Article written by: Adam Alloy (Guest Contributor for Festival Squad)
Photo source for all photos: Big Doofa Photography
Every year for the last twenty two years the weirdest, wildest weekend warriors of Australia dust off the clothes they keep hidden in the back of their closest and transport to a world of pure imagination. Located two hours from Melbourne, on land originally belonging to the Dja Dja Wurrung and Wadawurrung Peoples, the Rainbow Serpent grounds have the stunning beauty and unquenchable heat only found in Australia. There is a wonderful meeting of worlds: everything from hippies to leather freaks, old people smiling alongside kids, hard core doofers sharing the dance floor with straight edge folks. There are always options for everything: music, food, variety shows, people. I’ve never been at a festival with such a divine smorgasbord of food at such a reasonable price: dumplings, Thai, BBQ, vegan, burgers, seafood, and even a free dinner hosted at the Aboriginal camp. Once the music kicked off it never stopped. Even at six in the morning there were artists from around the world on three stages.
Each stage has it’s own charming orchestration. When I first saw the Sunset Stage on Friday with it’s towering black obelisks, undulating blood red rose, and bone shaking subwoofers my mouth refused to shut and all I could say was “what the f*ck!” The Market Stage is shaded and equipped with enough misters to water the Garden of Eden. Daytime boogies there allow you to escape from the oppressive summer heat. The Playground feels like stepping into a circus high top. Their music always has a completely different vibe, often the exact fix I was craving. Then of course there’s the Main Stage, which I’ll get to in a minute. Then there’s Fiasco, the alternative art extravaganza which could have anything from a grim reaper wielding a flaming scythe with a blaze taller than a person to a bizarrely awful train wreck comedy show so terrible it was impossible to look away to disturbing pornographic images protesting the dehumanizing industry to a glittering New Zealand break dancer giving hilarious life advice via a handstand.
It seemed like every other person I talked to at Rainbow was a volunteer, either working at the info booth, artist relations, trash crew, or one of the dozens of food stands. Many of these volunteers had been coming for years and enjoyed their festival completely sober. One very unique thing about Rainbow Serpent is there are no alcohol sales. People are free to BYO as long as their alcohol does not come in a glass container. The attendees of Rainbow are absolutely gorgeous, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many attractive people in one place. There are talks and workshops all day on topics ranging from safe partying to yoga to constructing movable sculptures. The sunrises and sunsets are out of this world gorgeous, people gather by the hillsides in droves to appreciate these small daily miracles. There is a chance to meet wonderful friends and fall in love around every corner.
The main stage of Rainbow Serpent is only open for 24 hours, inviting everyone to have a unified experience and reinforcing the ephemeral nature of the event. The opening ceremony was intensely tribal with Aboriginal dancers, mother tongue language, and music to remind everyone whose land we were on. Rainbow Serpent falls over Australia Day Weekend, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet to colonize and conquer Australia. There is a growing protest movement to abolish Australia Day. The Wurundjeri speaker in the ceremony called it Invasion Day and led thousands of people in an Aboriginal chant with our fists raised. Dancers covered in little more than paint shook up dust from the earth as their feet pounded to the percussive consonants of a language almost eradicated by the British. The Dja Dja Wurrung speakers told their Rainbow Serpent story. Their tradition speaks of Mindi, a Dreaming being holding the forces of creation and destruction, elements of light and dark, feminine and masculine energy that reflect our inner and outer worlds. This dance was open to Festival patrons to learn earlier in the day and join in ceremony making a modern day rainbow of people dancing the serpent into balance. As the setting sun painted the clouds glowing hues of amber and amethyst something happened that could be described as nothing short of magic. A brief rain fell an a rainbow larger than life itself filled the sky. The blessings of life were upon us.
Best Sets of the Weekend
Enough about the festival. Here are my picks for the best sets of the weekend.
Following the much appreciated ceremony of Indigenous Australia, it makes sense to have Aboriginal musicians open up the main stage. OKA were like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard, a grooving high energy mix of tribal and modern music styles that could only be found in Australia. I had never heard a digeridoo played at such an extremely high level of musicianship meshed so well with dance and dub music. Much thanks to virtuoso player Digeristu, the heart and soul of OKA. The main stage visuals were a mix of animated Aboriginal art and next level psychedelic animations. The set had such an intense groove to it that the stomping of the audience was on par with an earthquake. The highlight was definitely vocalless remix of the Beastie Boy’s Sabotage, which had all the energy of a Rage Against the Machine and all of the love OKA had to offer. This is one band that needs to make its way to the American festival circuit.
For the final gathering darkness that comes before dawn there was no music that could have been more perfect than Brazilian enigma Altruism. She stood behind her decks and cast black magic into the crowd, transforming each body into a frenzy of motion. Her brand of psytrance is not relentless and unyielding, it is dripping wet with an infectious groove. She keeps the BMP high and the people happy, everyone was lost in the boogie and the crowd was an endless sea of neon doof sticks peaking through the dust. Altriusm is following up her performance at Rainbow with an epic tour de force at Luminate this week.
