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Seven days in paradise: KALA is providing the blueprint for the festival-holiday hybrid

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With a mouthwatering underground line-up, and a holiday package offering that rivals most luxury resorts — Albania’s KALA festival provided the best of both worlds for its fifth edition

  • MEGAN TOWNSEND
  • 3 July 2023

In the last five years, shots of Dhërmi’s rugged white cliffs, untouched forests and crystalline sapphire waters have become as prominent on the Instagram feed of any dance music fan as the sunsets of Ibiza or the rocky beaches of Croatia. This tiny village with a population of just 1,800 has quickly become one of Europe’s most lusted-after electronic festival locations — playing host to Anjunadeep Explorations, ION, and soon, the newly-announced Siso. Though it is now firmly on the radar of any brand wanting to offer the perfect festival in the sun, Dhërmi was a little known tourist destination five years ago – with a season that lasted just “one month,” according to the Minister for Tourism.

KALA, Albania’s first international festival, arguably introduced the world to the country’s festival potential. Its first edition in 2018, headlined by the likes of Peggy Gou, Moodymann and Underground Resistance, was met with shining reviews and a plethora of social media posts displaying its immaculate waters, friendly locals and picturesque landscape. Promising a range of wellness activities, once-in-a-lifetime excursions, mouth-watering cuisine by day and a raucous, buoyant music offering by night – featuring the best in house, Balearic, disco and everything in-between – it’s no wonder that in the year following, it was affixed upon “must do” lists of dance music lovers across Europe.

As shown by Outlook/Dimensions in Croatia, traditionally – five years on from its first year – KALA should be reaping the benefits of being synonymous with the festival paradise it has discovered. Though, due to two cancellations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it celebrated its third edition last year amid an already competitive calendar for Dhërmi. 2022’s edition sold out, even with an extra 1,000 tickets added to its capacity. But with the Cost of Living Crisis impacting even more well-off music fans, and four other festivals in its home to measure up to — would KALA’s fifth edition be as much of a success?

Read this next: Review: Kala Festival’s spectacular setting elevates its flawless music

Upon arrival in Vlorë County, the beaches look as full as ever, and Dhërmi’s tiny strip of hotels and resort complexes seem to be abuzz with people gearing up for seven-days in the sunshine. There are two ways to get to this somewhat isolated slice of nirvana from the UK — either a flight to the nearby Greek island of Corfu and then a short ferry across the Ionian, or a four-hour drive from Albania’s capital Tirana. We opt for the drive, which while beautiful, can become brutal in its final throes — though admittedly as soon as morning breaks, and you tear back your curtains to catch a glimpse of the steep mountains on side and the endless horizon on the other, it feels worth the slog to ensure this place remains untouched. This is a consistent theme throughout the festival’s four days, any inconvenience at the remoteness of Dhërmi is easily outweighed by how charming that distance from the bustling cities inland makes being there. Despite the influx of eager festival-goers, Dhërmi’s restaurant-owners, shopkeepers and taxi drivers still move in a relaxed, friendly manner, as if this was any other week on the Riviera.

Of course, this isn’t just any old beach festival. KALA has earned a reputation for the near-endless list of activities and excursions available for its attendees – and this year is no different. Alongside the extensive list of yoga and wellness classes, partygoers can book a poolside massage, a hefty selection of spa treatments, breathing classes, beach boxing, waterfall hikes, dance classes — and, for the true holiday huns, there’s even a class where you can drink prosecco and do some painting. For 2023, the festival has expanded its roster of talks and workshops, covering everything from psychedelics to the evolution of European dance music. For the full holiday package, KALA has added a fine dining experience from caterers Awakened Table — and of course, it will continue excursions to its pride and joy, Gjipe — a breath-taking, 800-metre canyon that hosts a number of sets across the week. All in all, KALA can easily rival the up-scale resorts of the White Isle in its holiday-meets-nightlife offering; I’m sure many festival-goers will be wondering how they are going to fit, you know, the actual festival in.

