Photography courtesy of Jacob Avanzato
Going back to its embryonic 2005 incarnation, Symbiosis Gathering has evolved exponentially in scope, attendance, and celebration. Over fifteen thousand participants flocked to the picturesque Woodward Reserve in Oakdale, California to revel in a carnival of music, art, community and debauched fun. Surrounded by this breathtaking natural expanse, the people of Symbiosis became an afghan of electric and organic styles, this Mad Max reality born of an ancient tribe, with frenetic fireworks of unabashed artistic expression exploding into the stratosphere. Symbiosis marks the end of the long and winding summer festival season that, by the end of four days on the lake, almost forgets where it might have began.
The beginning of the event could be described as a nightmare, with disorganized infrastructure, and entry lines up to ten hours, causing this writer and his team to miss a considerable amount of Thursday’s daytime activities. Getting things started has never been this event’s forte, but this year it seemed particularly difficult. That said, throwing an affair of this magnitude is an ambitious endeavor, and the producers should be commended for focusing on the art and the experience, even if it means a struggle to turn the engine over. Because once the motor started purring, this festival revealed itself to be an ensorcelled expedition deep into the annals of this counter-culture and its ceremony. The many tentacles of this musical community diaspora seemed to coalesce in a beautiful symmetry. Artists, builders, producers, movers, shakers and shamans from Bass Coast to Envision Festival and all points between, united the clans to erect and ignite this grandiose gathering.
Like any “transformational” event worth its coconut oil, Symbiosis is so much more than the tunes. In addition to an eclectic, gargantuan musical menu, several hulking art installations from Burning Man reappeared on the sprawling festival grounds in stupendous grandeur, as well as art cars like The Front Porch, and baby dragon Hssiss, of Abraxas lineage. The marvelous music stages were galaxies all their own, massive displays of imagination and empirical execution. There was education, inspiration, and a more than a bit of indigenous appropriation strewn in any direction, the mark of Burner tradition was an indelible imprint. For the final year at Woodward, it was again the festival’s landscape that was the diamond in the rough, a choking dust and its desert environs combined with a freshwater lake to create a definitive juxtaposition, and beneath the illuminating moonlight and within jubilant sunwater could be found the apex in West Coast festivaling. There was anarchy, there was spirituality, psychedelic adventuring, and high-brow dialogues, all amidst some good, old fashioned rabble rousing. Symbiosis showed the world that it is among the best in arenas of revelry, celebration, and shenanigans.
Outside of the music programming and big art, the jewels abound were innumerable and nearly impossible to catalogue. The Village was dedicated to progressive workshops and education, every Yoga practice imaginable, discussions on sustainability, community building, and pertinent global issues. With areas like The Hub, Nourishment Lab, The Parlor, Hacktivist Village, Movement Shala, Placemakers Teahouse, Elemental Altars, and Permaculture Plaza, the opportunity to level up was ubiquitous. Entire worlds of culture and participation were created and then enchanted. From Ayurvedic consultation to a vibroacoustic sound lounge, Cranialsacral Therapy to womb massage, The Village left nary a stepping stone unturned. We learned of “Music as Medicine of Our Time“, or about “Re-inhabiting the Village“, of “Conserving Biodiversity” or “Drugs, Sex, and Arachnids.” These type of offerings often prompt the use of the term “transformational” when discussing West Coast festival culture, much to the chagrin of Symbiosis organizers, yet this event offered myriad options for self-improvement, self-awareness, and there is no shame in the game of bettering one’s self, and our planet.
It would be naive not to acknowledge the immense influence that Burning Man has on this so-called transformational festival culture. Both Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis Gathering espouse the ideas, ideals, values and ethos of That Thing in the Desert, but it is the latter, which normally takes place in the weeks after the Burn, that feels like the truest extension of Burner civilization. At Symbiosis, you bring your own food, booze and supplies en masse, self-reliance is crucial, especially given this disorganization and chaotic energy that permeated the event.
