecologically responsible, mind-expanding, and socially sustainable manner. Kid yourself not: what we are doing as producers and promoters, volunteers and vagabonds, artists and attendees is incredibly important. We are creating temporary alternate universes, testing the boundaries of human creativity, and actively challenging and changing the world in which we live.
As the ‘scene’ begins to expand beyond the borders of the United States, however, the implications – and indeed, the very nature – of these “transformational” events so too expands and changes.[i] The increasing popularity of festivals like Envision in Costa Rica and Cosmic Convergence in Guatemala have spawned intermittent diasporas of pinecone-necklace wearing hippies from all fifty states, these enthusiastic participants descend upon tropical beaches and jungle cascades to celebrate their love, life, and passion in places where gatherings of this nature were formerly unimaginable. The party has gone global, people, and it seems we are not in Kansas (ahem, the Bay) anymore.
So what are these new implications? How does the migration of an artistic community from one location to another change the nature of a transformational festival? In order to properly understand the repercussions of geography on the essence of a supposedly metamorphic event, we need to understand what it means for an event to be “transformational.” This is not, as it might initially seem, a contrived semantic exercise; the spirit of the gatherings in question is encapsulated within this single, universally accepted phrase, so in order to understand how traversing borders changes the event, we need to understand the meaning behind the definition of the event itself.
To call something “transformational” implies, obviously, a change in something. This distinction begs an even more obvious question: “a change in what?“ Is the change happening within the individual? Within the community? Within the world-at-large? To simply say that something invokes a transformation leaves us with an ambiguity, a lingering mystery: we are given an action without an aim, a verb without an object. We can assume that it is the event itself that is doing the transforming, but who or what is transformed? To what end are we transforming?
One explanation would be that it is the individual who undergoes transformation. As anyone who has been to a widely regarded life-altering event like Burning Man, for instance, can attest (any hippie worth their salt has been to at least one)[ii], transformation occurs very noticeably from within. Something about the magnitude, the intensity, the fierceness, and the merciless beauty of the experience digs deep into ones soul and literally shifts the perspective of the participant. The subjective alteration is undeniable. You go to the Playa one person and come back another; sometimes the event alters one’s views almost imperceptibly, other times it catalyzes a complete overhaul of one’s personal identity. The influence of the event has the power to change your social, political, and even spiritual beliefs; simply bearing witness, simply existing at a place of such passion and raw energy changes something within the individual. Regardless of the magnitude of the change, the occurrence of a personal transformation is irrefutable. So therefore, transformation clearly takes place on the subjective, personal level.
Regressing outward, we find another level of metamorphosis endemic in transformational events: change in the community. Community, in this particular sense, is meant to regard the collection of individuals who attend a given festival. People connecting through a yoga workshop, exchanging ideas at a permaculture seminar, forming bonds by building a stage together or simply having fun dancing to a kick-ass set: these are all ways in which festivals help stimulate a sense of community amongst individuals, and help encapsulate a thousand Me’s into a We. Anyone who has been to a transformational event knows the feeling: a certain connectedness not only with one’s compatriots, but also with complete strangers, a distinct camaraderie that reverberates beyond one’s friends or one’s crew and resonates with every gyrating soul on the dance floor, with every el-wire clad performer in the campsite. We feel together, we feel connected, we feel like we are a family. And through feeling like a family, we develop empathy, compassion, and indeed, love for one another. The transformation rises beyond our internal paradigm shifts and vibrates outward into the group as a whole. Indeed, we are transformed as a collective, from a thousand separate individuals into a cohesive community. The catalyst for that transformation? The festival.
So we see quite clearly that transformational festivals hold true to their name when it comes to the people who attend the event, as well as when regarding the group mentality and sense of community fostered between those individuals. But what about the rest of the world, do they feel the ripples of transformation that seem so tangible to those in front of the stage, in the theme camps, and at the workshops? Can an event truly be considered transformational if only its participants experience a change within and amongst themselves? If that were the case, any mass experience that evokes ephemeral sentiments of introspection and fleeting companionship with other attendees could be considered “transformational.” By that standard, events like Ultra Music Festival, Glastonbury, and even a terribly sad Celine Dion reunion tour concert could be called transformative. But that is not the case; nobody calls those happenings transformational, not even themselves.