Stage-wise, KALA hasn’t changed things up much from its 2022 edition, with four main arenas: The Empire, The Splendour, The Cove and The Yacht Club. The first two, where much of the “main stage” action takes place across the week, are named after the hotels they sit beneath — with Empire kicking things off in the evening with a selection of live acts and Splendour roaring to life as the sun goes down. The Cove on the other hand, appears to be a bit more of a 24-hour affair — dishing out a complementary backdrop of chilled out sounds for daytime sunbathers, before hosting some of the heavier offerings through the night until sunrise. The Yacht Club, located at the festival’s entrance, acts as a dock to catch speed boats to Gjilpe during the day, but turns into a raucous beach club by night.

Each stage is unique, and they most certainly would be alluring in-unto-themselves. So it’s a shame when the smaller Yacht Club and Cove appear to fall foul of some underestimation of crowd habits. With the two main stages being much closer to each other at the Eastern end of the beach, the crowd rarely seems to stray away from The Splendour and Empire. With the Yacht Club at the opposite side of the festival, many of the night-time sets at the stage have a sparse crowd — despite a stellar bill featuring the likes of Jennifer Loveless, Jamie Tiller, Mafalda and more. Similarly, during the day, the beachside Cove plays host to some unmissable performances: Charlie Dark, Jaye Ward, a live set from Barker. However due to – what I can only assume is – beachgoers’ preference to be frolicking in the water while the sun is still out, their sets are met with a muted response. It’s more than slightly distracting when, as Ostgut Ton-affiliate Barker gets deep into the smooth synths and enigmatic breaks of his set, a lifeguard is frantically blowing on a whistle to get those in the market for an illicit evening swim out of the water.

Read this next: 20 of the best beachside anthems from Kala 2022

The line-up this year appeared to build on KALA’s foundation of disco, Balearic, Italo and a luscious helping of Panorama Bar-esque house — with a few outliers. I.JORDAN, who typically lies more towards the harder, faster sonic palette, takes to Splendour on Sunday evening with an array of high-tempo bangers in their bag – including a raucous Missy Elliot edit, before some raw, certified pumpers from Sally C — in what must be quite an experience for anyone rolling straight from a moonlight gong bath. Likewise Joy Orbison – who plays for an extended five hour set on Saturday – doesn’t really appear to have gotten the easy breezy memo, shelling out some downright naughty bassline and UKG cuts to the perplexed, albeit, thrilled throngs at The Empire stage.

There were unexpected treats in store from the KALA faithful too, CC:DISCO has a thousand bodies moving in unison as she closes the Empire Stage on Thursday evening — flanked by an array of colourfully dressed dancers in oversized feather hats. Not enough to have brought the house down on the second night, the NTS resident took over on-site restaurant and hotel Chilli’s for an impromptu knees-up. It’s hard to imagine anything more vibey than hearing Dave Lee’s remix of Samuel Jonathan Johnson’s disco banger ‘You‘ while eating a bowl of pasta on a packed, evening dancefloor. Much of the crowd is so lost in the dance in fact, that they barely notice a balcony above accidentally spilling an entire table of drinks over them in their excitement over a well-timed Ricky Martin drop. A b2b between Hunee and Antal brings a surprisingly heavy edge to the Empire Stage on Friday evening — as the pair warp through acid-tinged, space-age house and sharp-edged bass. While NYC powerhouse and The Lot Radio resident Gabrielle Kwarteng’s b2b with the equally imitable Music From Memory co-founder Jamie Tiller on Monday dishes up a rowdy serving of hip house and scuttling synths. There’s not a scowl in the house as Elevatorman’s ‘Funk & Drive‘ trickles out of Gjilpe’s four point soundsystem, while the metallic bass of The Drum Club’s ‘Alchemy‘ seems to bounce off the canyon walls and straight into the pit of my stomach.

