Unifier Festival 2015 – The Roots of a Transformational Community

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Get your tickets to Unifier Festival 2016 (June 17-20th) here:

http://www.unifierfestival.com/tickets/

Unifier 2015 Photo Album by Richard William Guerra

“Wow” – a simple yet powerful three-letter word that seemed to emanate from every mouth and social media outlet of those who were in attendance of Unifier Transformational Healing and Expressive Arts Festival, held June 11-14 2015. I have been to 5-10 music festivals in the Northeastern US each summer for the past 6 years – attending, performing, working production, and as press. I must say that this weekend long event, which far exceeded the scope of the traditional “music festival” definition, was in my top three, if not number one on my list of Northeastern cultural experiences. The first Unifier, held last year in 2014, reached critical acclaim too. Unifier 2014 was listed in Fest300 as #1 internationally of the 15 Transformational Festivals to Attend in 2015 list. For the founder of Unifier, Jason Cohen, the biggest hurdle for Unifier 2015 was topping the first year and avoiding a sophomore slump. “Curating in a new location and figuring out our systems requires an enormous amount of energy, said Cohen. “A few important pieces shifted on us even in the last few days.” Despite the shifts, this sophomore festival seemed to run very smoothly overall. This was no small feat, as Unifier not only had a great musical lineup, but also exemplified a balance between the music and an acute focus on workshops–stemming from sound healing to Qi Gong to numinosity.

When asked about the concept behind this balance, Cohen says, “A lot of the philosophy comes from years of doing Forestdance Gatherings, which are ceremonial gatherings, and then years of Sacred World Interdependence Day Gatherings. It involves intentionally bringing a large part of the community together at times, and then opening and releasing in all directions across the landscape. Many of the relationships with the facilitators have been ongoing for many years. From there, we try to honor all ‘sides’ of the schedule. For folks that come to share ecstatic experiences through the dawn, with the fire circle ceremony, or on the main stage, and for folks that like to rise early. I also sometimes use an alchemical model over the three days, which involves shaking things up and refining them. I try to honor sunsets, sunrises, and know who is on board, know what they bring, create a space for them to shine in, and sit with envisioning the overall flow before making decisions.” For me personally, Unifier shed a great radiance of light on the positive progression of the Northeastern festival scene and the true essence of how beneficial a weekend camping festival can be for body, mind, and spirit.

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L to R (Martin Bridge, Richard “Ranchsauce” Guerra, Ayla Nereo, Jason Cohen)

Unifier’s first year was met with resistance from some locals in Lebanon, CT, where it was held. To take the festival where there wouldn’t be a need for additional political influence, the creators relocated to Camp Timber Trails in Tolland, MA, a girl scout camp for the large part of the summer. Cohen says this on the subject, “We like to flow like water to places that are open to receiving us.” Another reason for the move, as Cohen states, is that the ideal venue is one that can fulfill Unifier’s creators’ long-term vision of developing a community owned Land Trust, which Timber Trails has the potential for. This new venue was beautifully equipped with an amphitheater, a beautiful pond, a dining hall that was converted into an art gallery, another large building that was converted into a sound sanctuary, and a sweat lodge.

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Photography by Richard William Guerra

The senses-saturating space was complemented by a very creative and hardworking production team – The Reliquarium. This multi-disciplinary duo of Logan Will and Ivy Ross were responsible for the deco on the main Unifier Field Stage and the Royal Jelly Stage, while stage managing the latter. The Royal Jelly Stage was actually co-developed between The Reliquarium, Chase Hanna Creations, and Andrew Hlynsky. This stage had a set of three wooden hexagonal “honeycombs” on both sides of the stage, with elaborate carvings for a multitude of colored lights to shine through. On the top of the Royal Jelly Stage hung a massive bee made from branches and wood, constructed solely by Ivy Ross. Inside the Royal Jelly Stage stood a structure that resembled a star-gate, which, like the honeycombs, was made out of wood with intricate carvings for light to shine through.