As for the inevitable waste created at such a gathering, the idea is to pack it out – and leave the land as it were upon arrival. Sadly, like LIB, the Symbiosis massive let the garbage get away from them, and the grounds were often in disgusting conditions from the refuse that lay about. Too many people left too much behind, despite the fact that there was a sorting facility set up on the way out of the event. Many participants were disappointed in the disaffected approach some took to the “pack it out” directive. It goes to show that despite it’s best intentions, this community has a long ways to go as it pertains to “walkin’ it like they talkin’ it.”
Anytime there is a new-agey, “transformational”, Burner-centric event, some comic relief is certainly in order; Symbiosis had no shortage of such hilarity, places like The Living Room were central to such shenanigans. Elsewhere, exploring the guru phenomenon with some tongue-in-cheek humor, JP Sears and Kumare had people in stitches with their convoluted yogi-isms and pseudo-spiritualized rhetoric. “Man-Tease”, a mobile stripping container, was Magic Mike on acid, brought to you by the folks who delivered Psychedelic Friendship Bingo in years passed. Fed up with the flat-earth nonsense? Dr. Bruce Damer hosted a panel discussion that belittled this silly scientific detour, a controversy that has prompted much derision and made for great guffaws aross the globe.
Despite the plethora of non-music options at our fingertips, for the final festival of this season, I consciously broke from the usual modus operandi, and focused my experience almost solely on music and dancing, making space for human connection and conversation, but little else. Every so often I reminded myself to hydrate, and for nourishment, as we strategically planned naps as to maximize the opportunities to achieve dance Zen one last time this Indian summer bloom. I recognize that this reflection is in no way a complete rundown of this titanic event; instead, here is a small sampling of the music enjoyed at Symbiosis Gathering 2016: Family Tree.
Thursday was a wash for a large portion of the festival, as many people were stuck in the snaking traffic lines for the entire day. With the music ending at midnight, we were lucky to catch a portion of world renowned deep house champions Bedouin at Silk Road, a real life anachronism built by the folks behind LIB’s The Grand Artique. In lieu of Frontierville, the creators manifested a Middle Eastern bazaar of sorts, with merchants serving tea, elixirs, and period specific art and aesthetics. Silk Road would be the site of several remarkable music performances over the course of the four days. From Bedouin’s pulsing Persian rumblings it was on to The Grotto for a set of primarily new music from an-ten-nae. The Oakland bass-boss delivered a series of slow, throbbing jams from his forthcoming solo album Medicine.
Friday afternoon saw a Desert Hearts takeover at Swimbiosis, and it was a whirlwind wave of color, dance rage, and undeniable untz, as the entire crew of Mikey Lion, Lee Reynolds, Deep Jesus, Marbs, and Porkchop showed up; the mission was to move the crowd, and it appeared accomplished by day’s end. Imagine relentless, swanky deep house grooves, trippy Playa-tech jams, and some four-on-the-beach beatscience; this was a five hour tour of non-stop pulsating beats and beautiful people frolicking in the water, while an in-the-round stage incorporated a beach landscape and shady grove. All day everyday, the lakefront playground of Swimbiosis went off! Across the way, at the astonishing Atoll lighthouse art boat, British Columbia bass mistress The Librarian was setting things off, and for a moment, the floating stage had to be evacuated. The chaos was apparently due to Ms. Andrea Graham‘s ratio of bounce-to-the-ounce, which had the people going way too hard; this ancient lighthouse structure could not host such a level of rager. Thankfully, shortly thereafter, the boat got things (relatively) together; Andreilien took to the Atoll decks and delivered a hair-raising hour of boom-bap thump. Post-dubstep glitch buried in golden-era hip hop drums, evidence of an exciting new direction for this legend.
Early in the evening, we ventured over to the Movement Shala, where the Boss-of-Bosses [Clever Alias] was holding court. From dubstep to the dancehall, Dan Laureano blessed up the masses with his bracketology, a potent and primordial blend, sending us off into the night with ample pep in our step. Headlining sets from Gramatik and Beats Antique at the magnificent The Fringe drew enormous crowds, and served to release the festival’s aready pent-up energies. Festival-wide, it was a clash of the titans, as Claude Von Stroke went head to head with Ivy Lab, before Atish hijacked the concupiscent whip with deep housequake into the night.