It is the transformation of the society surrounding the event – what I will refer to here as the ripple effect, for lack of a better term – which differentiates a transformational festival from a plain-old festival. Without exhibiting a genuine and lasting effect on the cultural, ecological, political, and social environments surrounding the event, any event operating under the moniker of transformation is misguided at best, dishonest at worst. For evidence of how truly transformational events affect change in society-at-large, we need only look to the California festival scene, or even to Woodstock in 1969.[iii]
So then, we see that to genuinely be true to its name, a transformational festival must transform on three levels: the individual level (subjective), the community level (objective), and, most importantly, the world-at-large (the ripple effect). Any festival falling short of these three criteria cannot really be considered transformative; it may very well be a great gathering full of awesome people and great times – and there is nothing wrong with that – but it is not transformational in the true sense. The ripple effect is what defines “transformational,” as such.
Which brings me back to my original point: the implications of the transformational festival scene migrating beyond the confines of the United States, and being brought into locations beyond our borders, specifically Latin America. While the crucial factor of transformational events – the ripple effect – can be clearly seen in our communities in the good ‘ol US of A (i.e. Burners Without Borders, the countless environmental/spiritual offshoots around the Bay, and, historically, the infamous Summer of Love surrounding the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967), it is unclear whether or not the Latin American cousins of the North American “bass coast” festival circuit exhibit the same capacity to affect change on a wider social and cultural scale within their given geographic regions. Events like Envision, Cosmic Convergence and GeoParadise may very well be amazing gatherings that change the lives of those who attend, but do they transform the society surrounding the festival in a positive, genuine, and lasting way? Let’s take a closer look at one example of such an event, Cosmic Convergence, so as to assess it’s strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis transformational-ism, its relationship to the indigenous community in which it resides, and how it can utilize its resources to best realize its transformational potential.[iv]
In 2014, Cosmic Convergence came into its sophomore year as Central America’s premier – and probably only – New Year’s transformational event. Featuring two incredible stages, which hosted a range of musical styles from psytrance to shamanic bass music, and even included the side project of one of the members of Buena Vista Social Club, the event successfully curated a musical vibe that dripped with squishy, organic, tribal deliciousness while spanning genres considerably. Attendees had their earholes cunnilingus-ized by such performers as Bluetech, Birds of Paradise, Desert Dwellers, and Kaminanda on the Bass Temple Stage, as well a whole lot of other crazy stuff on the Psytrance Stage (can you tell where I spent most of my time?), all amidst the geographic glory of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, and the three massive volcanoes, not to mention the incredible Mayan culture, that surround it.
The vibe of the whole thing, in my humble opinion, was amazing. Not only was the music incredible, and not only was the setting breathtaking, but the feeling of the event – that indescribable family feeling, that community transformation, so to speak – was pulsating through the air day and night. It felt, from my vantage point, that deep connections were being made at every twist and every turn; old ones, too, were being rehashed. I ran into long-lost friends that I had met years ago in Peru, in Vietnam, in India, friends who I had no idea would be at the event when I arrived. I also met a lot of amazingly creative, intelligent, inspired and beautiful folks I hadn’t known previously. Everybody was feeling really… family. It was great.
I spent most of my time behind the Bass Temple stage controlling the lights from my hammock, occasionally shirking my managerial duties to shake my booty in drastic, offensive motions on the dance floor. New Years countdown was a particular highlight for me; Birds of Paradise were killing it, and fireworks lit up the oblique volcanoes as the many little towns around the lake blinked and flickered with excitement. The stage, when viewed from the front, sat directly between two massive volcanoes in the distance, a glowing Mayan-style temple with a fountain of water flowing down its center. I, meanwhile, was atop the stage, on the apex of the temple, spinning the two massive flower-shaped wooden wheels that crowned it, whilst undulating like a jellyfish. It was fun.
