Utopia defined by the Oxford-English dictionary: noun; an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.
To be honest, I never understood what the fuss was all about. Sure, Woodford is fun, but not that amazing, is it? At Woodford, there is music, art, joyousness and beauty—good times, exactly what you’d expect at a music festival! But what really puzzled me was how people spoke about this festival as if it were life altering.
In previous years, I’d only been for a day or two at a time and never experienced the festival in entirety. My two children were spending most of December with their father, so I opted to volunteer as an interviewer for the Woodford blog and stay the entire week. Always the cynic, I wanted to find out what was so amazing about this festival—needless to say, I did!
Woodford: A Brief Overview
The Woodford Folk festival turned 31 in 2016 and drew its largest crowd in history. Patrons numbered around 132,000 which was bolstered by the over-2000 artists and performers on the bill. A report from the Education & Tourism Minister calculated that the festival injects more than $30 million into the Queensland economy (including $16 million in the local Woodford region and surrounds) which is a large amount of money for a mere week-long event. It’s also proof that people love this festival, and its successful and enduring ability to draw larger crowds year-on-year.
The festival started out as a small gathering at the Maleny showgrounds back in 1987. There was an infamous creek where many splashed about nude. In 1994, the festival outgrew the showgrounds in Maleny and moved 20km further south to its current location at Woodford. Unlike many festivals, Woodford is situated on a permanent site which allows for necessary upgrades and investments in infrastructure, amenities and buildings. This also adds to the aura—the site itself takes on meaning if you attend the festival yearly. The buildings, and the land become sacred sites of initiation, transformation and evolution—which if you pay attention to the structure of the festival, reveals itself as not only just a gathering of artists, musicians and patrons—but a ritual. The festival, and all its parts and pieces truly is a magnificent work of art. While the organizers know this, and so do many attendees, I was about to discover what made it so magical.
People have gathered to celebrate with music and dance since the dawn of time—it’s in our blood and DNA. On this continent, Australian Aboriginals interacted and interpreted their Dreamtime during corroboree—their bodies painted and decorated while they danced, sang and made music. The modern music festival doesn’t feel much different (on the surface). After jazz and folk festivals gained popularity in Europe and the US during the late 1950s and 1960s, Woodstock changed the game in 1969. It set the bar for free love, mud dancing, protesting war, fostering peace and how to release wild teenage angst.
Burning Man festival, held in a remote Nevada desert in the US, popped up around the same time as Woodford in 1987. Named after the main event, the burning of large structures and sculptures, it too is a music and art festival celebrating community and creativity. Held each year, Burning Man draws crowds of up to 70,000 people from around the world and holds them to ten guiding principles: radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. The same principles, although not openly stated, seem to be subconsciously embraced by Woodford and its attendees, along with similar visual art themes (watch the film Wicker Man (1973) and ponder the correlation of Hollywood pagan rites and music festivals).
At Woodford, like Burning Man, there is a fire ceremony on the final night in the amphitheatre to celebrate the conclusion of the festival, as well as the first few days of the new year. Revealed during the opening ceremony, a large wooden structure relevant to the theme is sacrificed and lit ablaze. While most people can’t articulate exactly what or why, besides that it’s an amazing spectacle, they are passionate about this component of the festival, and along with waking at dawn to bring in the new year with the Tibetan monks, it is a must do or rather, a rite of passage. But looking a bit deeper, there is an obvious ritual structure built into the festival with this opening and closing ceremony and its theme, almost like a statement of intent for the week.
For me, watching the opening festival felt like an initiation. Gathered together, thousands of fellow-festival goers all watched as a Jinibarra elder cried out to the land and asked the spirits to protect us. Songs were sung, puppets marched and a large wooden staircase to be burned at the closing festival was revealed. I walked away knowing that this was the beginning of an experience that would change me—what I didn’t know was how.
Festival as Utopia
Utopia is a highly subjective word—one person’s vision of perfection, is another person’s hell. At musical festivals, however, there seems to be a consensus about what utopia might be to most folks. According to blogger Matt Bonham, festivals are utopias because of the following characteristics (which really resonated with me—I backed up his reasoning with my own experience at Woodford):
1. Festivals create and take on a life of their own
When you’re at Woodford—you’re at Woodford. No other place even exists—the outside world falls away. Woodford encapsulates you and forces you to live only in the present. Life becomes based around your small campsite, basic needs like food and water, friends, fellow campers and festival events. Your day’s activities involve wandering, listening to amazing music, eating yummy food, dancing, laughing and breathing in the fresh air—maybe yoga if you’re really motivated. In order to plan your day, you ask folks you meet or consult the festival programme a few times, but mostly you just flow. Life becomes Woodford and by the time you leave, you wonder why “reality” or “modern society” isn’t structured in the same way.