Atop the Field Stage hung a massive 16x12ft “Sun God” face made from steel and canvas, gazing down at main stage audiences all weekend. Facing it from one angle, the face seemed to have eyes that were wide open, while from another, it appeared the face’s eyes were completely shut. From several other angles, the face looked like a human, an alien, and much more. To complement the face on the main stage, a large 12x16ft headdress, also made of steel and canvas, hung from the top front of the stage along with two 8x6ft hands on either side, making the main stage truly a unique and impressive visual display. All in all, over 1,500 feet of steel and 400 feet of canvas hand stitched with jute lashings were used. These stage designs were just a few examples of the intricate multilayered masterful pieces of art found everywhere you looked at Unifier. From Martin Bridge’s live painting by the main stage to Mary Murph’s various drawings and paintings by the Royal Jelly stage, and Chase Hanna’s black light-glowing glass paintings- all truly stunning pieces of visionary art. It didn’t stop there. Peter Berdovsky aka Zebbler, the mastermind behind Zebbler Studios, projection mapped all of the canvas on the Field Stage – face, headdress and all.  This was done in addition to the trees surrounding the main stage, which were displaying whirlwinds of color and graphics across them.

One of the earlier musical highlights of the weekend was The Luminaries on the Royal Jelly Stage on Friday night. The Venice Beach, CA.-based conscious hip-hop collective displayed explosive amounts of energy throughout the course of their set. Everywhere I looked, I saw people jumping up and down to the beat; the whole audience appearing as roaring waves of an ocean fueled by the propeller of The Luminaries’ downright fiery zeal. After their set, I caught up with J Brave and Freewill and talked about their upcoming tour. The Luminaries are definitely a musical force to be reckoned with – some truly inspirational, intelligent hip-hop artists, not to mention they’re just great guys too.

Just as Nahko & Medicine for the People were about to take the stage, the production staff, press, and everyone backstage started commenting on the impending thunderstorm. Nahko got up, did a solo rendition of his song “Aloha” before the rest of his band came up and began rocking with him. However, after the second song of the set, the first with the full band, Nahko announced that the rest of the set would need to be postponed due to the dangers of the oncoming storm. Within seconds of this announcement, an explosive roar of thunder was immediately followed by a massive downpour, encapsulating the entire festival in water in a matter of moments. Ranchsauce and I were quick to the task of helping out, and searched the backstage area for plastic garbage bags to cover lights, outlets, and anything electrical that seemed like a hazard. Once everything electrical was more or less covered, we ventured into the green room where we hung out with the Luminaries and members of Nahko’s band – a very tranquil get-together, despite the complete chaos that just took place. With the rain continuing to come down by the bucket load, the decision was made that instead of Nahko & Medicine for the People getting back on the main stage, which would have needed to be delayed much longer and in turn throwing off the schedule, Nahko would play a solo acoustic set in the art gallery.

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Photography by Richard William Guerra

Gradually we all made a run through the woods for the art gallery, as the rain was letting up a bit. Upon arriving, the gallery was packed to the brim with the festival attendees – people were laying down on the ground, meditating, hola-hooping, dancing, conversing, painting, and pretty much everything that would have been happening outside was now all under one roof in one room . The scene was truly symbolic of the main theme of the festival – unifying and coming together despite chaos and radiating positive energy. Just before Nahko started, Ranchsauce and I got our hands on some palo santo and walked around the room, burning the sacred wood to set the mood for what was about to go down. What ensued was an experience beyond words, with the vast majority of the audience singing along with every lyric Nahko sang and everyone listening attentively to his songs. I’m usually a much bigger fan of full band as opposed to solo performances. However, this single man brought so much power and emotion with just his voice and his guitar, that at no point did I wish that the full band was playing. He also sang a duet with Sandrayati Fay, a beautiful sounding female vocalist, which was a highlight of the set. To the delight of the fans he also played “Aloha” a second time.