Yes, the vibe of the whole thing was amazing. And, as a matter of fact, it still is. As I write this little diddy here, the gates of the festival about 4 weeks since closed now, hoards of people from the event – organizers, patrons and artists alike – still haunt the streets of San Marcos, San Pedro, and Panajachel. The two members of Desert Dwellers chilled for a week or two after the event, playing shows in various lakeside bars, jungle manors, and even the side of a flame-thrower adorned school bus once, with an increasingly tight crew of enthusiastic fans holding down the dance floor of every one. Kaminanda stuck around for a little bit as well, rocking the occasional dub set amongst his otherwise drippy, psychedelic musical wardrobe. It’s the longest running after party I think I’ve ever been to. A massive group of Cosmic volunteers and attendees, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, have stuck around the lake as well. Many of them are engaging in permaculture workshops, others in yoga retreats, some just renting apartments and enjoying paradise. Most of them, I know, didn’t plan on staying long after the event. I think its fair to say that Cosmic Convergence, with its wonderfully inviting energy and positive atmosphere, had something to do with their staying.
Cosmic Convergence succeeded brilliantly in catalyzing transformation on the individual and collective level. So what about the ripple effect? Did the society surrounding the festival feel the pulse of positive energy that took place over New Years? As a non-profit festival, whose earnings go to help a number of permaculture initiatives and fair trade collectives around the Atitlan area, Cosmic is certainly operating under a praxis that could invoke such a pulse. As I said before, many participants are here for the long haul, and the energy to create something positive and lasting is as tangible as it is exciting. People are collaborating on a host of environmental and sustainable projects that will take place here and beyond. In the aftermath of the shenanigans that ensued at the event itself, we are witnessing a transformational festival at its best.
Just yesterday morning, I attended a meeting at the local indigenous school of Chacaya, where members of various groups surrounding the festival joined together to discuss potential project opportunities in that location. Members of Project Nuevo Mundo – the traveling gypsy caravan of permaculture gurus who are largely responsible for the production and organization of Cosmic Convergence – along with representatives of Justa, The Yoga Farm, IMAP, and Pueblo a Pueblo (all local non-profits who work tirelessly to increase the living standards and eco-awareness of indigenous communities surrounding Lake Atitlan), gathered to facilitate a number of projects that will benefit the school in Chacaya: the expansion of the schools already-robust Organic Gardens Program, student field trips to the permaculture gardens of the Yoga Farm, as well as the construction of an adobe structure which will expose schoolchildren to the wonders of cob/adobe building, while simultaneously doubling as an outdoor classroom for the overly-cramped elementary/middle school. If ever there was a spirit that embodied the idea of transformation on the social level, it is here, right now. It is seriously exciting.
I feel lucky to have been a part of a transformational event that is clearly intent on living up to its claims of transformation. Cosmic Convergence is doing it right; it represents a model that other events should try to emulate. The metamorphic spirit of the spectacle is successfully pulsating outwards into the society that surrounds it and making a visible, important impact on the larger community. The organizers are putting their money where their mouth is. Take notes, producers/promoters/party people; Cosmic Convergence is a transformational force to be reckoned with.
That said, it is far from perfect. For all its merits, Cosmic could be more transformational than it already is. Part of our transformational identity rests on our desire for things to constantly change for the better; the idea that we have accomplished enough to stop working doesn’t really jive with that praxis. Every time we succeed, every time we do something right, we should not only pat ourselves on the back, but also ask, “What can we do to be even better?” maintaining the momentum we have amassed in a full-on sprint towards awesomeness. In the spirit of improvement, then, I hereby offer some constructively critical points whose intention is to increase the reach of the transformation we all lovingly curate at our festivals. I am interested in understanding how the ripple effect commonly meets its demise in the international sphere, and how we can plan accordingly to ensure that the power of what we are doing is adequately experienced by the communities in which they take place.
