Review of the festival in the South African desert


Review: Return to the Source, the boutique festival in the South African desert

The Back to the Source The festival hosted an extraordinary Halloween party: From October 29 to November 1, Tankwa Town Private Nature Reserve in the South African desert hosted a festival of electronic dance music and art disguised in a post steampunk aesthetic. -apocalyptic. The lineup included local South African stage creators, such as Ian skene, Off road, and Sound language, as well as international acts from Germany, such as Andy’s echo, Sebastien zappa, Where Bellville. Although, by focusing on community and experience, the Spirits train – a collective which co-creates the AfrikaBurn – designed the Return to the Source festival to make it more than just a desert music festival.

The genesis of Return to the Source

The Spirit Train is an on-going music art project that has created a mobile-powered festival stage in a wolf-headed battleship. Yes, it’s a live music scene that actually hovers over the dry, dusty desert floor.

From 2014, the Spirit Train decorated the AfrikaBurn with its alluring aesthetic and progressive sounds. Since then, the Spirit Train has become as iconic for the AfrikaBurn as the Robot Heart for the Burning man in Black Rock City.

Return to Source: Vehicle transformed into a wolf's head

The Spirit Train mobile stage manager: Lobo

In response to the forced disruption of large-scale music festivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spirit Train has decided to hold the smaller Return to the Source festival in 2020. The Spirit Train team has been very deliberate in making Return to the Source. . Top priority: create a secure space based on community ethics.

The size, location, music policy, reservations, times and artistic performances were carefully defined to attract the conscious community that would foster the desired safe and intimate festival environment. As a boutique festival, only 800 tickets were sold with minimal marketing effort. Most of the attendees were AfrikaBurn regulars, while newbies like me had heard about it through word of mouth.

Return to Source Location: Tankwa Desert Town

Return to the Source occurred in Tankwa Town, a private nature reserve, about a four hour drive from Cape Town. Age-old cataclysmic environmental circumstances in the off-grid festival area gave birth to a pristine landscape of glowing volcanic stones, so far away that only the monumental mountain ranges on the horizon could end it. Entering the Tankwa Desert from the shuttle was like stepping foot on Mars.

Return to Source: Stone desert landscape.

The endless desert landscape of the city of Tankwa

Unlike AfrikaBurn, Return to the Source offered food and drink onsite, meaning festival goers didn’t have to prepare for self-reliance throughout the festival. However, the fully solar-powered festival area within hours of civilization encouraged an anti-capitalist lifestyle of self-sufficiency and sustainability. However, you can trust that someone in the community will give you a helping hand when needed. It was also guaranteed that someone would trade in some basic necessities for a performance of a song, dance or poem – classic Burning Man and AfrikaBurn fashion.

Musical policy: daytime relaxation scene versus progressive nighttime scene

Return to Source has designed its sounds according to its ethic of conscience and has reserved its DJs following the same paradigm. Music can be enjoyed from nine in the morning until four in the morning on two stages that work independently, not simultaneously, to keep the community together in one place at a time.

Return to Home: Festival scene photographed from above at sunset

The dam floor at sunset

The Dam Dancefloor was located under the scorching desert sun and inserted the audience into an extendable tent shielding them from the relentless sun rays. As a daytime scene, it relieved the audience in the daytime, usually starting with meditative gong sounds and atonal music. As the day progressed the beats became more rhythmic, infused with dubbed reggae or atmospheric downtempo.

Misused sunset bus with dancers

A misused bus that put the stage out of the way became the hotspot during sunset hours as it towered over the dance floor and the expansive landscape talking about the scenic departure of the sun. The jaw-dropping sunsets were usually accompanied by easy deep house or disco, dancing beats that made the audience go smoothly to the more progressive beats that would await them later on the other stage. The South African DJ Ian skene explained to us that,

Downtempo has a BPM similar to our heart rate, hovering between 60 and 80 BPM. This makes it a great rhythm to relax the body. Using beats in this way prepares the crowd for the evening, where the heart is exposed to frequencies of 120 BPM upwards.

Headlining of the Dam Dancefloor on Sunday Andy’s echo was a monumental moment for him and moving for the crowd. The German DJ and producer blew up the melodic beats he produces himself and topped them with spellbinding guitar hits and dreamy vocals in a stunning live set. He left the crowd stunned, expressing his deepest gratitude for something many of them said they had never heard or seen before. Addressing the crowd, Andy’s Echo said:

It’s my first time in South Africa – the first time in the desert – and it’s just surreal to play here. I need some time to reflect on all this… experience. Thanks for being here with me, thanks for dancing.