After Nahko’s set, the rain subdued and people started making their way back to the Unifier field to check out the visual psychedelic future bass experience that is Zebbler Encanti Experience (ZEE) for some late night dance action. They took their one-of-a-kind, mind-blowing, estranged visual display done by Zebbler, and complemented and synced it perfectly with Ben Cantil’s face melting, consciousness warping bass heavy soundscapes. The sound was phenomenal and with the duo’s signature triptych projector system in the shape of a horned pyramid with wings, the experience was sensory overload delivering a super high-energy performance. The night wasn’t over there. After people attempted to pick up the pieces of their mind scattered across the ground from the stupefying ZEE set, Desert Dwellers took to the Royal Jelly Stage, throwing down their unique blend of psy dub world electronic music as the night turned to morning. After dancing for hours on end and meeting many new friends, the light of dawn shined across the sky and I felt it was time to hit the hay to make the most of the upcoming day filled with many intriguing workshops and musical performances. So, as Desert Dwellers performed into the morning, filling the air with their ethnic groove based electronic sonic blends, I drifted into a peaceful slumber.
The first workshop I went to on Saturday was the Resonant Vibrations/Didge & Gong Workshop with Chris Sturk & Casey Ray at the sound sanctuary. After 50 or so people piled into the room lined with blankets and pillows, gongs, and singing bowls, Casey and Chris briefly discussed their integration of binaural beats in their sound healing practice. For those who are unfamiliar, binaural beats are auditory processing artifacts, or apparent sounds, that result when two slightly different frequencies are outputted on the two separate channels in a stereo sound system (right and left channels). There are claims that binaural beats can induce relaxation, meditation, creativity, and even control overt pain. As people lay on their backs on the floor and the binaural beats permeated through the room, Sturk gently beat several gongs and Ray went around the room, “bathing” people with delicate didgeridoo playing. At the end, I rose feeling alive and rejuvenated.

En route to the pond for a midafternoon swim, Ranchsauce and I stumbled upon Grandmother Kaariina’s workshop, diving into the depths of numinosity. The elder spiritual leader discussed esoteric spiritual ideas, such as channeling the energy of ancestors in everyday living as well as basic yet often forgotten principles such as being open and kind with one another and taking pride and being grateful for being alive in this day and age. This workshop left me feeling empowered and grateful for life. We continued our journey to the pond, passing an exuberant Kirtan group with Brooklyn-based Bhakti Dojo. I must say it was one of the liveliest Kirtan groups I’ve ever seen! After taking a moment to soak in the healing energy and chanting along with the group, we made it to the pond for a refreshing dip. After swimming to the island in the middle of the pond and trekking while across unleashing some primal energy, we returned to the main land just in time for some Qi Gong with Alokananda.

This Qi Gong session with the co-founder of Tribal Alliance International as well as Unitribe (NYC) and lead singer of Sun’s of the Earth was a very enlightening and powerful experience. Alokananda presented a unique style of Qi Gong, utilizing breath, sound, movement, visualization, as well as aspects of shamanic, yogic, Taoist, and other practices to focus on moving energy through each chakra, as well as the meridian systems within the body and the body as a whole. The group session lasted about an hour and a half and left me feeling open, content, relaxed, and invigorated. Once thanking Alokananda for his work and service, it was time to partake in a cacao ceremony.

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Photography by Richard William Guerra

Heartblood Cacao is a family owned company using cacao beans from Guatemala – of the Criollo variety, which contain all of the health and ceremonial benefits associated with the consumption of cacao. Right before the cacao was served, co-owner Moses discussed the benefits of cacao, which include enhancing one’s immune system with powerful antioxidants, lowering risk of heart disease, lowering bad cholesterol and high blood pressure, increasing vitality, focus, sensitivity, and more. Moses asked us all to be silent as the cacao was being served, as well as to set focus, intent, and to provide a gentle meditative atmosphere. We all formed a single file line to get the cacao drink and proceeded to go down the line to mix in cayenne, which helps in the body’s absorption of cacao, along with cinnamon and honey to give the cacao, which is pretty bitter by itself some extra sweetness. For the next half hour or so, we sat quietly together, discussing cacao a bit more, along with co-owner Ambe singing a beautiful song. It was just a shame that she had to compete with the amplified sounds from the main stage, which pervaded the cacao ceremony space at quite a high volume.