A few factors contribute to the demise of the ripple effect in the international setting. First, local and indigenous communities are marginalized and restricted from accessing the event simply through their inability to afford the exorbitant ticket prices. Approximately 75% of native Guatemalans live below the poverty line, 58% of the population living below the extreme poverty line, and over 90% of the indigenous Maya living in conditions of extreme poverty.[v] To give you a better idea of what this actually means: extreme poverty refers to the state of not being able to afford a basket of basic necessities for one’s family. The generally accepted cutoff point for extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $2.00 USD per day. Even given the introduction of discounted tickets for locals ($50.00 USD in the case of Cosmic Convergence)[vi], the price of the festival is almost equal to two months salary for the majority of native individuals. The simple economics of a festival necessitate a degree of profitability in order for the event to occur in the first place; the high cost of production must be paid for by proportionally costly entrance fees, food revenue and merchandise sales. This unfortunately excludes the majority of locals from participating, and results in a diminishing of, or even absence of, the all-important ripple effect.
But let’s assume for a moment that experimental bass music and tantra workshops just aren’t everybody’s jive, and that even if we personally invited every indigenous campesino from every disadvantaged community in Latin America, they would politely decline our invitation, regardless of price. Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that they just don’t want to come because it’s not their thing. That’s fine, no hard feelings. How else then, aside from including the local community in the spectacle of the event itself, could transformational festivals generate a ripple effect throughout the communities in which they take place?
One way would be to funnel a portion of the profits from the event into community-based initiatives that could increase the standard of living within the local communities. A simple eco-latrine system, water filter project, or a supply of books and pencils to a local elementary school would represent a fraction of the projected profits of any given festival (a bio-sand water filter, capable of producing over 500 liters of clean drinking water per day, for example, costs about $1,500 USD, less than the price of 10 Cosmic Convergence tickets).[vii] If the execution of such projects seems beyond the scope of an event production company, alliances could easily be made with local NGO’s or local governing bodies to redirect funds to people who specialize in these areas. That is exactly what is happening here in Guatemala in the aftermath of Cosmic Convergence.
Granted, the occasional failure of international transformational festivals to reinvest in the communities in which they take place may very well be for lack of liquid capital. It is no secret that most of all medium-to-large scale events operate at a loss for the first five years or so of their existence. It is understandable, then, that they would be unable to contribute financial resources to projects beyond their own event. However, investment in the community does not always have to be monetary; the festival could donate human capital to already-funded projects by way of supplying volunteers or helping hands. If sustainable development is not the specialty of an event production organization, it could very easily link up with a group who is more experienced in that realm. After all, forming connections and building bridges between divergent groups and communities is one of the main benefits of having a transformative event.
There are those who would argue that it is not the job of a festival to create lasting change in the community in which it takes place, and that an event production company finds its purpose simply in creating a fun, temporary utopia in which artists can express themselves and deliver a positive experience to the attendees. I would respond in turn that if an event is to label itself as truly transformational, then it has an inherent responsibility to create positive, lasting change in the world around it. The ripple effect is what separates us from Coachella, from Ultra, from Lollapalooza. The transformation that we brand ourselves as catalyzing must bleed out into society in order to be genuine.
It is my sincere hope that this essay ruffles some feathers and initiates a deeper discussion about what makes our festivals transformational. I think that if we begin a productive dialogue surrounding the lasting impacts that a festival can have not only on the individual and the festival community, but also on the society that surrounds it, we can begin, at last, to truly exhibit our transformational potential. International transformational festivals are in an amazingly unique position to generate monetary and human capital aimed at alleviating poverty, curbing environmental degradation, fostering community, and promoting human rights for disadvantaged people across the World. It’s about time we start walking the walk we keep talking about.
This article has been reprinted with permission from Lost in Sound