This August marked a third edition of the highly anticipated, yet somewhat mysterious Waking Life. Many of the electronic music lovers have likely visited Portugal already, since it is home to the famous and grandiose BOOM, as well as the pure techno Festival Forte, to name a few. However, Waking Life seems to stand on its own with its broad focus (art, music, film screenings, debates, ceremonies and workshops for invigorating both the body and mind), majestic location, emphasis on active participation, intimacy and focus on sustainability.

The gathering takes place in one of the most deserted regions in Europe, inland Portugal, close to Crato. Regardless of the remote location, Waking Life was easy to access as shuttles were departing straight from the main airports and the operations were running smoothly. I felt I was in good hands. This was important, since I embarked on this journey alone, which I believe to be the best way to truly experience such gatherings. Not long after the journey began the reality as we know it started to fade, and the landscape became more and more desert-like, with sparser and sparser greens. Dust and intense heat welcomed us upon arrival and a nervous excitement was in the air.

Photo credit: Kieran Behan

The map, information leaflets, the programme and personal ashtrays were handed out upon entering. Everyone was relieved to find out that the water taps were to be found every 20 meters or so, and that the camping area was equipped with showers. Needless to say, that is of great importance when the temperature can reach 37 degrees. The logistics made these five days in the wilderness much less of a challenge than I expected.

Yet I have to say that as someone staying in a hammock I felt a little confused as to where am I supposed to camp. The area is enclosed and most of the tree constellations were either out of reach or quite close to the stages and other sources of organized noise. I eventually chose some noise over direct sunlight and quite a few other hammocks appeared around me. It has to be said that I have never had a more beautiful view through my ‘window’.

Photo credit: Alexandru Ponoran

The stages, venues hosting discussions and workshops, as well as the bars and eateries, surrounded the lake. With a few exceptions, the sounds coming from different sources did not get mashed up. Perhaps the most susceptible to this problem were the two spots hosting workshops and seminars, namely the Mapuro and Bapuro stages/tents (built 100% out of natural materials, mainly canes), which were adjacent. 

Thursday’s awakenings

But while this might have retracted some of the magic from the experiences, there was plenty of magic taking place there and my expectations were exceeded. The first discussion I attended was in Mapuro – it was a debate on the current state of journalism and how to save it. How can the media in the social media times be reinvented? Needless to say, I found the discussion compelling. 

Having found a comfortable spot and a pillow in Mapuro, I stayed for the following happening which was the Circle of Life masterclass, in which the artists of the Circle of Life collective (the opening ceremony of the festival, which I sadly was not able to attend) discussed their core interests and values driving their musical exploration. The discussion was followed by a hands-on seminar for those active in music production. Not belonging to this category, I went to explore the lake and the surrounding areas.

Photo credit: Colectivo Negativo

On my way back, when passing Mapuro an absolutely haunting smell lured me back in there. It was a full moon cacao ceremony. The drum and the repetitive chants, that everyone joined in to, were absolutely meditative and the most beautiful smell of some essential oils made me wonder why have I never sought out for such experiences before? The finale involved some repetitive martial arts-like movement. Although while occasionally bursting out into laughter because of the lack of breath or failure to tune into the rhythm, everyone kept at it. The gong accompanying this ceremony kept on giving participants energy. More and more people started running from everywhere and joining in. Every newcomer was surprised by what was taking place, but the commitment, energy and smiles of those already part-taking were so convincing that everyone else joined in. 

The following Four Tet set sounded better than any of his sets that I’ve heard before. I am pretty sure that the trance-inducing ceremony has contributed to this. It felt as if I heard everything anew. Four Tet’s selection sounded magical and even the tunes heard many times felt different. This was also my first appearance at the Outro Lado  stage and the happy faces and the sheer number of them filled me with joy. Ben UFO’s performance was also impeccable. As someone who almost exclusively focuses on DJing, Ben UFO is always guaranteed to provide the best dancing experience, which is also always a little unpredictable, as the man seems to be a walking music library. Everyone expressed their gratitude for sharing  contents of this library with their energetic dancing.

Photo credit: Alexandru Ponoran

After Ben UFO, I felt the need to explore the other stages and slowly strolled towards the Floresta stage at the other end of the shore to hear Raresh, who represented the famous Romanian minimal house scene. The Floresta was perfectly suited for the deep yet soft sounds of Raresh – big swings and an amazing light installation which turned the ground into a starry sky. It was interesting to experience such a deep and actually quite sharp base in house music. Raresh was the perfect warm up for what was about to come, namely DeWalta. The apparent continuity between their sets had to do with the aesthetic of unfulfillment, which is probably familiar to many from Ricardo Villablobos sound. Raresh and Villalobos are in fact no strangers, and have made appearances together as long as 10 years back. The early morning hours when DeWalta was behind the decks, was also a perfect time to dance as the sun was just starting to rise, and it was not too hot.

