The experience of sleep away camp is as American as apple pie. The same can be said for transformational music festivals. Unifier Gathering, which took place June 11th through the 14th, managed to encapsulate both experiences beautifully. The idyllic grounds of Camp Timber Trails helped this connection along. Situated next to a lake that was both swimmable and canoe-able, the layout of the grounds created an environment that guests recognised right away as one that facilitates learning, relaxation, and growth. Just like the summer camps of their childhood, guests camped in groves graced with tiny cabins, wandered through sun dappled trails to get from activity to activity, and gathered around campfires to sing songs and tell stories.
Unlike many music festivals, this event felt wholesome and well thought out. The demographic was remarkable, with people of all ages and walks of life represented. Small children did not seem out of place here, with most of the activities being suitable for all ages–in addition to very interesting kid-specific programming in their very own geo-dome (banjo making! fantasy ogre battles with costumed foes!). The event discouraged alcohol and smoking, which really made the point that this was a family friendly event- a place that should feel as comfortable as home to young and old alike.
The synergy to summer camp experiences lasted throughout the weekend. The main concert field was situated on the camp’s large play field, where festival attendees gathered in a circle to bring in the event on Friday evening. After the circle up, the entertainment and music began, with spoken word rhymes of Climbing PoeTree and spiritually driven rap from The Luminaries; all culminating in a performance by Nahko and Medicine for the People as the sun went down.
The sunset wasn’t visible, as a severe weather alert threatened to eviscerate the evening’s activities and all the technology on stage along with them. In true summer camp fashion (whatever will we do with all these smiling people in this huge rainstorm??), Nahko was whisked to the dining hall for an unplugged set around the fire, while festival attendees sat cross legged on the floor. The audience was clearly familiar with Nahko’s lyrics, transforming the performance into one of the best sing-along’s this reporter has been a part of since my girl scout camp days. Parents with tiny babies on their shoulders bopped around the perimeter of the group, while more energetic folks stood up and danced in the back of the room. The feeling was very familial and warm, which is unusual during a state of emergency at a music festival. After Nahko, the lights were awkwardly dimmed as an unlisted DJ hopped on the decks, furthering the illusion that we had traveled back in time to sleep away camp, and the “teen dance” portion of the evening was underway.
Those who wandered back to the concert field after the rain, discovered stagehands buzzing about the Royal Jelly stage like worker bees to the giant wooden queen watching from above. They were trying to rescue the lighting and sound tech from certain watery doom. Once the stage was mostly secure, the East coast kingpins of audio-visual stimulation, Zebbler Encanti Experience, started the party back up with a set that can only be described as face-meltingly spectacular. Despite technical glitches due to waterlogged equipment, the boys from Boston threw down HARD, and were clearly thrilled to be up on stage, doing what they do best. I spent some time with the gents from ZEE after their set to see what they thought about Unifier Gathering in it’s second year.
“Events like this don’t really happen in Europe, where they’re more specific to one style of music, and there’s not much in the way of community,” mentioned Ben “Encanti” Cantil, who divides his time melting faces with a professorship at Berklee Valencia in Spain. “I like seeing so many styles of music and art represented in one place.”
“I like genuine hippies. I’m part one.” Added Peter “Zebbler” Berdovsky, speaking of the Unifier crowd, “I love the hippie culture of tolerance, love, and sharing.”
The theme of sharing was consistent through the weekend, particularly when it came to knowledge and skills. The workshop listing was vast, with a variety of permaculture, martial arts, yoga, personal growth, and spirituality topics scattered all over the grounds. In the sound sanctuary, located about 15 minutes walking from the concert field next to the sacred fire circle and authentic sweat lodge, vibration architects from Binaural Beat Brothers, The Didge Project, and Resonant Vibrations taught guests how to use the didgeridoo and gong for therapeutic purposes, both through listening and playing. The artist meet and greet on Saturday brought many face to face with the visual artists represented in the gallery, allowing guests to ask questions about the pieces they had been looking at all weekend.
“I see these [events] as really valuable,” said Martin Bridge, a featured live painter, gallery artist, and workshop teacher. “Someone could be interested in one of my paintings, and since I’m able to interact with them, I can tell them about how my work was inspired by [my study of] permaculture, and then let them know about my workshop later that day. They show up and learn something, because these events help to create those connections.”
Inspiring learning via those connections was something seen throughout the event, which furthered the retro sleep-away-camp feel. People left with a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. New skills were learned, knowledge was gathered, stories were shared, crafts were made. Just as with your childhood summer camp, there were strange and spectacular camp counselors as well, reminiscent of the quirky role models who showed you how to be seriously silly, and who inspired wellness and creativity.
Alya Nereo, embodying the image of everyone’s favorite camp counselor, took the stage at sunrise on Sunday morning, with the demeanor and infectious smile that everyone needed after a long night of “Sacred Bass” music. Despite technical difficulties with her laptop, or one could say inspired by them, she performed an acoustically stripped down set using only her voice, hands, and a looping pad as the sun came over the trees. Later on that day, Alya Nereo returned to the stage with The Polish Ambassador to perform as Wildlight as the sun set, a symbolic “TAPS” to transition the final day of the event into nighttime and one last wild dance party, which went on to feature Karsh Kale and a solo DJ set by The Polish Ambassador to close. Leading by example, Polish demonstrated his characteristic dance moves, and the audience was more than happy to imitate as best they could. Some were more successful than others.
The whole weekend concluded with the Sacred Fire, which burned throughout the event. Skilled percussionists from Elder Flux, Om Frequency, and several other musical groups were in their element, guiding the attendees through the night with the drum circle’s ecstatic cadence.
The event was like nothing I had experienced before, and was comprised of experiences that inspired through the unique perspective they offered. This novelty made the event feel somewhat magical, just as your midsummer days at sleep away camp felt years ago. This “magical” feeling is a difficult one to capture in a grown up audience- one that many festivals seek but few achieve. Unifier, through a strange amalgamation of well intentioned projects, hit the target absolutely.