“Our philosophy is live and let live,” says Anton Shoom, the organiser of Yaga – one of Lithuania’s biggest counterculture festivals. “If you don’t hurt anyone, you’re alright; just do your thing, and that’s it.”
The ninth Yaga Gathering will be held on the shores of the Spengla lake some 60 kilometres south of Vilnius from July 30 to August 3 2015.
Over coffee in the old-town of the Lithuanian capital, Shoom explains to Music Export Fund that Yaga 2015 will, as it has always been, be about creating an international music event while spreading the message of tolerance and environmental consciousness.
He then begins to tell the story of the event, which started in the early 2000s.
“The idea for Yaga really began in 2001,” the easy-going and softly-spoken Anton explains between sips of his drink. “There was an event here in Lithuania organised by a German-Swiss crew, and it was called Crazy People. I think that explains everything about that event,” he says with a laugh.Fast-forward to 2015, and Lithuania is a vastly different country to back then; Dalia Grybauskaitė was a European Commissioner, the country was neither a European Union nor NATO member state; having been freed from the shackles of the Soviet Union for just a decade, this small Baltic country of 2.9 million people was back then, still relatively un-influenced by foreign cultures – a far cry from the cultural melting-pot Lithuania is slowly becoming for the better today.
Returning to the Crazy People event, and Anton, then around 20-years old still remembers the event as “fascinating.”
“It was a really inspiring and impressive thing, and there were more foreigners at the event than Lithuanians,” he enthuses. Unlike Yaga, which takes place during the height of summer, Crazy People was held in September for the Autumn Equinox.
“Sure, it didn’t happen in the traditional open-air season for Lithuania,” Anton explains, with a blatant disregard for the Lithuanian climate, which in polite terms, is unique at the best of times.
“Sure, the weather was cold, and it was misty, and it was raining, but that didn’t ruin the atmosphere! In fact, it added to it significantly and it was great. It left a really deep impression…”
The Swiss-German organisers returned to Lithuania in 2002 for a similar event, but due to not “understanding the local scene properly,” it ran at huge losses.
To Anton’s evident disappointment, Crazy People did not come back to Lithuania the following year.
“We heard the second [event] was the last, so we thought “okay, we’ll do our own version.” With a healthy dose of Lithuanian “can do” the subsequent organisation of what is now known as Yaga began.When Yaga officially started in 2003, it was called the Shambala festival, meaning a “mythical kingdom hidden in the Himalayas” because it reflected the event’s close-knit nature.
In a stark contrast to the 2,000 attendees in recent years, only a few hundred people knew of its existence in the early days. “For the first one, there were only 150 people and it was a financial disaster” Anton recalls candidly. “In fact, it was a financial disaster for quite a few years – we were young, and just simply not responsible with money,” he says with a smile.
“It wasn’t profitable for about 10 years,” he continues. “But we weren’t making it for that – it was just good fun.” It was during that decade, 2007 in fact, that Shambala became Yaga, a sanskrit word meaning spiritual re-birth. Another reference to the event’s spiritual nature.Despite the name change and increasing awareness of the event, the principles of internationalism, tolerance and eco-friendliness have remained constants.
“From day one, our idea was to make an international event in Lithuania, so how do you do that?” he asks rhetorically. “Well, you invite people from abroad, they go back, they tell their friends, and then they all return. That was our policy, and that’s why we were inviting lots of DJs and artists from all over the world.”
The idea of multiculturalism and music transcending borders are issues that resonate with everyone involved at MXF. Therefore, question of whether Yaga is a music export is an inevitability.
“To be honest, around 40 percent of our participants come from other countries, so I’d call it an export,” he replies. “I believe with the amount of foreigners participating, amongst them, we also invite organisers from events organised in other countries, so I think that helps to promote our artists.
“They go there, they listen, they meet, they talk and then they’re invited to their countries and get gigs elsewhere – that’s another of the ideas behind Yaga.”It’s clear the idea of embracing different cultures is an important issue to Anton and Yaga. It seems appropriate to question him about the environmental aspect of the gathering.
“We wouldn’t have started with the initiative if we didn’t believe in it,” he says almost incredulously. “We were strongly inspired by other festivals in Europe such as Boom Festival” – an event that has won seven awards for eco-friendliness over its 17 year lifespan.
At Yaga, there is a no chemical-based soaps/toothpaste policy as not to not pollute the Spengla lake, and in addition to other eco-conscious rules, littering is very much a no-no – respect others, and respect your surroundings.
Why, then, is such an ethical topic close to Anton? “Our possibilities for this kind of thing are quite limited,” he responds. “Infrastructure wise, at least. I mean, the communal services [in apartment buildings] don’t really want to sort your rubbish – it all ends up together anyway, so then the whole point disappears…”With the conversation steering towards ethical matters, it’s worth observing one of the key elements of Yaga is an absence of sponsorship or advertisements from large multi nationals. The food, drink and attraction stands are all small, local Lithuanian businesses.
A unique idea. Why?
“It’s all based on admissions and people’s input,” Anton explains matter of factly. “People buy tickets, and then that’s it. Of course, shops contribute etc, but we are not sponsored by anyone like Red Bull. It’d ruin Yaga’s independence a bit, actually.
“Whoever gives you money always wants something back, so they’re going to squeeze the most possible out of you to get the most back. I’m not against companies sponsoring events, but with our event, it just wouldn’t work.”
For Anton, it’s clear that money is not the principal driving force behind Yaga. It’s more about the building of a community which is improved aesthetically and musically year-on-year, as a result of the profit from ticket sales being re-invested.
“All the money goes into inviting more artists and making the festival better,” he explains. “Every year we have more art, more artists, better installations and better lights and decor. If you go, you’ll see what I mean.”On the subject of finances, the discussion of whether music, like all arts, should be treated as either non-profit or a business, crops up.
“I don’t think it’s a one-way question,” he laughs. “For some people, music is a business and that’s their way. For others, it’s a hobby – I think that’s fine, too. In terms of musicians who come to Yaga, some we invite, and some of them ask to play – if you ask to play, you want to be part of the event, so it depends. If we started paying everyone large amounts of money, then it becomes very risky.”
Refer back to Yaga not having big-budget backing, and the decision makes complete financial sense. Anton also explains that within the subculture, the emphasis is more about expanding spiritual horizons, rather than wanting any financial gain – a concept he strongly identifies with.
“If we get a headliner, we ask them their conditions. In fact, I always ask people their conditions because you never know whether they want any money.” “In fact,” he points out, “there are a lot of people in this subculture who want to travel and see different cultures – that goes for me, too! Sometimes, if I’m invited to do the decorations for a festival in somewhere like Lebanon, I’ll happily go there without being paid my usual fee.
“What an opportunity!” he enthuses. “It’s not often you get invited to Lebanon or Brazil or whatever, is it?”And with another rhetorical question hanging there, it seems a good time to switch the voice recorder off and finish. We shake hands, exchange some small talk, and it’s clear Anton has given me plenty to consider.
Amidst sifting through those thoughts though, it’s clear Yaga is a very special event and Anton and Yaga’s principles of being nice, acting respectfully and “live and let live” are really not difficult to live by, are they?
Official website – http://yaga.lt
Yaga on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/YagaGathering
Photos by Matas Astrauskas – http://www.matasphoto.com