Once the cacao was finished, we made our way back to the main stage, which hosted the Women of the World and their live band. I have seen this act several times before – always a few women of different ethnicities coming together to sing songs blending African, Asian, Indian, and other styles of music from around the world. However, this time was different – never before did I see them perform with a band, which brought an intensely dynamic addition to the swooning, worldly vocal melodies. The performance was very impressive and honestly some of the best music I’ve seen and heard in a while.

After the face melting performance, it was time to grab a plate full of all vegan food from the Unifier café (as only vegan food was served at the festival as a whole), and prepare for the nightly festivities. The first outstanding performance of the evening was Antibalas, a lively and fiery afrobeat band from Brooklyn. Although I knew their set was going to be a highlight, I could not have predicted the overwhelming energy they delivered, which catapulted my body into dance and as I looked around and saw smiles from every person witnessing the spectacle, which only widened my own. With every new song, especially with an exquisite rendition of Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy”, I felt an increasing amount of positivity pour into me, lighting up my soul and sending my mind into pure ecstatic bliss. I really can’t wait for my next Antibalas experience.

After taking a moment to take in the epic, profound vibrations left over from the Antibalas set, I made my way over to the Royal Jelly Stage to check out DÜM featuring Raquy Danziger. Danziger is a world renowned performer, composer, and teacher specializing in dumbek/darbuka (Middle-Eastern goblet drum) and Kemenche Tarhu (a rare and exotic bowed string instrument designed after the Iranian spike fiddle). Danziger’s band DÜM featured virtuosic Turkish percussion playing, along with the leader’s melodic compositions that she performed on the Kemenche Tarhu. DÜM’s performance was yet another very refreshing departure from western music, and although there was a great lack of western music in general at Unifier (which I was personally very happy about being the world music fan that I am), DÜM was truly unique and special. There was a real authenticity being exhibited; a true lively homage to traditional Turkish music. Danziger, along with her band, brought warmth and a distinguishing cultural experience to the festival which I was immensely grateful for.

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Photography by Richard William Guerra

Immediately following DÜM’s set, progressive rock live electronic act Papadosio took to the main stage. I’ve seen the quintet quite a few times over the years and felt that they brought a particularly tight and well-designed set to Unifier. The electronics blended nicely with the live instruments and vocals, and the jam/improv sections of their songs seemed to flow very well through a wide spectrum of dynamics. However, with all the worldly and highly eclectic acts, Papadosio was perhaps the most mainstream music that appeared at the festival and did not stand out to me as much as the lesser accessible, more idiosyncratic music that was prevalent at Unifier. Nevertheless, the energy Papadosio brought was on point and an apparent warmly welcomed addition to the Unifier lineup based on the large crowd present during their set.

After Papadosio finished up on main stage, I decided to make the long trek over to the fire circle, which was rescheduled from the previous night due to the rain. The journey through the woods seemed to take years, but in actuality it was more like a 10-minute walk over to the all night-long ritual, going until sunrise, which the festival’s founder, Jason Cohen, has been doing at his other events in the US and Costa Rica. When I arrived, I was hit with a wild energy – the people around the fire circling it, pulsating closer and farther from it, as a single organism, all to the rhythm of a large drumming ensemble which furiously pounded away with seemingly infinite energy. It’s said that the movement around the fire breaks away the false pretenses of the soul and an individual can fully open up and expand, feeling a sense of oneness with the other people moving around the fire, the drummers, the fire itself, and the universe. Through my limited time moving about the fire, I definitely got the sense of this symbolic, powerful movement. After sitting a bit outside the circle for a rest, continuing to observe the expanding and contracting of the environment, I decided to make my way back to the main field to see more music.

