Passing underneath the Cloud Gate entrance of one of Canada’s largest EDM festivals, I’m positive that the dusty grounds of the Salmo River Ranch are playing tricks on my mind as the distinctive form of Mr. Tumnus, Narnia’s fabled faun, takes shape in front of me. But this scene is not a dream, a tall bare-chested man fitted with furry brown breeches is really waving a giant fan in my direction to dispel the 32 Celsius heat radiating off the parched patches of brown grass underneath my already dirt-encrusted Birkenstock sandals.
“Happy Shambs!” he says with a welcoming smile. Wishing my new faun friend the same in return, the greeting already second nature, I realize that, like Alice going down her rabbit hole, I’m entering my own wonderland where every experience is about to become curiouser and curiouser.
Thank goodness I packed ear plugs.
The Wonderland of Shambhala
According to legend, Shambhala, a Sanskrit word meaning “place of peace,” is a mythical land where love and wisdom reign and only the enlightened and pure of heart can dwell. In choosing this aspirational name, the Shambhala Music Festival channels the themes of peace, love, and musical enlightenment. Albeit through an extravaganza of live performances that pulse with deep, chest-thumping bass rhythms that linger into the wee hours until dancers feel the warm light of the sun rising over the mountains around the picturesque Salmo River Ranch.
Located in British Columbia’s magnificent West Kootenay region, about 30 minutes south of Nelson, on the traditional lands of the Syilx, Sinixt, and Ktunaxa Nations, the private, family-owned 500-acre ranch has been home to Shambhala for the past 24 years. The festival took a pandemic pause in 2020, so its 25th anniversary year will be 2024.
What began as a grassroots gathering of 500 music fans has grown, year by year and by enthusiastic word of mouth, into one of the largest and best electronic music festivals in the world, its iconic status confirmed again this year by DJ Mag, which crowned it as the Best Festival in North America, and its success is the key reason why Nelson ranks among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2023, a list that focused on top destinations in the country for music travel.
Shambhala attracts world-renowned DJs and artists performing a diverse range of music during four days and nights on six unique stages, each of which has its own crew and stage director who manages acts, artists, and technical stagecraft.
In 2023, musical artists included funk producer-saxophonist GRiZ, the laidback beats of The Librarian, remix artist S!CK!CK, prolific Canadian duo Zeds Dead, Testpilot (aka Canadian artist Deadmau5), and special collaboration Gigantic NGHTMRE. Every act was embraced by some of the most passionate and eclectic fans in the EDM universe.
The strength of community is at the heart of the festival’s endurance. Music festivals and live shows are returning to popularity in a cacophonous, post-pandemic rebuttal of the doom and gloom that shadowed so much of life since 2020. Members of the Shambhala “Farmily” are back in force, fully embodying the spirit of freedom, individual expression, and positivity that fuels the event that is free of corporate sponsorship.
In this way, Shambhala is unique, reflecting communal values of love and respect that are in tune with the counter-culture history of its Kootenay home. The festival is down-to-earth — sometimes literally; the farm’s brown dust is ever-present — with an impeccably curated list of seasoned and up-and-coming electronic artists.
At this year’s sold-out festival, attendance reached 22,000 people, with many fans travelling long distances, proof that festival tourism has come back.
Jordan Duval, a 31-year-old construction worker from Ottawa, drove nearly two days straight in a van with three friends, while others bused from the United States or flew in from Europe, Asia, and South Africa. “I’ve been hearing about this festival for years, and can’t wait to experience it live,” Duval says while sporting a leopard-print cowboy hat while we chat in the festival’s bustling canvas-tented merch store.
For many, Shambhala is much more than a place to groove in the hot sun or dance the laser-lighted evening away. Fans describe the experience as a homecoming; returning to a place of memories, reconnecting with friends and living in a judgment-free zone where nearly anything goes and they can enjoy experiences like yoga, plate-spinning, guided meditation, tying the knot in the festival’s official Wedding Chapel, and, for some, ingesting mind-altering substances, a commonality at EDM festivals.
Reducing Harm at Shambhala
There are no hookah-smoking caterpillars lounging on magic mushrooms on the ranch. But EDM culture is often synonymous with the use of psychedelics, some of which are thought to enhance the musical experience, transcend attendees’ emotional states, and boost their ability to dance for hours at a time.
Shambhala is dry: No alcohol or possession of illegal substances is permitted on festival grounds. However, organizers recognize that harm reduction and safety are critical, and take active steps to ensure the health and well-being of attendees who may choose to flout the festival’s rules and use substances like cannabis, ketamine, and magic mushrooms.
Through its partnership with ANKORS, a Kootenay-based organization with a large volunteer team at the festival, Shambhala offers a variety of harm reduction and safety programs, including outreach by six harm-reduction teams, onsite counselling, and judgment-free gratis drug testing.
Festival Camping in B.C.
Each July, the village that emerges from the ranch property briefly becomes the largest town in West Kootenay, growing rapidly in the days prior to the festival.
If you plan to go in 2024 or another year, it’s advised to arrive early (which comes at a price), to secure parking and a decent camping spot, and to pack patience — lines can be long and move at a snail’s pace. Like Rome, Shambhala isn’t built in a day.
Much of the ranch is covered in all manner of dwelling structure — small tents, mid-sized RVs, battered camper vans, even converted buses. The four-day marathon of camping-cum-music festival is often an exercise in dirt and heat mitigation. But those trivialities can be overcome with large fans, volunteers spritzing attendees with misters, masks to cover faces from dust, and refreshing dips in the cool waters of the Salmo River.
Attendees unable to DIY their accommodations can choose from official ShambhaLodging, at a price. For far-flung attendees like Lauren, a petite young woman sporting cat ears and dark glasses who flew in solo from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to experience her first Shambhala, securing a glamping spot in advance was a must.
“I booked my ticket and lodging early because I saw a lot of coverage and the event seemed really safe,” she notes. Not having to schlep camp gear from home is a big plus.
Shambhala organizers also offer a first-timer’s orientation, answering questions and helping new attendees connect with one another and find their way around the grounds.
By day those grounds are clear and fairly calm, but at night Shambhala is utterly transformed by a kaleidoscope of costumed people holding “totems” (signs), coordinated laser light spectacles and, of course, the constant percussive beat of live electronic music.
As darkness falls, I wander from the chill house vibes of the Living Room stage to the frenzy of The Village, squeezing past the dancers for a better view of the night’s performers. The pulsing throng is huge, moving in unison with every bass drop and artist’s exaltations to jump.
The crush of bodies at the venues is exhilarating and overwhelming. I’m pulled into the heady mix and give myself over to the music, wondering whether, like Alice, I’m being changed in the night by my experience.
I may not be “letting loose and getting weird” (a core festival mission), but I appreciate how Shambhala’s manifestation of joy, acceptance, and the magic of transformative community helps its attendees navigate their own endless possibilities, long after the music stops.
Note: 2024 year marks the Shambhala Music Festival’s 25th year. Performing artists have yet to be announced, but organizers are planning a special party to celebrate the anniversary and welcome its Farmily back home.
Vacay.ca Editor Claudia Laroye attended the Shambhala Music Festival as accredited media.