The debut Kala Festival introduced the Albanian coastline as a destination for music-lovers and explorers of fresh settings to party. From Wednesday, June 20th to Wednesday, June 27th, venues beach-side in Dhërmi hosted acts such as Moodymann, The Pilotwings, Maurice Fulton, Alfredo, The Black Madonna, Todd Terje, Hot Chip Megamix and Roy Ayers while revellers got the option to enjoy a daily wellbeing programme and special activities that took advantage of the location. Mike Barnard was there.
The debut Kala crew had been won over by the videos of beach coves and a measured line-up of house, techno, disco, soul and funk.
A new festival, in an unused location, in a country with little history of welcoming international audiences for events - there was much intrigue among the intrepid Kala-goers as I travelled to the festival. Far from being nervous or concerned about whether the event could deliver, the talk stemmed more from a sense of adventure and being among the first to discover what could be a new hotspot destination for European festivals. On the plane from London to Corfu, my travelling party bumped into our first fellow Kala crew who had been won over by the videos of beach coves and a measured line-up of house, techno, disco, soul and funk - though quite how it would all fit together was open for debate, even with a map of the festival site to hand.
After a drinks and World Cup break at a family-run cafe outside Corfu port where we sat among the owners and their extended family as the match played out on a TV hooked up to a street light energy supply, we boarded a speedboat to take us to Sarandë port in Albania. With the boat full of Kala crew only, the excitement was building, though that excitement was tempered on reaching Albania when we had to board a coach for a two-and-a-half-hour journey through the winding mountainous roads to reach Dhërmi, even if it was lit by a midnight moon glistening on the water. By the time hotels were reached it was gone 2am making for a long day of travel, however the music still had several hours to go so I made my way to the festival site.
Walking down to see how the festival site worked I realised that Albania was far more mountainous than I expected - the 10 minute walk down the steep incline was fine, but I’d regret not booking in at one of the numerous alternatives as I descended when thinking about the return leg. The Kala-exclusive area in Dhërmi was actually a takeover of a series of beach-side hotels, coves, restaurants, a nightclub/bar called the Yacht Club and a resort called Empire where the main stage was hosted (and will soon stand a hotel next door). It was hard to gauge how the spaces might work in the daytime, and, with a large bulk of people arriving on Thursday night, this was the wrong time to make any judgement beyond Empire where Moodymann was midway through his set. The wide beach had a stage facing out to sea and a bar with two levels overlooking the dancefloor. Behind the stage was seating area, though most seemed happier to rest up by the sea.
Moodymann’s set was eclectic, playing the Steve Miller Band’s ‘Abracadabra’ as we ordered our first drinks at the bar, then firing into some stomping techno such as Missing Channel & Robert Hood & Claude Young collaboration ‘Onslaught’ and beach-filling funk such as Superlover’s ‘Heart Drive’ and ‘W18’ by Cassius. A few of Moodymann’s signature shout outs on the microphone helped keep the bodies moving, though we spent most of the time chatting to the friendly crowd who seemed delighted to be getting first dibs on what was looking like a very promising set up, even if that walk to my hotel felt like I was conquering Everest.
The Black Madonna owned the night with a three-hour set that seemed to bring the whole festival together.
The bright sunshine and the promise of breakfast at my hotel got me up early. Poolside omelettes, feta, tomatoes and cucumber washed down with a glass of milk seemed the local tradition for a first meal of the day, thoroughly enjoyed with views over neighbouring hotels and out to sea. Walking down to collect my official wristband at the Kala info point in a restaurant called Luciano’s, it became apparent that the festival site was on a seaside road that was away from the main Dhërmi beach - a more typical tourist trap, lined sun loungers and umbrellas as far as the eye could see. The Yacht Club just inside the festival, and the first proper music venue, jutted out to sea with a bar, stage and roof but there was also a suntrap platform just above the water you could descend to, or even head direct to the beach, if you wanted to catch the rays.
Close to the Yacht Club was the aptly-named Beach Cove which would have music everyday as a cute spot to chill out, sunken from the main street and with trees overhanging part of the beach. The rest of Kala’s main stretch was a mix of sea-view hotels and restaurants before reaching the Splendor stage where the wellbeing programme of yoga, massages, sound relaxation and sound journeys could be enjoyed - or you could sunbathe and take in the music. I stopped at the beach to get take in the beautiful view out across the Ionian Sea with Itchy Rich at the controls and make some connections, then we decided to go on a bit of an adventure.
Some of the festival hotels were located to the north at Drymades so we decided to visit our far-flung friend staying there and watch the World Cup – a competition that would have a constant presence at Kala. This was one of the nice things about Kala - the festival organisers actively encouraged exploration, and in Drymades we’d find a host of restaurants and beach bars to tuck into tasty meat and fish washed down by white wine and espresso martinis. It wasn’t long before we were in the festival spirit - though as the evening approached and we headed back to the main site, there was the small matter of a visit from the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to take in.