When I got there, David Block aka The Human Experience was on stage, delivering a set of mellow, downtempo, and soothing tracks. I decided to take a seat on the ground and just listen. A highlight of this set happened when Block welcomed a special guest vocalist to the stage, Danny Musengo. Together they debuted their collaborative new project WAVS, which took the sensual vibes up a notch, with rich vocal melodies interweaving the dreamy yet powerful soundscapes. Colorado/Portland, OR.  based singer-songwriter/producer Lynx was supposed to take the stage next, but due to travel complications, he did not make it and Block played an extended set. After being put in a blissful trance from the crooning serenades of The Human Experience/WAVS’s set, I was looking forward to the mind bending, otherworldly soundscapes of Asheville-based Summit Jaffe, aka Numatik. As soon as he started, it seemed as though aliens had hijacked the sound system and were attempting to communicate to us. Very reminiscent of the work by Dave Tipper, Jaffe’s soundscapes were beautiful collages of sonic objects simultaneously being incendiary dance music that sent your entire body into motion. It is also interesting to note that Jaffe uses Pythagorean tuning in much of his music, adding to the unique, esoteric vibe but not bringing it over the top and staying grounded in being music to make people dance. Numatik’s set gave me what I had been looking for, and I felt filled with radiant energy and ready to take on anything that came my way.

Apparently CA-based singer/producer Ayla Nereo felt the same way. Just as she was due to go on, as the sun was rising, she was having some technical difficulties. As I understood it, her loop pedals were not syncing properly with her computer/Ableton session. So, instead of just giving up completely, her true artistic brilliance and musicianship shined through. She decided to just do a completely improvised set, which everyone agreed backstage was definitely the best situation that could have gone down! Within moments, she was layering on-the-spot vocal harmonies and creating some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard! The best part was, of course, it was all 100% in the moment improvised, and that energy was really felt. Through Ayla’s music, I could look around and see everyone who was present was really present and really living in the moment, which is what music is really about right? This reminder launched a wave of serenity within me.

Before heading off to rest my head for a few hours and charge up for the next day, I decided to pay a visit to the lake to get in some early morning meditation. Upon my arrival, my jaw dropped with the epic view that stood in front of me. The difference of temperature between the warmer water and the cooler air created ghostly armies of smoke, which eerily floated across the lake’s surface. In this moment, I felt at total peace. Nothing mattered, I was living, breathing, and damn did it feel good. For Unifier 2016, I highly recommend making the early morning venture to the lake at dawn to witness the smoke on the water. This enables one to feel sublime nature within to a very high degree, and you will have a new found appreciation for the Deep Purple hit song. After witnessing this amazing event, it was time to rest for Sunday which was set to have some of the best music that Unifier 2015 provided.

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Photography by Richard William Guerra

Upon waking up, the LiS crew and friends rallied together and went for a very pleasant kayak trip out to the center island of the pond. There we relaxed, meditated, and conversed in very jovial to deep philosophical topics. As with visiting the pond at dawn, at Unifier 2016, I highly recommend making the excursion out to the island by kayak with a good group of people. The island provides a beautiful oasis away from the music, while still being able to hear it a bit in the distance, and brought a new, tranquil dimension to the festival. Just as we got back from kayaking, Wildlight began playing. Comprised of the sunrise vocal improv master herself, Ayla Nereo, and David Sugalski, who is more widely known as The Polish Ambassador, Wildlight delivered a set of ethereal, psychedelic hip-hop beats which coincided with heavenly vocal harmonies. This was the perfect set for the time of day and point in the weekend, and as to be expected from such a collaboration, the set was very well attended.

Next up was Jason Cohen’s band Incus. The group delivered a solid, uplifting set of powerful vocal messages backed by music which incorporated funk, rock, and jazz styles. Another act that really blew me away was Kidimandi. This large drum troupe, drawing primarily from West African traditions, was another act that brought authentic world music to Unifier. I stood mesmerized by the intricate blending of cross rhythms between each player, each contributing a unique and powerful voice with his/her drum, and creating a massive, immensely syncopated sound as a whole. After Kidimandi’s mind-blowing set, it was off to the campsite to gear up for the final night of Unifier 2015.