Just before the clock struck midnight, Baltimore’s super heady spiritual gangster SOOHAN dropped a Silk Road set that will not soon be forgotten. Mashing up two decades of pop music culture atop a bombastic blend of 808s and ancient sounds, the rising star laced a libidinous dance session that sent the teaming masses into a maniacal tizzy. Morillo hit at Silk Road late Friday after 4am, and the charred remains of SOOHAN’s seismic slaying were still smoking. The Miami based producer soaked the people in drippy, glitchy, galloping movements, gurgling basslines beneath patios mantras and obscure samples, tribalizing riddims amidst snake-charming melodies.
Just before retiring for the morning nap, we heard the faint throb of bass rumbling within the RV campgrounds. We stumbled upon the unthinkable, a mobile nightclub in full effect at 7am. I followed the sound of thunder, until we embarked upon the renegade Venus Tour Bus. What transpired played out like a dream; a crunkalogic surround-soundsystem thumping beneath the vessel, as the steeziest individuals on the festival grounds raged a bamboo dancefloor, outfitted with a stripper pole, crawling with beautiful bodies, all of whom strutted the sunrise up over the horizon. DJ Guidance was purveyor of the tectonic soundtrack, ushering in the haziest shade of morning beneath a warm California sun. In what might be my single favorite forward of the weekend, dude dropped Buju Banton’s “Champion” atop some brutal booms n’ claps, the natives were once again restless; and I had to tip my Kangol to Rich Cruz and the Venus Tour Bus crew, for they had heroically harvested the truly epic.
Saturday was bright and beautiful weather, with a breeze coursing through the dusty air. It was astonishing to take in all of the visual stimulation and art on display in the glorious sunshine. Among my favorite creators were The Wood Vibe Tribe, located at Silk Road, represented by Brad Rhadwood, and hailing from British Columbia. Their progressive form, called intarsia, uses reclaimed or salvaged wood to create paintings without using any ink, paint or stain. Android Jones‘ digital art galaxy dome hosted his transcendental project Samskara, which wowed folks with virtual reality and fractalizations that dwarf anything most of us had ever seen. But the most impressive works of art for this writer were the jaw-dropping music stages: headliner area The Fringe, created by Vita Motus, the floating Lighthouse on Atoll, by Drift Crew, and the astro-turfed dance rage Juke Lagoon by Dalabil. Sensational installations like The Luminescent by Hybycozo, and Empire of Love by Brent Allen Spears consistently stopped people in their tracks.
Early Saturday afternoon, as rays glistened the scantily clad, we ventured down to The Other Stage, a different floating art-boat, while Bay Area producer on-the-rise Aabo delivered a tasty set of future sounds, before giving way to his pal, the enigmatic Lafa Taylor, who DJ’d a set of classic golden-era hip-hop joints. From there we did about as big of a 180* as possible and returned to Silk Road for the fantastic Fanna Fi Allah. The Sufi Qawwali devotional music was majestic at midday, the most authentically spiritual songcraft we encountered underneath the family tree.
Random Rab is among the most revered and celebrated artists in this festival’s storied history, an integral part of its fabric and family; his Saturday sunset serenade at Swimbiosis was yet another scintillating journey for the ages. Pulling out classics like the now-elusive “The Reflections” while a goddess mermaid, naughty princess, and yoga empress pranced the stage; the sun raced over the horizon, and Rab delivered a mammoth set of mystical proportions, a harbinger of the magic by moon to come. At about 2am, he reappeared in the Family Circus tent, soundtracking the Vau de Vire performance troupe while they left jaws agape. Mr. Clinton blessed the dancers and the gawkers with “Transmissions from the Moon,” and a MOUR track satiated even the most jaded West Coast vets.