Andy’s Echo live set as the Dam Floor closes on Sunday

At 8 p.m. sharp each evening, the Spirit Train scene echoed a repetitive wolf howling in the depths of the desert, calling for spirits to come together for dancing under the vast night sky dotted with the Milky Way. The entire festival turned into a colorful wonderland at night, bathed in an epileptic spectacle of light and fire surrounding the circular main stage.

The wolf’s heart – the middle wagon – became the booth from which the DJs hammered more progressive beats into the audience. Genres ranged from dark disco, deep house and tech house to four-party techno bangers on the floor. The later, the darker.

Sebastian Zappa playing the Spirit Train fence on the Spirit Train stage

Friday night’s closing was played by Sebastien zappa, which made the chests of the crowd tremble under heavy melodic techno rhythms loaded with bass. He closed with the track “Walk with the elephants” through Ten walls, for which he garnered endless expressions of gratitude when he left the stage.

The South African trio Language of sound demonstrated impeccable technical skills during their live set on Saturday night. With a state-of-the-art setup of keyboard, synthesizers, effects, turntables and vocals, they produced magnetizing rhythms underpinning deep synth slashes and haunting vocals.

Most participants warmly welcomed the five-hour breaks after each closure to rest. Desert nights are as cold as the days are hot. These were the only hours it was possible to sleep, as the tents were unwittingly turned into saunas the moment the sun rose, making sleep beyond 8 a.m. a Sisyphus task.

Aesthetics and art at Retour à la Source

Beyond the deliberate selection of music, Return to the Source had a designated visual aesthetic. No wonder, given that it is an offshoot of the Spirit Train, which is at the heart of AfrikaBurn’s universe.

The organizers recommended packing list included costumes as one of the essentials right after a sufficient water supply, and attendees took this very seriously. Cylinders decorated with steampunk goggles were as common as rusty jewelry, extravagant fur coats with cropped sleeves, peacock feathers, and sandstone and chestnut colored veils and skirts. There was no shortage of BDSM infused lingerie and leather accessories either. Walking through the festival was like walking in the post-apocalyptic storyline of ‘Mad Max’.

Additionally, Return to the Source made sure to visually represent this steampunk philosophy in their visual configuration. In addition to the Spirit Train, they staged multiple gigantic steel installations in the desert and decorated the interiors of bars and other places for socializing in a cohesive style. This is what is possible when you bring together an amalgam of passionate creators from various disciplines and let them lose themselves in the abysses of artistic encounters with one another.

Challenges: A utopia for those who can afford it in a country marked by racial inequalities

Despite efforts to create a socially inclusive festival of all racial and ethnic identities, Return to the Source is still located in South Africa and inevitably reflects the soaring social inequalities in the country. As a country that only entered its post-apartheid era in 1994, it is still characterized by deep inequalities rooted in racial lines.

Hands on heart, the demographics of the festival are a fact, and the fact is that at least 95% of those attending were white. Return to the Source is not to be blamed for deliberately excluding people because of their ethnic identity. It does demonstrate, however, that the prize for participation requires a certain class privilege, a privilege that the majority of South Africans of color do not have due to centuries of racial exploitation and spatial segregation.

As a culture, electronic dance music aspires to promote the principles of social inclusion, non-discrimination, community development and interconnected humanism. However, to translate them into material practice, it must recognize the systems of oppression in which it is embedded and categorically challenge them. This would mean, for Return to the Source and other festivals, finding creative ways to ensure participation of those who want it but cannot afford it.

Retour à la Source returns in 2022 with the fall and spring editions

That being said, on a small scale, Return to the Source has brought community ethics and experience-centricity to the fore, making it more than just a festival of electronic dance music. On the way back, one of the organizers said they would keep the festival going, leaving it to a maximum of 800 people:

“The small size creates something quite magical, something intimate, and we want to keep the spirit like that.”

Return to the Source takes place twice a year: in the South African Spring and Autumn. The next edition will take place in fall 2022. Don’t miss your chance to pick up a ticket while they are available or email Mike from Spirit Train for more information.

Image Credit: Matthias London for We Rave You

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