‘When the sun has risen, the party goes on’

Tom Lawson heads to Sunrise Celebration festival to see how it combines a party atmosphere with the chance to be part of a sustainable community

Even before arriving, I could see that Sunrise was going to be a different. Glancing out of the bus window, a number of solar panels and wind turbines appeared on the hill as we approached the festival, a 100% renewably powered event based at a 200-acre organic farm near Bruton in Somerset.

Now in its seventh year, having taken place on 21-24 June, “the goal of the festival is to create a microcosm, over four days, of an alternative way of living,” Sunrise Celebration press officer Katherine Ritchie told me. “It’s not a festival where people come just to get really munted. People can come to Sunrise and get a glimpse of a way of living that’s not so harmful to the planet.”

Sunrise is also about wellbeing and providing a space for people to explore spirituality. And so the usual ordeal of carrying armfuls of gear to a festival’s camping area was made a little easier by the feeling of calm throughout the Serenity field as I passed tipis and yurts providing yoga and mediation sessions. Topping this off was the stunning view across the Somerset countryside from the festival’s purpose-built stone circle.

Unfortunately, a traditional festival downpour interrupted the mood and soon turned the site into a mud bath. The rain continued on and off until the final day.

But under a large canvas, the Chai Wallahs stage led the music on Thursday night with Hidden Orchestra’s two live drummers getting people’s heads nodding to their electro-jazz, followed by some relaxed reggae from Resonators and a breakbeat and dub DJ set from Rackabeat and Barlow.

Over at the Bimble Inn meanwhile, a lively crowd enjoyed the upbeat ska music of Duncan Disorderly and the Scallywags, who ended their set with the apt lyrics of I Love the Beach: “When the sun has risen, the party goes on.”

Friday had a lot to offer across the festival’s 13 music venues. On the Spit ‘n’ Sawdust stage Sashi and the Wild Beans got the crowd welly-stomping to their blend of ska and soulful grooves, while John Fairhurst’s blues rock trio ignited a hoedown-like atmosphere in the Bimble Inn. Even a brief power cut couldn’t deter them; the crowd huddled towards the stage to listen before the speakers kicked back in and the tent erupted once again.

The Chai Wallahs tent at Sunrise Celebration 2012, which hosted some of the standout performances of the weekend. Photo: © Mark Falmouth

The main venue, the Carnival stage, saw Warsaw Village band unleash some dramatic eastern European folk before dusk fell and The Imagine Village lit up a now waterlogged field with a mix of traditional and contemporary folk music, including a sitar-infused “bhangra-morris” epic. There was more innovation at Chai Wallahs where Dizraeli & the Small Gods’ energised the audience with their unique, melodic hip hop.

As the Carnival stage closed on Saturday because of the weather, it left a bit of a gap in the musical line-up, although some acts such as Slamboree with their Balkan rave music accompanied by circus performers, were able to move to other stages.

A chance to share and learn

But this of course was a festival not just about the music. “It’s the gathering of lots of little pockets of community that are all part of the larger alternative scene,” says Katherine. “It’s a chance for everyone to come together, celebrate and share information. Lots of people come here to learn different things while still having a great time.”

With local and organic food and drink available throughout the site, compost toilets, a thorough recycling system, and a festival programme directly encouraging the open expression of ideas, the event is a testing ground for holistic, sustainable living.

Throughout the weekend the Green Talks Dome provided an excellent place to discover more about some of the ideas behind the festival’s ethos. After having lived without money for more than two years, Mark Boyle delivered his ‘moneyless manifesto’, exploring the idea of a gift economy. Unlike some other talks, which tended to reinforce the audience’s values, Mark challenged people to commit to action to re-examine and back up their ideals.

“It’s a chance for everyone to come together, celebrate and share information”

Adding to the boundary stretching, on Saturday night ‘creative catalyst’ Jamie Catto presented a revealing workshop designed to uncover and transform your inner critic.

Practical activities were on offer too. Stephanie Hafferty, who had created a beautiful vegetable patch for the festival, gave a demonstration on no-dig gardening, while in the crafts area there was rocket stove making, bowl carving and pottery. On Sunday I tried a laughter meditation session in the Serenity Yurt. The group started off practising different fake laughs and feeling a little daft, but by the end our sides were splitting and we were left feeling thoroughly invigorated.

Sunshine and smiles on the final day

There was some superb music in the Chai Wallahs tent to close the festival as the sun finally came out on Sunday. Urban Folk Quartet set a joyful mood and by the evening the crowd’s spirits were peaking as Yes Sir Boss gave one of the performances of the weekend. Their tight, energising set left the audience chanting their name before they returned for an encore with horns blazing, guitars skanking, and their catchy vocal lines on the lips of what was largely a home crowd for the 6-piece from nearby Bristol.

The stone circle at Sunrise Celebration festival. Photo: © Positive News

When Mankala took to the stage, all mud and rain was forgotten as their African-influenced roots music saw smiles beaming throughout the audience. ASBO Disco then closed the night with some bass-heavy party tunes.

Concluding the programme in the Green Talks Dome, Satish Kumar offered the packed tent his vision of a world based on the values of soil, soul and society, which summed up the festival’s ethos nicely. My weekend ended equally fittingly with a trip to the stone circle to listen to some songs around a fire and watch the sun come up with strangers who had all become part of the Sunrise community.

A muddy festival environment might not be the perfect example of a fully functional utopia (the doors temporarily blew off a few compost toilets on Thursday night), but Sunrise is signposting us towards what’s possible. With the festival team planning to eventually acquire its own land to create a year-round “showcase community,” Sunrise is allowing people to discover how we can live in harmony with the Earth and all things upon it, while having ridiculous amounts of fun. I think that calls for a celebration.

Hannah and Luke, Liverpool

What made you want to come to Sunrise?
Hannah: “We’ve been helping work on the décor.”

What’s been your festival highlight so far?
Luke: “I think Seize the Day. They’re an environmental activist folk band and were really good.”

What do you think of the festival ethos?
Luke: “It’s really nice to have a biggish festival that has all these little positive things going on.”
Hannah: “Yesterday we went to a talk in the Green Talks dome on no-dig gardening and now we’re going to one on natural cleaning products so it’s a good place to learn all that kind of stuff.”

Lyn, England

What made you want to come to Sunrise?
“My daughter decided she wanted to go to a festival. She’s 15 years old now, she’s always hated festivals and all of a sudden she changed her mind this year. I think it was to do with a boy.”

What’s been your festival highlight so far?
“I think it’s all absolutely brilliant.”

What do you think of the festival ethos?
“I love the fact that that they’ve actually managed to do 100% sustainable power sources this year. It’s fantastic.”

Vincent, Manchester

What made you want to come to Sunrise?
“A few of my friends were coming and I thought why the hell not, it’s meant to be really good. So here I am.”

What’s been your festival highlight so far?
“Probably sitting in the tipi by the stone circle. They serve chai tea and have a fire. Last night they had some poets and had a good ceilidh going on later too.”

What do you think of the ethos of the festival?
“I like what they’re doing. I think anything towards recycling and using common sense is great.”

Dave and Stacey, Penzance

What made you want to come to Sunrise?
Dave: “We thought it’d be good for the family.”

What’s been your festival highlight so far?
Stacey: “Today when it stopped raining! We’ve only managed to see The Imagined Village so far but we really enjoyed them. Oh and I went to Jamie Catto’s workshop last night and it was great.”

What do you think of the ethos of the festival?
Dave: “I’m all for it.”