Now that the dirt – like black tar in our lungs – has begun to dissipate, the myriad of experiences at this weekend’s Symbiosis begins to take shape. Immersive visual experiences, live art, world music, luminous lectures, hours trapped in the middle of floating fiestas – many aspects of this Central Valley spectacle exceed the expressive capacity of words.

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In the spirit of sheer random chance that Burning Man has perfected and trademarked, Symbiosis has tapped into this energy source more deeply than related events. The size and creativity of the stages (some of them floating), the caliber of musical and visual artists, and the power of the workshops elevate this event among a growing chorus of transformational festivals.

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We pulled up to the dry peninsula surprised to find an extra long line of cars disappearing behind the perimeter of olive groves. Reassuring ourselves that “it won’t be as bad as Burning Man,” we stumbled out of the car five hours later and hauled our gear two miles in the encroaching dark. Dumping our things and rushing off to the stages, we were sucked into the hypnotic currents of Bedouin at the Silk Road. Expanding from last year’s edition, the Silk Road featured a wider array of traders, artisans, tea-houses, and an impressive Persian tent decorated with ornate carved tables, parasols, and colorful canvas cloths. Access to seemingly unlimited kegs of Lagunitas Summer Ale and rose flavored cocktails as well as interactions with the eclectic audience soothed our traveling souls much like the way-points of the Silk Road in bygone eras.

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For the Friday crowd ready to ring in the weekend, the Desert Hearts crew staged a takeover of the “Swimbiosis” stage– a structurally smaller but no less rowdy affair than last year’s waterfront pavilion. Stage dancing was free to anyone with the confidence (or sobriety) required to navigate the minefield of beer cans, champagne bottles, and assorted apparel scattered around the hexagonal gazebo. On the opposite side of the festival, musical meditations in the Silk Road and open-mic performances in the tea lounges provided space to those not quite ready to float their way into sun-baked stupor. With the drunkest of the crowd headed off for an evening nap, Shiba San saluted the sunset over a bopping sea of bodies that melded into the shimmering water.

Symbiosis nights are an altogether separate ordeal. Ecuadorian producer Nicola Cruz was one of the first to bring us into the darkness, sending sonorous vibrations through the mystified audience. For those familiar with the musical traditions and sacred spaces of the Andean regions of South America, the set was transformative. For those who weren’t, it was a completely original fusion of world music and electronic depth. He masterfully brought us through obscure and dissonant patches, lifting us into soaring melodies and hooks that set fire to our racing hearts.

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Reeling from this intimate experience, the main stage was something of a tectonic shift. A beautiful beetle-like dome of metallic silver, gold, and copper accents was transformed into a dark, strobe-filled vacuum where the neon-clad ravers expected at larger events like Coachella consumed significant space on the dance floor. We decided to stick it out for Beats Antique, with faith that the ravers would soon slink off to some dark distant corner of the event. Our faith was rewarded and the Bay Area visionaries unleashed a performance of epic proportions. At first, belly dancer extraordinaire Zoe Jakes spun around the dark stage with a lighted geometric cube to formless sounds as the stage slowly took form and the full band dropped into material off their anticipated Shadowbox. The supergroup effortlessly sutured jazz, funk, melodic, dark orchestral, Middle Eastern, and jazz elements in an exotic carnival of rhythm and movement. With the help of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band and their blaring horns on the new track “Let it All Go,” we powered through the cloud of dust conjured by stomping feet and offered up the last of our energy to these curators of soul.

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Slipping back into the swamp on Saturday, we commandeered some unicorn and pizza shaped rafts and charted across the water to a floating barge topped by a lighthouse and water slide. The venue for pirate yoga the day before, this atoll was completely surrounded by a flotilla of rafts and was so stacked with bodies that several were toppling over the edges and into the water. Wine bags were hurled like cannon shot over the floating village, beer was sprinkled overhead, and handles of alcohol were brandished like swords; all the while, the Dirtybird crew performed from the base of the lighthouse. It was an unbelievable scene and, like our shipmates, we were convinced we had become some sort of party pirates also.

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Dirtwire gave us necessary relief from the inexplicable experience on the barge moments before. A fusion of electronic beats, megaphone voice overs, and an exotic blend of string instruments, Dirtwire produces a sound unmatched. The hot afternoon sun turned the main stage into a molten gold cornucopia and we became the puppets manipulated by the strings of these maestros. Slipping back over to “Swimbiosis” for sunset, the widely acknowledged king of the sunrise – Random Rab – injected his characteristic vocal overlays into high energy tracks that sent us spinning in the arms of friends and strangers alike.

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Ready for a rest, we decided to swing by the main stage to catch part of Georgia-North Carolina folk fusion group Rising Appalachia. We were stupefied by the full splendor of the main stage, revealing its full glory in a gold and copper glow of the richest autumnal hues in perfect contrast with the deep purple sky. The four-piece ensemble, fronted by sisters Leah and Chloe, offered up their energy to the people supporting the indigenous communities in North and South Dakota, and spoke of the necessity of bringing together art and activism as change-makers in our world. They stole our hearts with their sexy southern soul and made us fall back in love with the United States and its rich folk history all over again.

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Sunday was a celebration of the shadier spaces of Symbiosis, with the heat rising to suffocating heights. Workshops led by Leah Song and Dr. Vandana Shiva reminded us of the intention that we bring to these spaces of convergence and the power that they have for connection with multiple nodes of experience and understanding. Filling the late afternoon slot on the main stage, FKJ unleashed a funky flood over the dance floor where the sampling of electronic beats with saxophone, piano, guitar, bass, and vocal overlays had us all in a frenzy.

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Exhausted from the week and attempting to avoid the nighttime energy at the main stage, we trudged over to the art dome and sat down in line for a movie experience that we had heard murmurs about from several groups. We excitedly staked out a spot inside this IMAX-like space and settled in. What unfolded on the three dimensional screen above us for the following 20 minutes was spectacular. Intricate, interactive visual designs splayed out in an endless kaleidoscope of stimulation. Fractalized dragons swirled out from dark depths to swallow us in their jaws as mountains made in the shapes of women poured sacred pixel water drops from above. The lighter images transitioned into a dark death where a skull of snakes hung like a gong in the surrounding blackness until we were lifted up through the nebula and dissolved as stardust.

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This concluding experience summarized what Symbiosis has to offer, a harmonic blend of the most saucy and spiritual elements that the transformational festival world has to offer. Each side – and all of the gray area in between – is masterfully curated and brought to a level that surpasses most other events aspiring to create such powerful spaces for both jubilation and exploration. While this year’s production was not quite at the scale of last year’s ten-year reunion, it still carried the energy and spirit that captured our attention last year. It is a celebration of life and all of the facets that make this human experience worth living for. In the off-season that awaits, we anticipate the production of next year’s event up in Oregon for the total solar eclipse, set to take place in August 2017.

Article and Photos by Conner Smith.

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