Tales of Zen Awakening

written by Danny McColl Smith and Alyssa DiCaterino

photos by Salamander Photography

After going to so many festivals, you start to enter each one with minor expectations and an open mind to learn something new. It’s always an experience. Like last year, Zen Awakening 2017 was another unique transformational experience. We didn’t participate in the scheduled workshops or have tea in the tree house, but we did leave the weekend with new music, more knowledge, some interviews, interesting friends, and other points of view.


Danny: The layout was a little different this year, probably for the best. No real sound pollution existed from stage to stage. Middle Earth (main stage) had cool placement next to the food vendors and art gallery. I like the floor too because it was kind of slick and perfect for dancing and shuffling. More importantly, you could stand on the rail right in front of the speakers with ease. The bass to the face felt great. Notable performances at Middle Earth included: Ivy Lab, ill.GatesSonic ButterflyYheti (twice since Ott cancelled), Random Rab (who surprisingly is lanky), Space KadetJade Cicada, and EPROM.

Luckily our campsite was closest to the Incendia Stage which stayed bumpin all weekend. It’s honestly where I spent the majority of the weekend. Whether I was laying on the hill, watching people flow, or sitting in the geodome around the inverted campfire, the Incendia Stage was always somewhere to be. I thought it was funny that some guy started nursery rhyming to ill-esha with “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood”. Silly times. Notable fire acts at the Incendia Stage included: EsseksParty WaveAndy BruhExit 9Levitation Jonesill-eshaShantiTeriyaki Noize, and Laika Beats. 

Bhakti House and Heady.Made.Weird were the other two stages I only found myself at a few times. Brightwing‘s set had memorable moments at Heady.Made.Weird. I think the diverse set list and thin crowd honestly made the set more entertaining. Brightwing shouting out Britney Spears fans just before dropping a “Toxic” remix, watching a girl dancing up front most of the set with the killer dance moves, sitting on the random carpet having box wine in my mule mug, and a guy in an egg suit asking Jacob and I “Y’all trying to get scrambled?”

Alyssa: Backing up Danny’s comment about the new layout, the no sound bleeding from stage to stage was great. Each one was definitely in its own world, which did make it a little bit hard to find at times; but, just ask a neighbor, and they’ll help you. Hell, even the guys running the fest will give you a lift on a golf cart and show you where you need to go. Something I really enjoy and love about Zen is the intimate and carefree aura it carries. Like it’s totally cool to set up camp right in front of one of the stages. Where else can you do that? At least I’ve never been to a fest that you can. The Heady.Made.Weird stage was a pretty cool vibe at night. People set up camp right by it and were more than welcoming to all of us popping by. Perfect set up. Watch some sets from your bed next to a nice fire. Soundleake, of course, was my favorite performance over there.

I’m always a big fan on Incendia at festivals. There’s something about seeing a familiar face (or should I say stage) at festival after festival that gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. The surrounding hills and people flowing made a really great atmosphere. I have to give the crown to Mindex for my favorite Incendia set of the weekend. I also always appreciate the extra warmth the stage gives during these cold festival nights.

I’ll be real, I didn’t find myself at the other stages as much (given that I couldn’t find some of them until the last minute). I was just really drawn to Incendia (or maybe I was just really cold?). Like Danny said, it was bumping all weekend. I would decide to go exploring through the festival grounds and always ended up being caught up at Incendia.

Unorthodox Workshops

Danny: Hmm, things I learned at Zen. It breaks my heart to make a PSA about accepting snacks from strangers because I totally offer untainted (usually Starburst) snacks to fellow festies. However, shit happens. So ask before you digest snacks, especially if you happen to be offered at an APLSOZ show. Just saying… No one was injured that I know of, but I only mention the matter due to foul play.

Moving forward, there are a plethora of genuine people in the world who do take care of one another and try to spread positivity; I found out after my neighbors took me in for the weekend. We had several talks revolving politics, religion, time, etc. So much flow at Zen. I learned about the different flow arts, kendama (it looks like ball in a cup) being the newest to me. I heard some friends encouraging, “Get it Wendy!”, as she twirled a PixelWhip during Exit 9. I’m not sure if it was staff or POI, but my favorite was Friday night a guy had some flow that changed patterns the entire time. I never saw a repeat pattern but the stars were the coolest; apparently the flow has hundreds of patterns. People even flow with fans and I definitely saw a whip cracker. I decided gloving would be my choice of flow if any at all.