Photo credit: Kieran Behan

Friday’s awakenings

On Friday Map.ache’s (one of many artists representing Giegling in this Waking Life edition) playful sounds coming from the Outro Lado direction made all the people move towards the source of the sound vibrations from all corners and filled the ‘dancefloor’ quite suddenly. The set was invigorating, yet also very dreamy, and at times almost melancholic, but the overarching aesthetic was that of joy. This night Outro Lado also had the Potugese own Dexter and was promising to us who are techno-oriented. While the heavy base fuelled excitement to start with, it failed to fully keep the dancers focussed. The soundscape felt a little simplistic and lacked layers. Luckily, the artists that followed, especially Seth Troxler, added the missing layers and elaborated on Dexter’s sound canvas. Yet there was some lack of flow in the soundscape of that night, as Dexter set the tone for a rather heavy techno, and Seth Troxler, who is mostly known for his extensive knowledge of Chicago house, required the audience to re-tune. Some have succeeded, yet others fleeted. But all in all it was also nice to observe so much movement and the changing faces, as for some of those who had just arrived, Chicago house was their perfect cup of tea. 

Photo credit: Alexandru Ponoran

Given that it was only Friday and the shuttle will not come for me until Monday,  I tried to take it easy, but while going to take some rest I ended stopping by Bapuro and unexpectedly had one of the most beautiful experiences. While lying blindfolded on the pillows in the center of the surround sound system we were invited into a Legosonic Journey Into Sound. The ambient sounds crawling from all corners and the guiding narrative invited us to travel into an imaginary forest and a fantastical world, which our imagination created down the imaginary rabbit hole. Our senses were also awakened, with, for example, smells. This was a truly magical experience and people’s faces after taking off the blindfolds attested to that. 

Invigorated by this experience I accepted that resting was not to take place again and I slowly wandered towards the Floresta stage where Adiel was to play later. Various light installations were leading my way.

Photo credit: Amr Mohsen

My route unexpectedly took a diversion and I once again ended up in a beautiful experience, which was part of the secret (not enlisted on the program) event series. The night was getting chilly and the heat was pumping from one tiny peculiar venue and so was..classical music. It took a little while to be able to squeeze oneself in, but once in, you could see two DJs dressed in15th century costumes with a conductor’s baton running this show. The people were going wilder than anywhere else throughout the whole festival and singing along the Waltz and Mozart’s pieces while swaying sideways and later jumping up and down. Everyone left the tiny room sweaty and ecstatic. Turns out that quite a few unannounced activities took place throughout the gathering, however the exact location and the specific activities are perhaps better kept secret. It is the spirit of Waking Life to encourage discovery, and a necessary condition for discovery is naiveness. 

Photo cfredit: Colectivo Negativo

Some of the best experiences came around the corners, where I had expected them least! But at times it felt a little difficult to accept that one cannot be in all places at the same time and experience everything. However, the general being-present-where-you-are mode of the gathering resulted in a state of flow. This state was also easily achievable because the Waking Life experience lasted 6 days, and one was forced to slow down to not run oneself down. The soft ‘no phones’ encouragement has also undeniably added to disconnection from the concept of time. It was also both entertaining and a little frustrating that these unique experiences could not be communicated to other participants, who did not share the experience, at least in a way which did them justice. But it sure bonded those who were in the experience together.

I also managed to catch a beautiful one man guitar concert in the background of quite a moving film juxtaposing images and videos from the tribal communities and modern society. This resonated very well with the idea that the electronic music gatherings are attempts to reclaim these rituals and ways of connecting with each other. The guitarist was using loops of his, there and then recorded, guitar riffs and in doing so created a beautiful melancholic atmosphere.

Photo credit: Alexandru Ponoran

However, Adiel’s first sounds were already inviting to the Floresta stage and I had to leave the one man concert behind. Adiel got me smiling with that devious smile that only a great and really hypnotic techno set puts on my face. Her sounds almost certainly were the ‘darkest’ from the acts that made an appearance so far. This was an absolute journey from the start to an end and she sure knew where she was taking us. If you were within the reach of the soundwaves sent from her DJ booth, you had no other choice, but to take this ride. Even those who seemed low on energy at the start of her set were hypnotised by the atmospheric sounds and suddenly seem to have found that second burst of energy.