2. Festivals run on karma and the exchange system
There are no signs, but it goes without saying that once you enter Woodfordia, there are no d*ckheads allowed. You make friends with everyone you meet, helping, supporting, loving and embracing strangers and all who cross your path. I rocked up as a lone women who needed help putting up her tent and that help came as soon as I spread the tarp out on the ground. If you pump out good vibes, they will be returned to you ten-fold. This magic is so potent, it could turn the biggest, baddest, meanie into Mother Theresa. And if you do act up, people shut it down super fast (and lovingly) which makes you feel like the biggest shameful schmuck so don’t even try to get angry.
3. Reality is turned upside down within festival grounds
At Woodfordia the weather is never predictable—some years it floods, other years it’s so hot you can’t move. This does not even matter—you laugh about mud, heat exhaustion, flooded tents and losing your wallet. The stress of daily life doesn’t affect you anymore—you’re completely immune! Reality, or whatever that word means to you, becomes the festival itself. Here, reality is people coming together to celebrate life through art and music, wearing glitter and flowers in their hair, dancing all day and night and spreading joy even in the loo queue—could it get any more beautiful?
4. Abounding creativity enables you to become inspired to create music and art
How many people have gone to Woodford, seen a performance and said, “I want to do that.” Being exposed to music, art, performances, speakers, yoga and healthy food changes you whether you consciously allow it to or not (I came home and started this website—an attempt to keep the Woodford vibe going in my daily life). Once you catch a glimpse of what life could be like, once you feel how good it feels, there’s no turning back. Bad habits fall away and something new sprouts up.
5. Live for today, but seek an improved tomorrow
Sustainability is a big theme at Woodford. Water conservation, recycling, energy consumption are all emphasized. You can still have fun at the festival, but you realise that having fun doesn’t necessarily mean destroying your body and the earth. It’s a refreshing epiphany to have and you take it home with you (hence, composting as a focus for me during 2017). I also read a report that no rubbish was left behind at the campsites this year—an amazing act of love and responsibility.
6. Festivals stop the clock
I checked my Facebook and Instagram accounts once during seven days and never watched the news or cared about current events. I didn’t want to know what was happening anywhere else—the only news I wanted to read about was in the programme and what other people were doing and experiencing. You learn the most amazing lesson—the power of NOW!
7. Festivals encourage unity and co-existence, but celebrate diversity
As a folk festival, Woodford attracts performers and patrons from all over the world and people of all ages and from all walks of life. The emphasis is to get along and love thy neighbour which grants everyone the freedom to truly express themselves. People dress up, while others dress with less! Freak flags fly high and are celebrated. Normal, boring people are welcome too—which is refreshing as a mother with two kids who can’t be bothered to decorate herself for the day. The more hair dye and face paint the better for my compadres though—I love living vicariously through you!
8. Celebrating the new
What’s more refreshing than being exposed to a new experience? Ahhhh! Like a cool dip in the ocean. New music, new art, new food, new people, new you! Woodford delivers a brand-new experience each year using the same formula—let’s all get together, love one another and celebrate both our oneness and uniqueness.
9. Festivals = freedom
Need I say more. Fill in the blanks…
10. Sharing is caring
What I found most contributed to this sense of utopia at Woodford, was not mentioned by blogger Matt Bonham. The reason being, well, other festivals might not possess this unique ability. Sharing, in all its simplicity, is the main reason I can compare Woodford Folk Festival to a utopia.
In our daily lives in the modern world, we compete for everything: homes, cars, jobs, clothes, thinner waistlines, bigger busts, smarter kids, etc, etc. At Woodford, no one competes for anything. The underlying goal is to merely have fun and share the experience. Instead of competitors vying for precious resources, fellow-festival patrons feel more like members of your extended family. After seeing this day-on-day for a week, it is absolute proof that people are capable of ditching competition and sharing. That is what I took away as the most important component—utopias can only exist if we share. And the feeling that takes root when we do share, is what I came to unknowingly refer to as “the Spirit of Woodford.”
