MAGAZINE

Earth Frequency: How a Festival Straddles Its Country's Cultural Heritage with a Nod to the Future

Photo by: Ryan Lee
by Ian MacKenzie | @ianmack Tue March 08, 2016 | 12:00 AM

I’m a filmmaker whose life’s mission is to capture and amplify threads of the emerging paradigm. From Occupy Wall Street to Burning Man, a more beautiful world wants to be born, and it’s bravely sprouting through new cracks in the old system.

I'd been invited to speak at the cutting-edge, conscious Earth Frequency Festival , an hour’s drive outside of Brisbane, Australia, to share the arc of my film work and the wisdom gleaned along the way. That's no small endeavor, considering the ample opportunities for festival-goers to skip lectures in favor of following the bass.  Plus, I’m a Canadian halfway around the world, and arrived unsure if my mind bombs would land in this faraway culture.

At 8:45 pm on Friday evening, I headed to Frequency Village, the event’s epicenter for various workshops, talks and visionary art. I took the mic in the Mind Node and proceeded to share my dispatch from the future. I received numerous nods, sighs, and affirmations that my offering was well-received. (You can track my latest film exploring the rise of the feminine in electronic music via Amplify Her).

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

Lecture complete, I suited up with my festival companion Julia, packed our bags with extra water and granola bars, then headed out to explore the festival. Earth Frequency wasn't the first rodeo for either of us. Since 2009, I had been to Burning Man six times, as well as various conscious gatherings along the West Coast of North America, and have made numerous short films about this unique sub-culture. In the weeks leading up to Earth Frequency, I was asked countless times by new Aussie friends if I was going to the “Freak,” offering a glimpse into the regional love held by many who've made Earth Frequency their annual pilgrimage.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

Held at Ivory Rock, a well-established campground for numerous, large-scale gatherings, the facilities included a multitude of flush toilets and hot showers, luxuries that I had never seen at any other festival. You could spend hours exploring the colorful vendors selling handmade clothes and jewelry, then through food stalls offering fare from Thailand to Yemen. The vibe was open and friendly, with little of the ungrounded energy that can often seep into a crowd as the night – and various chemicals – unfold.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

On Day Two, I found myself in a distinctly Australian moment while listening to a compelling conversation between Mark Heley, a recent British settler and Director of Media at Uplift, and Eshua Bolton, an indigenous Australian man, discussing the difficulties of decolonization and cultural appropriation. This thorny subject has necessarily emerged throughout the Australian scene, wherever events have taken place on land that was historically taken by force or broken treaty. I heard questions raised like: how do you respectfully open a dialogue with the traditional peoples of these lands? How do we request permission to gather? How do we involve them in the fabric of the event?

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

In my home country, a similar debate is alive and well, with strides already made that ban the wearing of native headdresses at many festivals, many of which I was surprised to see at Earth Frequency. Traditionally used only for ceremonial purposes for the First Nations of the North American plains, these adornments were sacred regalia, certainly not to be worn as a pan-Indian “costume.” I realized that here in Australia, many of the populace had no cultural connection to these peoples on the other side of the world, hence the general ignorance of this appropriation. There was even one vendor selling the headdresses in the market.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

Thankfully during the Q&A, one informed attendee stepped to the mic and called for a festival-organizer response: to enact the executive decision to ban headdresses from future events. The crowd responded overwhelmingly in favor, and I felt privileged to witness a culture in evolution, doing the hard work of reconciling the past while holding a vision of the future.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

With the afternoon came the relentless Australian sun, baking the earth and forcing Julie and I to seek shelter under the shaded canopies of the Earth Pod stage. San Francisco-based Cello Joe and his compatriot Tony Tone belted out quirky tunes about “Bike Girl Booties” and how much they loved vegetables, much to the pleasure of the good-natured crowd, who bobbed their heads, many sipping national brews like VB and Toohey’s New. I noticed how few Australians seem to wear shoes, a noble trait that I had adopted myself, attempting to get into the local spirit.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

The culture of egalitarianism also had a darker side, the “tall poppy” syndrome as Rebecca, my Australian-born friend, had revealed. In a nation founded by outcasts of The Empire, their ancestors had to adopt an attitude of necessary humility to brave the harsh and often epic spirit of this land. Yet even today, anyone who dares to stand too tall or too brightly, risks being cut down at the knees.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

But while at Earth Frequency, through well-attended workshops on everything from ecstatic dance to shamanic sound healing, to numerous acts of kindness (a special hat tip to the random fellow who gifted us fresh mango) and a reckless amount of hugging, I witnessed a genuine celebration of art and creativity and the willingness to transcend the cultural crutches of the past.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

Later that night, a Shiva moon peeked out from a ribbon of clouds. Julia and I caught the final tracks from Dub FX before he signed off. We headed for the village and the common areas were already buzzing with laughter, conversation, and storytelling. Eventually, we found ourselves in a blue-tinted teepee. A DJ continued nearby with a small crowd of diehards dancing. Three young festival-goers, a man and two women, were speaking and laughing near us. Eventually we struck up a conversation.  We learned the young man was 23 and recently back from a long trip abroad in Canada. He felt the significance of the journey and the truth that he was not still the same boy who left, even though his family and friends continued to see him the same light they always had. Now, he no longer knew where he belonged.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

“You crafted your own initiation,” I said. I recognized the mirror in my own story. I had done the same 15 years earlier when I was his age. Dissatisfied with university and nursing a broken heart, I had fled to the land furthest from everything I knew: Australia.

Suddenly, the young man recognized me as the speaker from earlier in the night. He complimented me on my talk, before becoming overly self-aware. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “This is my first time on acid.” The girls laughed.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

Our final day was a slew of music and art, silliness and sunburns. I drank lemonade and "got wonky" at the renegade stage in the campground. I delivered my second lecture to general acclaim. I danced to the booming bass of Kalya Scintilla , squished my toes in the mud, and watched the colors of the sunset bloom while the writhing throngs shed all inhibitions.

Earth Frequency Festival 2016 Ryan Lee 1

Photo by: Ryan Lee

I recognized a burgeoning culture approaching its own maturation, like many in the intentional festival scene, navigating the passage from adolescence to adulthood. If I could visualize the future of the global festival scene, I see these events embedding themselves deeper into society; they'd no longer be just a weekend escape, but a year round celebration of life and learning. I wondered how soon we'd be ready to collectively tune into that earth frequency.