At this point the difference between days and nights, and so the different days on the schedule, became quite blurry. I embarked on a journey back to the other side of the lake using a man-power controlled ferry. At least four people were needed to move this ferry by pulling the ropes, and working toward this common and a little physically demanding goal with complete strangers was a surprisingly nice, and at times funny experience. Back in the Outro Lado stage that early Saturday morning, I managed to catch the end of Sa Pa and the start of Elli’s set, vibrations of which I could feel in the water while taking a refreshing swim. I can swear that I have never heard Fatima Yamaha’s gem What’s A Girl To Do mixed in so perfectly. It made me jump off the swings in the water, on which  I was resting my happily exhausted body, and briskly move towards the stage, where someone kindly shared their sunscreen.  Elli’s set sounded like the echo of all preceding joy and last night’s soundscape and was the perfect lullaby. 

Photo Credit: Amr Mohsen

Saturday’s awakenings

Saturday night was marked by another great performance of the Giegling crew, namely Koreander, better known under the alias of Konstantin. This change in moniker likely reflects attempts to dissociate from the name Konstantin, under which the artist has been accused of  making some sexist comments a couple of years back. This has received a lot of attention in the media, but it is also true that the media does often like to demonise more than it likes to open up for an actual debate and look into details, which might lessen the sensation. This point has also explicitly been made in a statement by Waking Life team in 2017.

While I think that this debate is very interesting, that night there was no time for pondering about this as Koreander delivered top notch floaty and atmospheric techno, which resulted in a crowd swaying with the music from the start to the end of the set, without any hesitation.  Looking at the starry sky and the full moon through the peculiar tree tops resulted in a diminished sense of ego. We were all this experience, this moment. It is hard to avoid clichés when talking about the feeling of unity with nature, music and the people surrounding you, but I felt it in the most genuine sense. It was hard not to belittle one’s problems, as it felt so obvious that they are so small compared to this world and the universe. We are all just a small node in this enormous tapestry. The ‘floor’ felt less chatty and expressive than usual at the Outro Lado and the atmosphere felt almost sacral.

Photo credit: Alexandru Ponoran

 The following live set of Giegling’s VRIL did not top off Koreaner’s sounds , and in fact it felt slightly disorienting and so the dancers somewhat lost the flow. However, this flow, albeit in a much softer sounds, was reinstated by Levon Vincent, who is the master of the dreamy and joyful melodies, and these sounds were greatly welcomed.

Sunday’s awakenings

The final night – Sunday – for many was reserved to Efdemin and Takaaki Itoh, who closed the Floresta stage. Efdemin is known to play rather versatile sets: some of my previous encounters with him were exceptionally slow and meditative journeys, while others were tailored more for energising the crowd and getting them to move. Efdemin’s appearance in Waking Life treated us to the best of both of these worlds.

The finishing touches in Floresta were marked by quintessentially dystopian Itoh’s aesthetic and sharpness. My suspicion that this aesthetic might sound a bit out of place in this utopian ‘island’ were not confirmed. If anything, it added what was missing  – it served as a musical allusion to a slightly darker side of human nature. Without these darker tones the picture of what it is like to be human would be incomplete. The trenchant sounds also served as a reminder that all the awareness and wakefulness aside, in order to make a difference we need to get out there and act and preach, but most importantly fight and be the change we want to see. It was a perfect closure to what has taken place throughout this gathering – a reminder that waking up to life, after all, should not get confused with falling asleep in the cozy utopian bubble we are capable of creating, when the best of humans gather together.

The thread of waking up to life was hence traceable throughout the whole experience: the music, the planned and spontaneous discussions, the ceremonies and enjoying nature. However my inner, very loud sceptic can never be fully silenced. I still keep on wondering if it is perhaps too late to change the world for the better or to even stop the matters getting worse. How compatible actually the hedonism is with sustainability? Sure, we can sort the trash and use environmentally friendly sunscreen, but what about all the cigarettes we smoke and so on? On the other hand it is perhaps better if we die trying, eh?

Photo credit: Colectivo Negativo

Philosophical contemplations aside, Waking Life was an incredible experience and attests to its’ name. Everyone who wants to broaden their musical horizons, to explore other forms of awakening, to simply make some unforgettable memories, enjoy the sun and water and expand their network, should clear their schedule next August for the Crato experience.

I am really excited to see how will the Waking Life project evolve. In terms of practicalities, it would be nice to see a designated hammock area and some lockers for the lone explorers, of which there were quite a few. I am very curious about the discussions, workshops and other little adventures that will take place next year, and I am pretty sure I will stop by Crato in order to satisfy this curiosity.