The Splendour saw its own share of standouts of course. Despite the early doors billing, Grace Sands delivers a light-hearted offering of euphoric house and sexy club cuts on Monday evening. Yu Su opens her set on Thursday evening with a bouncy edit of Lumidee ‘Never Leave You’ – a declaration of intent for the next three hours if there ever was one. Of course the bié Records boss doesn’t let us down from there, effortlessly manoeuvring between grindy house kicks, squelching acid and cacophonous percussion — utilising the likes of Moktar’s ‘North Africa‘ and DJ Plead’s ‘Salt and Pepper‘. Though it isn’t till Saturday, that we really see all bodies moving by the beach — when Rhythm Section affiliate Paula Tape takes the decks, and has even the bar staff scrambling onto the bars to dance. After cranking up the tempo with Laguna’s ‘Spoiler From Rio‘, she elegantly weaves in the synths of Ian Pooley’s ‘Close Your Eyes‘ — mixing the decadent old school rhythms of River Ocean ft. India’s ‘Love and Happiness’ into the full-throttle shuffle of Cool Jack’s ‘Just Come‘. “This is all the best types of house,” my friend shouts breathlessly above the beat, and I cannot help but agree.

Of course, in any balancing act between jam-packed day time experiences and a programme that goes on until 6:AM — it appears that many KALA attendees struggle to make both happen across the week. From around 7:PM until 1:AM, on most nights, the stages are far less populated, particularly at The Splendour stage – which is located a distance away from any of the site’s restaurants. Similarly, it looks like the organisers have also taken a balancing act in appealing to both those who want to dance, and those who want fill their days with boxing classes, dining experiences and spa treatments; the crowd seems somewhat unfamiliar with who is playing outside of the main headliners and household names — instead, enjoying the ambience of house music gliding through the evening air. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, as KALA’s dancefloors become less and less animated as the week progresses, there’s a noticeable shift in the festival’s energy. Outside of those legendary sunrise sets, for which KALA has become famous (which are admittedly just as fun and vibey as they look on social media) there are few people singing along with tracks or raising their hands dancing. It’s rare to catch many people lost in the music, or smiling in recognition to a banger. Maybe it’s because the dance music fans have ensured they are around for the sunrise so are emerging much later from their hotels? Maybe it’s because after a day hiking the crowd are just too knackered to swing their limbs to Chicago house? Regardless, it takes the shine off some of the festival’s best music offerings; It’s difficult to be immersed in the hypnotic percussion of Paquita Gordon when everyone around you is at a standstill, immersed in chatter or taking pictures of the moon.

Read this next: Irresistible spirit: Albanian DJs are working tirelessly to put Tirana on the dance music map

But likewise, the “resort” feeling also adds significant advantages to KALA as a festival. The on-site restaurants mean that, unlike the majority of beach festivals, attendees aren’t limited to a handful of food trucks or a 30 min walk to a tiny shop off-site for sustenance — the food is really good, and being well-fed at seven-day festival is, quite honestly, worth its weight in gold. Similarly, the fact that the staff are all working in conjunction with each other, instead of disparate contractors and vendors, means there’s a clear line of communication between everyone, and though “family vibe” is a difficult thing to label any sort of money making venture with, it really does make the overall mood brighter when there is a sense of camaraderie between those working here. Upon first approach to the festival, a number of signs reading “Don’t Be A Creep” in both English and Albanian are visible… and, as a woman who goes clubbing in London and sees those kinds of signs regularly, you will forgive me if I scoff. However, for the first time I think ever at a festival I was asked on multiple occasions by security if audience members had bothered me, I could see out of the corner of my eye as they kept watch and gave silent warnings to attendees they thought were stepping out of line. The effort to, at the very least visibly, make you feel safe was tangible.

KALA festival employed its tried-and-tested formula of combining well-built, intimate stages, an expertly curated line-up of underground house aficionados and once-in-a-lifetime holiday experiences to great effect for its 2023 edition. Proving once again why the Albanian Riveria, and Dhërmi in particular, has become such a haven for sun-seeking festival lovers. Though, with a number of other festivals now taking place in its home, maybe it’s time to shake up the formula just slightly. By ensuring that enough bodies are moving on the dancefloor — with a unique line-up and a balanced offering of side quests for those wanting to get the most out of their vacay, KALA will ensure that it remains a festival/holiday, not the other way around.

Early bird tickets for KALA 2024 have sold out. Didn’t get your hands on one? Sign up for 2024 tickets here.

Megan Townsend is Mixmag’s Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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