Megapixel lived up to all the hype and expectations, delivering a booty shaking smile inducing nonstop groove session. She played a difficult set time, a 730-830 Main Stage slot where only the most dedicated party monsters would still have the energy to tear up the dance floor in the rising heat of daybreak. Her modulating high energy throbbing funky stabbing synths were like being beamed up in an alien spaceship where extraterrestrials have their way with your body. Carefully crafted rolling triplets and excellently timed breaks invigorated the dance floor, turning what would otherwise be a graveyard full of sleepy zombies into electrified early morning Frankensteins. It is no small feat to keep the party going hours after dawn, praise Megapixel queen of the doof for upholding this awesome responsibility.
Handsdown and Leighboy
Handsdown and Leighboy are the DJs mostly likely to blow up from the Victoria underground this year. They have been throwing down killer sets at festivals across Australia for the last few months – everywhere from Strawberry Fields to Bohemian Beatfreaks to The Pleasure Garden Festival. Their sunrise set at Rainbow is the crown jewel in this year’s landmark tour. Handsdown and Leighboy spin incredibly chill progressive tech house. Much of their production is experimental and the way they build and drop is anticipation and pure joy. Their music has all of the energy of marching into war and all of the release of orgasm. It is infectious and possesses you like a demon, every head was nodding and every foot was stomping. I could think of no better way to face the Sunday dawn then with this duo in my ears and a lover on the dance floor.
Kodiak Kid was the most anticipated daytime performance for the first day of the Market Stage. This man spins sounds into pure bliss that strikes at the soul of everyone in the audience. Kodiak Kid knows no boundaries of style, blending everything from drum and bass to hip hop to downtempo together fluidly. Despite early technical issues every single person in the audience was getting down. The Australian heat was so wicked it fried some of his equipment but as an audience member I hardly noticed. The Market Stage is centered around a billowing shade structure with unending misters which made our royal grooving pleasant and delicious.
My Baby played a siren song which drew wandering ravers into the Playground, away from the glitz and glamor of the Sunset Stage. Inside was a psychedelic dream bathed in glittering red. Guitarist/frontwoman Cato van Dijck channeled pure sex from her burning licks and electrifying voice and the audience was craving and insatiable. There is an modern electronic deviance to their old school rock and roll, something that unites the past and present into entirely futuristic music. Their songs felt like a DJ set seen through the lens of rock stars. I could not believe how turned on and tuned in My Baby’s music made me feel. The Dutch Kiwi family band tours the world bringing exhilarating chaos to dimly lit dance floors in every remaining bastion of counter culture.
No set brought me as much joy as Monkey Marc’s set of the most jamming hip hop, digital roots reggae, and bass heavy boom bap. His set was a welcome dose of the different, something that would never hit the Main Stage but drove every person in Playground to the limits of how the human body can get down. People were bouncing around as if they had been hit by a bolt of lightning, swinging and dancing with silly smiles and love in their hearts. His heavy hip hop shook our bones and our souls. Monkey Marc doesn’t even use a computer for his productions, preferring to make his tracks the old school way. According to Vice he produces all his music in a shipping container somewhere in Melbourne and has been fighting for indigenous rights for two decades.
You won’t see any of the wonderful art or culture of Rainbow Serpent reported in the mainstream media. All you will see is stories about how dangerous the festival is. It has acquired degree of notoriety that is not deserved. For a festival that has been going on for over twenty years with almost twenty thousand participants, it is extremely safe. Known issues are addressed to the best of the organizer’s ability. Seven people required outside medical attention, which makes up just .0004% of the participants. With the adoption of pill testing the festival could be made significantly more safe, however the Victoria police and politicians oppose these measures for reasons that baffle me. Information about safe partying is available all over the festival, both at talks and in informative charts. Despite being described as a hot bed for sexual assault, statistically it is no more dangerous than the rest of Victoria. Two incidents were reported during the five day festival. Although this is absolutely unacceptable it should be noted that there are about 13000 sexual offenses in Victoria in 2016, the home state of Rainbow Serpent, averaging 35 a day. Virtually no major newspaper reported on sexual assault over Australia Day Weekend in Melbourne, but there is a spike in assaults and domestic violence over the holiday that leads me to believe there would be a spike in sex crimes as well. I imagine downtown Melbourne a more dangerous place to be over the same period as Rainbow. The festival also directly tackles the issues instead of sweeping it under the rug. They have a safe space called the Nest for victims of harassment to access counseling and medical attention. Anyone accused of assault is ejected from the festival and blacklisted, never allowed to return, and legal action can be pursued if the victim choses. The Melbourne Cup, another national holiday in Australia, sees a spike in domestic violence and cocaine abuse yet major media outlets do not demonize this holiday the way they demonize Rainbow. In fact statistics about it’s dark side are hardly reported, and the horse races are glamorized.
To sum it up, Rainbow Serpent is a cultural celebration of oneness with vibrant music, arts, and performances. Everyone tends to be respectful to one another, consent is key, and it is a place where people can truly be free for a few days every year. There’s something for everyone, whether they indulge in substances or not. Many people I met were sober volunteers who worked tirelessly to keep the event running. Everyone was hydrating and you never had to walk more than a minute to refill your water. Camps are regularly 30 people strong and the same people come out and camp together for decades, reuniting and strengthening near familial ties. Rainbow Serpent brings peace and love to thousands and is a boom for the economy of nearby Lexington. If the world had more Rainbow in it everyone would be happier.
Photo source: Big Doofa Photography