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Festival Review: Shambala

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It's sometimes hard to tell where the festival ends and the punters begin. Although the 'Police Rave Unit' driving around seemed to be an official festival act, the two gentlemen riding around on pianos appeared to be doing so of their own volition.

Suspend your cynicism, slip into hippy-tolerant mode and forget about the world: this is Shambala 2012.

From the moment you walk onto the site it's clear that Shambala is not your average festival. Small, indie and perfectly self-contained, it's a long way from the Festival Republic behemoths of Reading & Leeds which take place on the same weekend.

The organisers describe it in their mission-statement as “A space to play, to reinvent, revitalise and then to return to the world fuelled-up on the beauty of being alive.

“It's so much more than just a monumental party. It's a haven, a think-tank and a happening all infused with a heartfelt, purposeful hedonism.”

Billy Bragg headlined Friday night and he captured perfectly the ambience of the weekend – optimistic, bouyant and activist. A cover of One Love was politicised with lyrics changed to “Let's drop the debt and it will be alright.”

In the real world it might have seemed a bit pretentious and lacking in subtlety. At Shambala, a thousand people felt all warm and fuzzy. He ended his set with a huge singalong to New England, dedicated to Kirsty McColl.

Other highlights were the tiny 'Wandering Words' tent, where stalwarts of the performance poetry circuit like Tony Walsh, John Cooper-Clarke and John Hegley commanded audiences that spilled out of the yurt. We only caught the end of a set by Bohdan Piasecki but the beautiful Almost Certainly was made all the more impressive by the fact his first language was Polish, not English.

Guided by sustainability, Shambala is also a corporate-free zone. There's no excessive branding, no sponsored stages and not a Coca-Cola logo in sight. Music is just one of the creative outlets celebrated – there are also slam poetry performances, dance, art installations and workshops in everything under the sun.

An enchanted forest full of sculpture provides a chill out area away from the main festival arena, open until 7am and the party continues well into the morning, with an enthusiasm which belies the otherwise relaxed atmosphere.

The fancy dress parade on Saturday afternoon is a jumble of elaborate in-jokes, huge group-costumes and girls in pasties and wellies. The Tory Party, the Weather Girls, about 12 Chris Hoys and a troupe of dia-de-los-muertos dancers all passed us in the space of five minutes as did a Christmas tree, Pussy Riot and a horse pushing a pushchair.

Because the festival doesn't boast many big names, your day doesn't need to be rigourously scheduled in case you miss a band. Rather it's easier to float from tent to tent, discovering new music and moving at your own pace.

One act we wandered into by accident was the fabulous Louis Barabbas and the Bedlam Six whose energetic set had every person in the Chai Wallahs tent skanking to their brand of “lyric-driven-dirt-swing.” Frontman Louis Barabbas himself has a stage presence like Freddie Mercury (and a moustache to match!)

Shambala has all the charm, kookiness and crusty old hippies that Glastonbury does, without the exhaustingly huge site or the ever-present branding. If you want huge bands and trashed 15_year-olds then it may not be your cup of tea, but for those in search of a slightly different festival experience, I have only good things to say about it.

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