I learned about new alcoholic beverages. Siesta Key is some pretty smooth rum. And I shared several swigs of a godly Viking Blod mead from a stranger, it tasted swell. After hearing several “Tea Time!” calls from a neighboring campsite all weekend I finally stumbled upon other neighbors to have a cup of tea. Great idea. While having tea I met a pair of empaths, the opposite of a narcissists. I was shocked and mindblown to hear such people exist. It makes sense that empaths exist because unfortunately there are some heartless people walking the Earth. I found myself wandering the grounds with an empath strolling thru the art gallery and later at the burn Sunday night. I have mixed feelings that I didn’t get to burn anything. Time well spent though.

Alyssa: I say this to myself every time Danny and I do a fest together, I need to stick with him more. He always meets the most interesting people. Zen was filled with some really amazing and such giving souls. I appreciate every one that I came in contact with.

I, too, heard some serious foul play over the weekend. Some of us were even stuck outside of the festival gates and not allowed back in until they cleared out all of the emergency vehicles dealing with a guy who partook in too much and started becoming violent to the people around him. The matter was handled really quickly, and from what I could tell, professionally, so props to Zen for dealing with that!

I found myself in my head a lot this weekend, but in a really good way. I always appreciate and value the connections I make with other people at festivals, but this was one time where I barely spoke and made a connection with myself. Walking around alone at night, I found myself watching the sky. Finding a nice hill to plant myself on, I just admired the stars for a little bit. It was amazing. It was a really nice time to think, reevaluate, and plan for the future (something I haven’t had a chance to do in awhile). Definitely a nice breath of fresh air that was oh so desperately needed. Really getting into the drum circles and sacred fires is also a really fun way to just lose yourself for a second. It’s a little awkward (for me at least) at first, but once you’re in, you’re golden. A truly relieving experience. I also really got into watching people flow, and even got a little desire to start learning myself. I think it’s such a cool expression of art, and it seems like too much fun to do at festivals.


Danny: I encountered several people from the minute I set up camp at Zen. The college girl with a hectic life. The festival producer & DJ. The flowing Vegan couple. Someone going monk. Medical experts. Children. Newbies. DJ’s and producers. Artists of several expertise. I think there was even a dabber or two there. Minus the small mishaps we all still coexisted and provided for one another regardless of the labels and backgrounds that separate us. My point of view is that I had another great time at Zen. The festival is still young, but I have heard the gratitude from several people for what they receive at Zen Awakening. With more help, Zen has potential to be an amazing transformational festival for so many more people. Keep an eye out for Zen Awakening next year.

Alyssa: My point of view is that Zen definitely transformed me. I actually had to leave Saturday morning of Zen to make a shift at work, and had a not so great morning. I was really down about my day, and almost didn’t go back to Zen. I’m really glad I did though. That alone time out in the middle of the grounds, watching the beautiful night sky really switched around my mood. Helped me come to my senses about a lot of things, and made me realize what I need to focus on and what I need to leave behind (even if I don’t want to). Even with the main headliner, Ott, having to cancel due to illness, Zen didn’t let anything harsh its mellow. It is a young festival, but it has such a great atmosphere, great people, and I know it will go far.

Thank you Zen for the good vibes to last us until next year!


1 Comment

  • Domo says:

    My most intimate, most memorable experience I had at Zen was Zen. From the time of arrival to the time of departing. Every very moment was clear as day, to me. From the stress and struggle of preparation for the festival. Organizing the installation of several site locations. The badlands of the previous year, changed to the Buddha Hole. There were lots of compromises from 2016 vs 2017.
    This never stop or hinder the momentum we’ve genterated.
    For pre show setting up posted a few struggles and again we understood the flaws understood the land was 75% underwater. From hurricanes Erma, Maria and Jose. By the start of the show, the flood didn’t even matter. The festive goers didn’t even seem to notice. It was marvelous.
    One of my personal favorite acts was Sonic Butterfly. The build was especially interesting. From wires extending from the stage to a the end of the middle earth stage about 20 feet! A beautiful art, a beautiful harp!
    By the end of the fest Is leaked so many new skills, talents, ideas (even for next year!). The friends, family, and connection, as well drive I had the pleasure to work along side. Aiding in the site workshops we’ve made. Help paving the way to our Zen Awakening!!!

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