Flanked by the Ministers for Tourism and Energy, the Rama told us how he hoped we would encourage our friends to visit Albanian on the back of Kala, as well as their mission to ban plastic bags. It was a slightly surreal experience to see a head of state endorse a music festival, however he clearly wanted us to have fun - he even sent us all free beers to enjoy on the beach on the Tuesday.
Back to the music and we’d have a fine evening getting warmed up with Peggy Gou at the Empire stage, then we got a dose of 1990s club classics from DJ Karl Karlson & Brian Summers in the Yacht Club as they blasted through hits from Alice Deejay, Dario G, The Bucketheads and Armand Van Helden before veering back towards more underground sounds thanks to Laurent Garnier classic ‘The Man With The Red Face’. We’d finish up back at the Empire with the techno, house, acid and disco of The Black Madonna who owned the night with a three-hour set that seemed to bring the whole festival together for a first proper dance ahead of Jaye Ward’s sunrise set.
Gjipe is one of the jewels of Kala.
A slower start to Saturday led to a missed breakfast replaced by a steak and white wine lunch overlooking the sea - a pattern was already developing. Today’s treat was a trip to Gjipe Beach, a space only accessible from Dhërmi by speed boat where resident DJs Bjorn Torske, Brian Not Brian, Jan Schulte, Jenifa Mayanja, John Gomez and Nick the Record were playing Friday to Sunday. We’d bounce over the waves thanks to an enthusiastic driver, taking in the offshore views of Dhërmi as we went, rounding the cliffs to find an idyllic beach with huge cliffs on either side. Once off the boat, we could crash out on the beach, hit a bar or walk into the crevice to find the dancefloor where Brian Not Brian was on the decks.
With a lot of greenery, the vibe here was very different - and the limited capacity made for an intimate atmosphere. We’d mix our time socialising under the trees surrounding the dancefloor and cooling off in the water, a highlight being the sound of Kraftwerk reverberating off the red rocks. We left noting that Gjipe is one of the jewels of Kala, yet it being open for only three days seemed a bit of an oversight. On Sunday there would be long queues as desperate revellers waited for boats to get to Gjipe again, or even for the first time. Perhaps next year Gjipe will have an extended run of acting as a lost musical paradise.
After a pit stop for food on Dhërmi beach while Germany played Sweden, we rushed to Empire to see Tom Misch who has been in the spotlight this year thanks to debut album Geography. Joined by a band, Misch looked to be having a ball with his mix of laid back beats and soulful vocals providing a sweet transition from twilight into darkness ahead of the five-hour marathon set from Hot Chip Megamix. Members of the indie-electronica five-piece as well as affiliates stepped up behind decks, synths and drum machines to produce five hours of tunes which of course included the odd homegrown selection such as ‘Flutes’, plus Joe Goddard singing live over his own release ‘So Much’ and smooth classics such as the M+M mix of ‘This Time Baby’ by Jackie Moore.
We’d finish the night with Jenifa Mayanja and Jan Schulte at Empire, the latter’s sunrise set perfect for chatting away to new friends before retiring to bed. Thankfully the local taxi drivers seemed to have caught on to Kala’s constant stream of people needing rides to their hotels so, for the first time, there was no need to walk up that darn hill – nor would there be again.
This new festival had hit its stride with guests having a clear idea of all Kala’s areas and how to get the most from them.
A kindly-timed England World Cup match against Panama meant Sunday kicked off with a trip to Luciano’s which was at capacity with England fans. A flattering scoreline ensured orders kept rolling in to lubricate the success of Gareth Southgate’s team on the field which, mixed with the euphoria of qualification for the second round, produced a turbo-charged hair of the dog situation. By late afternoon we were in good voice, stopping for some food in a Kala restaurant followed by a regroup in the Yacht Club ahead of kayaking. The near-constant sun and a shimmering sea made for the perfect conditions to get out on the water, and offered a unique perspective of Kala as we kayaked from the Yacht Club, past the Beach Cove and Splendor stages to find ourselves at Empire. Along the coastline we took in the various beats being played across each stage and there were plenty of splash battles had between kayakers to help cool off.
With the sun getting low, it was time to get to Empire for Todd Terje who veered away from any crowd-pleasing by playing a more headsy set that included J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science’s ‘Go To Work’, Radio Slave’s ‘Children Of The E’ and Djum Djum’s ‘Difference’. Those who had come for Terje’s own productions may have been disappointed, however the set was geared towards generating a consistently funky sound that didn’t rely on big hits for appreciation. Fellow Norwegian DJ Bjorn Torske, who had spent most of the weekend playing at Gjipe, followed ahead of Tama Sumo b2b Lakuti and Secretsundaze, but this was the one night music took second place to bar time as every part of Kala seemed to come alive. Perhaps it was the clue that this new festival had hit its stride with guests having a clear idea of all Kala’s areas and how to get the most from them. With two days left, this would be a real boon in getting the most from them.