As night fell on Saturday, globalized swashbucklers Delhi 2 Dublin went head to head with Rising Appalachia (who’s first engagement featured a choice sit-in from members of Dirtwire). At The Fringe, Perth, Australia’s post-trip hop autuer Ta-ku dropped an astonishing set, eschewing the traditional DJ setup for a live-band transmission system, a welcome respite from the norm. Regan Matthews built some of his set around the (m)edian EP, employing a sparse yet effective keyboardist, drummer, and vocalist; Ta-ku himself was no slouch on the singing either. After a brief-but-enthralling run of seminal Go-Go funk that played over the PA, Santigold took the stage in full regalia and surrounded by bumping live band. She came out of the gates with a fury, unleashing a riotious “Chasing Shadows” that was gurgling Bhangra-crunk, yet from there her satirical blend of indie-rock and model-shtick lost more than a few. Young NorCal lion CharlestheFirst was sizzling at Silk Road, and our krewe was forced to double-back for a few psychedelic, hip-hop inspired jams from this kid, who is now definitely on the vibrational radar.
Oakland masked mavens Dimond Saints commandeered the Family Circus tent at the stroke of midnight, and what transpired was positively phantasmagorical. Continuing the development of their enrapturing live-instrumentation, in concert with the duo’s magnetizing, occultish, future-moon music, Releece and an-ten-nae cemented their meteoric ascent to the pantheon of avant-garde with a demonic ritual. Tuba, trombone, Sica drum, and haunting violin (courtesy of HÄANA) were lavish layers to the Prism in the Dark, embellishing the dark magus duet. Vocalist Yaarrohs, full time magician/part time panther, induced the spells in matrimonial white, coalescing with the stygian aura that hovers above the Saints. Later she returned sans bridal veil, and blessed the assembly with an impassioned “IDGAF.” This evening would be yet another dose of pure, unrivaled, intravenous sexy in what is quickly becoming the Dimond District tradition, and the Symbiosis dance-massive responded in biblical fashion.
After the brief, secret Rab set blew our minds and infused our wearying souls, we mosied on back over to Silk Road for a rollicking live-band performance from Dirtwire. Beats Antique’s David Satori, Stellamara’s Evan Fraser have combined to deliver a fresh take on electro-folk, and the wild wild West never felt so much like home. The squad they assembled for this pair of performances at Symbiosis only furthered the buzz that has surrounded Dirtwire for the past couple of years, and we lapped up the gris-gris they served from the back porch of Americana’s future. At the stroke of 4am, there was only one game on our minds, and that was BOGL; the venerable Soundpieces bossman is among the most thorough and forward-thinking artists in bass music today. Despite the Funktion-One volume being turned down a bit in the circus tent, Griffin March will not lose, ever. Piling on heaping portions of high-falutin’ womp, the underground dance community showed and proved en masse, while BOGL put heads to bed with domineering authority.
Bed? This posse was nowhere near ready to rest, and instead it would be British wizard-king OTT who would broadcast atypically over-the-top content to bring in the Silk Road morning. The jolly giant’s mix of psybient dub, ethnic electronica, and rotund, elastic grooves were squishy lily pads for the multitude of cosmonauts looking rest their wings. Still not satiated, at about 7am our now-swollen squadron again arrived at the infamous Venus Tour Bus, where Oaktown’s dread necromancer TreyZilla was conjuring up the renegade rage, as he’s guaranteed to do whenever he steps on the set. Putting nails in the Trap coffin, and banging it shut with galactivated rebar, Trey Martinez danced on the grave of what’s tired and played, and cracked a window open to new and alien galaxies. After glorious morning spent tip toeing in some Jordans, mad spunions running through the six with no woes, it finally dawned on me: Venus is life.