The Spirit of Woodford
Unlike Burning Man, there are no set rules for attending Woodford—but there are certainly expectations for everyone to uphold. What makes the festival so amazing—and this can’t be found on the website or in the programme—are the people who buy the tickets. The same families, the same couples, the same friends have attended Woodford since it started back in Maleny. As a sacred order, or rather guardians of the spirit of Woodford, they ensure the ethos of the festival gets passed on to new comers.
When I first arrived at the festival, ready to serve as the very best of volunteers, I didn’t realise that this spirit existed. I interviewed a diverse cross-section of folks: expectant mothers, children, seasoned festival-goers, teenagers, musicians, artisans, festival employees, other volunteers, internationals, Aboriginal people and veterans. The funny thing was, they kept saying the same thing—they didn’t focus on any of the performers, they didn’t mention any headline acts, all they wanted to talk about was the experience of the festival itself, especially the beautiful people they met.
What is the spirit of Woodford, I continued to ask all my interviewees trying to nail down this idea they all came to experience each year? But like all ephemeral, amorphous things—it remained vague and an explanation loosely interpreted as “the experience of the festival and the beautiful people who come to it.” Trying to describe a feeling, and it’s cause, is difficult. Unless you feel it, the thing itself remains unknown. After interviewing an Aboriginal man I learned that the land was a woman’s gathering place. He didn’t say anything specific, but perhaps this too provided a safe space for the spirit of Woodford to propagate and manifest.
What was palpable during the festival, were the underlying themes of love and joy—you could feel how much the organisers loved the festival and as a result, the patrons reflected that love right back. The infrastructure of the festival, it’s carefully constructed works of art; the front gates, bamboo tepees with woven jellyfish hanging from the trees; the children’s festival, another tepee but with tunnels for balls to be thrown inside; the winding lanes full of vendors selling fantastical ware; the shady campsites; and at night, the entire festival glows with coloured lights, pretty lanterns and heart-shaped gateways—it’s all so romantic. Add in the the 2,000 volunteers who spend thirty hours a week working to compensate for the ticket, helping everyone they meet with a grateful smile, the festival takes on an almost magical tra-la-la quality.
The staff, dedicated and intent on maintaining this spirit, put together a festival each year that reminds us all of the beauty, mystery and magic that is life. The festival is one big act of love and gratitude—from the organisers, to the patrons, to the volunteers—and this feeling grows in strength as the festival progresses. As a mother, it’s refreshing to attend a music festival where innocence is safe and protected. For all of us, Woodford provides that wonder of childhood for one week.
Perhaps the fact that I could make this spirit of Woodford conscious helped me finally discover exactly what it was without ever getting a straight answer from anyone. On my last day, after bringing in the new year and accomplishing my goals as a volunteer and festival goer, I wearily packed up my tent and drove out of the festival gates feeling like I had missed something— or left something behind. And when I was winding over the mountain ridges towards Maleny, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had lost something. Suddenly, I broke down into tears listening to Elton John’s Your Song (this song by the way will forever encapsulate the realisation of what the spirit of Woodford is). For the first time in years, I felt my heart expand in my chest and it dawned on me: the spirit of Woodford is medicine—not in the modern sense, but the traditional sense—and as a celebration of life, unity, community, both a visual and emotional demonstration of love and beauty, this medicine can clear even the most clouded heart. The spirit of Woodford is life itself—love. The thing I had left behind was my old self—and taking root deep inside my heart, were the seeds to grow a different version of myself—a healthier, happier, more accepting one.
What Woodford gave me was the ability, after a few years of a painful separation and divorce, to let go and experience life without fear, thick walls, and to allow a transformation to take place. The medicine is different for everyone—Woodford, with its opening ceremony, magical daily occurrences, beautiful people, delicious food, undulating landscapes and closing ceremony performed a ritual healing for me. It’s also an extremely safe, supportive, nurturing space. As a single woman, a mother and for other families and children, this is a unique characteristic for a music festival and one that must be upheld. During my seven days at Woodford, no one said or did anything inappropriate, I was never scared or threatened or treated with anything other than respect—this contributed to the magic ten-fold. Fear contracts—love opens and expands! I stayed in this beautiful space for almost a month afterwards, settling into 2017 open, happy, content, amazed, inspired, in love, and knowing that I’ll be back at Woodford again next year to spread the love and foster the spirit.
Woodford Folk Festival website.
Words & pics Christina Cannes