It was a magic moment when a brief power cut during ‘Everyone Loves the Sunshine’ was masked by the singing from the crowd.
The mountainous backdrop to Dhërmi meant clouds were a constant in the sky, clustered around the many peaks, yet never threatening to cover the clear blue sky. On Monday, that changed as the roaring Albanian sun faced competition from what would be an eventful storm that night. After a sad send off for a few of our party who had made the last fews days such a fun ride, we’d sample a disappointing barbecue at Splendor - the only downer on what was a fine week of Albanian food - before checking out some techno from the guest DJs in the Yacht Club and a hip hop dabble from DJ Karl Karlson and Brian Summers at the Beach Cove. We’d get a few spots of rain for Roy Ayers’ closing set at Empire, but the cooling effect did not detract from his charismatic summery vibes. ‘Searchin’, ‘Long Time Ago’ and - of course - ‘Everyone Loves the Sunshine’ ensure the main stage had a fitting send off, a magic moment coming when a brief power cut during ‘Everyone Loves the Sunshine’ being masked by the singing from the crowd. Ayers looked delighted.
Monday night brought with it a dramatic weather change. We’d earmarked the three hours of The Pilotwings in the Yacht Club as essential listening and found their mix of disco, house, acid and techno flavours to be intoxicating. Favourites such as Orbital’s ‘Belfast’ and ‘Transitions’ by Jesus Nava kept us bopping away happily, unaware until a toilet break that the rain had progressed from a few light spots to a constant drizzle which could largely be ignored thanks to the heat. I spied the Menendez Brothers play speed garage classic ‘Gunman’ by 187 Lockdown at the Beach Cove where there plenty of dancers despite the rain, and would find myself back there after The Pilotwings for Maurice Fulton’s set which took in the vocal delights of Chicago’s ‘Street Player’ and General Johnson’s ‘Can’t Nobody Love Me Like You Do’ alongside the underground techno of Fast Eddie’s ‘Acid Thunder’. Eventually the rain would defeat us, though, and with only a beach towel for cover I’d find shelter at the on-site shop and a packed-out Yacht Club before drying off back at a hotel. There was still time to get down to the Beach Cove for a last dance to Bicep’s ‘Just’ as the sun rose for the final day.
A triumphant debut year for Kala.
Four full days in, Tuesday would be something of a rest day ahead of journeying home early Wednesday morning. This was made easier by Edi Rama’s gift of free beers to the festival being given away on Dhërmi beach, and we’d get one of our favourite meals at a restaurant tucked away in a corner of the festival with just a white board with a list of dishes on for advertising. Music took a back seat but the laid-back Ross From Friends jazz and funk at the Beach Cove was a perfect soundtrack to a white wine session. Later, balearic veteran Alfredo pulled on his vast knowledge to produce a set that included ‘I Refuse (What You Want)’ by Somore, Silicone Soul’s ‘Right On!’ and D-Pulse’s ‘Highway to Saturn’ alongside a Kala favourite, the DJ Koze remix of Låpsley’s ‘Operator’. It was the Tuesday night that the Beach Cove really showed its potential as a late night music space with a clear night’s sky, a moon reflected in the sea and the water just a stone’s throw from the dancefloor. I’d bid Kala adieu after Alfredo and take my final taxi up to my hotel ahead of the journey home in the morning.
Looking back, this was a triumphant debut year for Kala which showcased its potential by providing its intimate first audience with an excellent week in Dhërmi. The organisers will have learned a lot from the way the site is used by festival-goers, what their demands are throughout the weekend and what works on each of the dancefloors - but also how best to ease logistics across the week. Travel arrangements were largely done via Kala involving boat services from Corfu but it would be good for further ‘official’ options to be made available for 2018 to avoid bottlenecking those en route at Corfu’s port or causing extended waits at the airport on the way home. Equally, there was a lack of communication around music amends: the sets of Todd Terje and Roy Ayers were pushed back with only word-of-mouth to become aware of the changes, a stage change for Andy Blake was hard to learn about at 5am and it was a pity that the Underground Resistance showcase was pulled at the last minute even if it was reportedly out of the organisers’ hands.
That said, the real success stories came from Gjipe beach and a fine selection of music that felt so in tune with the surroundings that it created more of a holiday atmosphere than one of a festival geared at bouncing you around dancefloors to see 10 acts a day; instead the was a relaxed vibe at all times, and you could just soak up what Kala had to offer at your leisure - whether that be a wellness fanatic getting down to Splendor every morning, a sun worshipper on the beaches all day, a culinary hound seeking out the best fish or a pure dancer wanting to hear all the music. Everyone seemed to be a bit of all of those, and, no doubt having enjoyed the first Kala adventure, it won’t be their last.
Sign up for Kala Festival 2019 at kala.al. Images by Here & Now Photography.