The night was kicked off with the pioneering solo recording artist, producer, composer, live performer, and trailblazer Karsh Kale and his band. Arguably the best set of the festival musically speaking, Kale, who’s considered a founder and leader of the Asian Massive genre, and has played concerts and festivals worldwide to critical acclaim, including a performance at the 2007 Grammy awards with Ravi Shankar’s daughter, a sitar visionary in her own right, Anoushka Shankar. This was the first-ever Indian performance at the Grammy’s. At Unifier, Kale delivered a high energy set of global electronic fusion with unparalleled virtuosity and pure sonic. A highlight of the set was when Kale brought up his teen daughter Milan (who one of his most well known songs is named after) to make her singing debut, and as is to be expected, she sounded great! After his set, I got to speak with Karsh, who was a very nice, down to earth guy, communicating sincerity and warmth through his words just as he does through his music.

After Kale’s set, The Polish Ambassador took to the stage, delivering a cosmic dance party atmosphere with his unique combination of warm analogue soundscapes paired with crisp beats and psy-fi funk feels. The perfectly fun set to close out the music for the festival was complete with a Michael Jackson remix that had the whole audience getting down hard, laughing, and smiling with joy everywhere I looked. When TPA’s set finished, in a completely spontaneous manner, the crowd rushed the front of the stage where Sugalski was shaking people’s hands and an immense hugging circle formed with everyone chanting “OM” which lasted a solid five minutes.

After this very special experience, Jason Cohen took the mic and instructed everyone to expand the circle for the closing ceremony. At this, everyone moved outward to line the circumference of the main stage dance floor and stood silently awaiting Cohen’s closing words. Cohen led a ritual passing through all four cardinal directions; a powerful and intense experience. As Cohen said his final words, people hollered with joy before going about the rest of the night and making the most of the little time that was left. The final official musician to perform was the sultry sound sorcerer Bobby West aka Erothyme, who delivered a vibrant downtempo set full of sensual melodies with hard hitting beats and exploratory soundscapes. With an uplifting and soothing nature inherent in West’s music, it was definitely an appropriate way to close out the weekend’s epic lineup of music.

Just as Erothyme’s set was finishing up, Ranchsauce got permission to have a late night poetry reading session in the art gallery as his spoken word act Sick Elixir. It was an extra special way to wrap up the weekend. With a little initial confusion sorted out quickly, we got into the art gallery and Ranch read his poetry with people, including myself, drumming away on laps, beat boxing, singing, chanting, playing guitar and more. It was a perfect family atmosphere, which crooned me into a deep sleep. I was exhausted from the powerful energy that was present all weekend, which continued to resonate within me well after packing up, leaving the grounds, and getting back to Boston. Days and now weeks after, I remain thinking, “Wow – what an awesome festival.”

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Photography by Richard William Guerra

As I’m sure you’re wondering reading this, just as I have been while writing it, what’s in store for Unifier 2016? Cohen explains that an expansion of resources is likely the biggest change that attendees will see, and that with a large gathering like this, there are very limited resources, if any at all, in the first years. “Every year we get more support,” Cohen said, “And there are more hands sharing the work. Having a year of experience on this site and strong and healthy relations with the folks in the town of Tolland will enable us to get a lot more done. Our parking systems, our shuttling, entrance, camping; all will be more efficient. We hope to spend energy reaching out to a larger group of indigenous elders and wisdom keepers. Those that came this year are looking to bring others. Much of the model will be the same with exciting different acts coming on board. We’re already working on next year of course. We also will be able to focus more on the Land Trust piece next year.”

If you are interested in helping Unifier next year, Jason says, “One of the largest pieces is helping get the word out. Getting on board with our street team, re-posting our media, bringing flyers and stickers to other gatherings. Having a gathering early in the summer season makes it really hard to promote. In New England, during the winter, so little happens. Folks can reach out now and order stickers for next year, or just get on our lists. If someone has specific skills in helping in this way, they could reach out through the website and just please be patient. Don’t be insulted if you don’t hear from us for a while, just reach out a second time. Another way [to help the cause] is to show up at Forestdance either in CT or in Costa Rica, and get to know some of us on the ground in a deep and meaningful way. This is where a lot of our community building takes place on an even deeper level than at Unifier.”

This festival is a milestone in the northeast festival scene, and it is my hope that it will continue and thrive, and to bring festivals back to the primordial roots of what a musical gathering should be about and in turn to progress the northeast festival scene in a positive direction.

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