Find out what happened when five of Phonica’s DJs headed off to Kala Festival’s debut event in the stunning coastal town of Dhërmi, Albania.
Kala Festival, the first international music festival to be held in Albania, promised us ‘An undiscovered paradise. A very unique party. A brand new world’ in their advertising. Quite an ambitious boast in their first year. On our third leg of the long journey to Dhërmi (following the flight to Corfu, ferry to Albania then a long night bus journey along the twisty road along the steep coastal mountains), we’d be justified in doubting it, especially as the weather forecast predicted thunderstorms all week. Tales of Fyre Festival and what happens when you bring a festival to a new, undeveloped place made us slightly unsure… the first year of a festival is always a difficult one. Expectations are high, logistical problems are many and to top it all off, this was taking place in a country still outside of the EU with a reputation (however misguided) for organised crime.
The happy reality, we are pleased to say, is that Kala delivered everything it promised, with a little extra magic sprinkled on top.
The Phonica crew were invited to be a part of this inaugural festival and just over 1500 people would be joining us, mostly Brits with a smattering of other nationalities and quite a few locals who took advantage of cheaper tickets offered to Albanians. Exhausted after the long journey from London, we arrived at 2 am just as Moodymann, the Thursday headliner, was getting things started. True to his style, he would occasionally jump on the microphone to ask “What up doe!” in his unique (and much-sampled) deep voice. His set was the warm, funk and soulful house-fuelled welcome we needed.
The next day, the morning sun showed us the stunning location of the town as 1000m high mountains provided a stunning backdrop to the town, tumbling down to the azure sea, dotted with pebble beaches used for Kala stages such as ‘Splendour’ or ‘The Cove’, decked out beautifully in plants, flowers, feathers and wood in an understated ‘Kala’ theme. The town itself is still a little rough around the edges with a lot of development and building work in progress – but the paradise heralded on the Kala adverts was just a short boat ride away.
Small speedboats took us the 7 minute-long, bumpy, exhilarating journey to Gjipe. When we first laid our eyes on the Gjipe beach and the stunning canyon rising up behind it, we knew we had come to the right place. Kala had set up a small DJ booth in the clearing of the forest which sat behind the beach, with the sounds of Brian Not Brian, John Gomez, Nick The Record, Jan Schulte (aka Wolf Muller /Bufiman) and Bjorn Torske amongst others echoing off the canyon walls. The soundtrack here was everything you would hope to hear on such a beach paradise, from pure ambient and Jose Padilla-esque classics of the early 90s, to warm, summery vibes (such as an edit of Marcos Valle’s ‘Estrelar’) and a soundtrack with a definite European 80s synth-pop feel such as Mike Francis’s ‘Features of Love’. At this point, Gjipe was the best-kept secret of the week, which got busier, the more people that found out about it, but Kala decided to keep it to a manageable 200-300 people per day, which was a wise move.
As the sun set and the night drew in, we headed to the main ‘Empire’ stage where we hosted our Phonica evening. Phonica DJs Simon, Sam, Alex and Callum warmed things up before handing over to Peggy Gou for the headline slot. Peggy’s set was very well-received, with lots of Chicago house tracks, a few classics and some of her own crowd-pleasing hits thrown in for good measure. Next up, Eris Drew, from Chicago’s Smart Bar was an inspired choice as she surprised all with her rave and breakbeat-led set, one of the highlights of the week. The Black Madonna headlined to the fullest crowd of the week, followed by London’s very own Jaye Ward who took control of the sunrise set. The crowd were friendly, up for a party and drunk on local spirits which were generously filled to the top of the glass.
The daily pattern was as follows: rising in the afternoon, shaking off the hangover on the beach with a chilled-out, Balearic soundtrack, all the while recharging before the night-time activities kick back in… and repeat.
On the Saturday night, three members of Hot Chip gave us a five-hour ‘Megamix’ marathon, featuring everything from Krystal Klear to Kelis’s ‘Millionaire’ with Lil Wayne thrown in and a dub of Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ as a finale. This was followed by Jan Schulte, with a sublime set of tracks such as the Flute-led Italian House of DJ Le Roy’s ‘Yo Te Quiero’ to a mix that shouldn’t go together at 5 am… but just DID… as he dropped the long, full version of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ segueing into the raw drum and bass sounds of Photek’s Ni Ten Ichi Ryu. On the Sunday, our very own Danielle rocked the Yacht club whilst the Secretsundaze duo of James and Giles gave us all those ‘sundaze classics, such as Joshua’s ‘Come On Over 2 My Place’ and ‘The Word Is Love’ before the generator gave out, giving us an impromptu crowd singalong before kicking back in again, much to everyone’s delight.
Other than that little outage, the production of the festival was superb. Due to the lack of surrounding residents, the sound systems were loud and clear, something most festivals (especially in the UK) struggle with. At Kala, you can swim as the sun comes up, just a stone’s throw from some of the best DJs in the world playing to a huge crowd. The locals were warm and friendly, as were the security. There seemed to be a pride in their town and their country, which culminated in a visit from the Albanian Prime Minister and his entourage as eight blacked-out vehicles arrived in the town. Originally from the area, he wanted to welcome the first non-Albanian music festival to the country and he even donated a pallet of local beer to partygoers as a gesture of goodwill.
As we headed back to Corfu, we passed Roy Ayers and his entourage arriving by ferry, on their way to close the festival. We can only imagine how well his ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’ anthem was received in such a picturesque setting. For those that were there to witness it – we envy you.
All-in-all Kala’s debut event was a huge success and we are already looking forward to returning next year – no doubt with twice as many people, as you just can’t keep a secret like Kala and Dhërmi a secret for long.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, faleminderit is thank you in Albanian.
We’ll see you at Kala in 2019!
Here are a few extra snaps, courtesy of Simon, Fran Hales and Kala Festival…
Words: Simon Rigg
Additional Words: Sam King