Somehow, the dancehall gods delivered me to Swimbiosis minutes after high noon on Sunday; just in time for the rugged yardie sermons of Portland soundbwoy du jour, PRSN. Mixing bangin’ hip hop drums and samples with rudie swagger, at once something serious and sincere, Bryce Howell ushered in the final day of Symbiosis in proper hot-skull style. There was no shortage of strong music options on Sunday afternoon, no matter what your flavor palette or funky preference. Women ruled the roost at The Other Stage as HÄANA shared her Nordic femtronica elixirs, while Tara Brooks and Rachel Torro pumped the beach full of sweltering, divine deep house. The Fringe welcomed New French House phenomenon FKJ, who dripped his scrumptious juices all over the keyboards, saxophone, and electro drums, the silky smooth, luscious grooves went down the hatch. Next up on this main stage was A Hundred Waters, an eclectic band from Gainesville, Florida that combined organic and electronic elements for an ethereal sound, their vibe wrought with a tangible emotional quotient. The audience danced in a hushed reverence, as Nicole Miglis‘s charming flute melodies and saccharine vocals were spectacular.
Late in the hottest afternoon of the festival, Rising Appalachia appeared in the circus tent, and it was at once revelation and revolution. Sisters Leah Song and Chloe Smith, and their trusted compadres Biko Casini and David Brown led the congregation on yet another Second Line parade through the filthiest and dirtiest of Southern hymns and harmonies. Anthony Flowers Ward crafted his usual kaleidoscopic visual accompaniment with a vast array of floral splendor, as flow artists and dancers atop aerial silks enraptured an awestruck audience. By the time Rising Appalachia had concluded a Bayou romp through the gospel traditional “I’ll Fly Away,” there was nary a dry eye in the circus. The closest thing to jamband vibes were found within the guitar-driven, rubber-band jams of OTT & the All-Seeing I, while over at Juke Lagoon, Gaslamp Killer was bringing a gritty and aggressive brand of psychedelic dance energy to a raging contingent of night owls.
Among the most discussed headliners booked this year, FKA Twigs did not disappoint in her Sunday night slot. At times meticulously choreographed, others wild theatrics with reckless abandon, the vocalist, soothsayeress, and movement icon pranced around The Fringe stage with prismatic grace. Her music could be somber, plodding, and also electrifying and excitable. Almost as impressive as her musical art was the visual stimulation that dominated her performance. Meanwhile, at the Family Circus, another epochal artist was leading a veritable séance of sorts. The Desert Dwellers Live Experience was a prodigious display of spirituality through sound, song, synchronicity and emotion. Meditative, palpitating beats from Treavor Moontribe and Amani Friend were augmented by the breathtaking Marlowe Bassett (of Metamorphosis Ballet), HAANA, Tammy Firefly and Soul Fire, among other collaborators. The result was nothing short of spine-tingling, as many shared in a final dance shwirl to close out the festival.
This krewe was in need of a soft landing, so we dragged a horde of blankets, pillows, and juicy vibes up to Silk Road. We chose to collapse in an enormous cuddle puddle, as the psychedelic soundscapes of Tropo, led by Tyson Leonard, assisted us in circling the runway. To bring it on home, Silk Road was blessed appropriately enough by Vir Jam, a vigorous, spiritualized world music session that employed the talents of Hamsa Lila frontman Vir McCoy and beloved Santos y Zurdo/Patterns bassist Luigi Jimenez. After a weekend spent swimming in a freshwater lakes of Funktion-One thump, it was only right to shut it down with an organic sound, and these boys brought it, from faraway funk-to-table by way of our hearts.
And so comes to a close the 2016 West Coast festival season, another one for the history books, and apparently the music blogs, too. Symbiosis Gathering 2016, despite the hiccups and frustrations at the start, remains the stardog champion of this festival scene and culture. Clearly, the producers are not motivated by profit, but instead empowered by the epic, and for better or worse, it shows. It is abundantly clear that this community remains vibrant, and the event is still very relevant to the movement and its missions. We can only daydream as to what may happen next summer when Symbiosis pulls up stakes and hops a northbound train, all aboard for Oregon Eclipse 2017.
Thank you Symbiosis Gathering. Your intent is our delight.
photos: Jacob Avanzato
videos: Dan LaDue, Galactic Seabass, WRD Media, Dr. Bruce Damer, jJice