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Pines, polska and magic: Urkult Music Festival

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Photo: Danny Chapman/The Local
15:21 CEST+02:00
The Urkult music festival in northern Sweden may be less sex, drugs and rock'n'roll and more family fun, chai and polska dancing - but Danny Chapman says it's one of the most magical Swedish experiences he has had.

It couldn’t get more Swedish than this: A world music festival taking place far away from anywhere on a pine forested ridge overlooking a sweeping river valley below.

Approaching 40 years old fast, I thought my festival going days were long gone. The last festival I went to was Glastonbury in the UK, some 20 years ago. Even then the 100,000 people, squalid toilets, rain and mud were too much for my comfort-craving self to abide. Hence my festival avoidance ever since. 

Urkult though was unlikely to be Glastonbury. It is attended by around 6,500 people and is so far away from anywhere that it seemed unlikely to be too crowded and uncomfortable.

And so with some persuasion from my Swedish girlfriend’s cousin, who is a regular attender of Urkult, this time last year we packed the tent and headed north. On arrival we joined the cousin, his wife, three kids aged between six and 12 and their dog and went out into the forest among the pagans and fire worshipers.

For three days we listened to music from across the world and danced and camped among the trees with new aged dread locked types, circus families, ageing hippies, nudists and lots of regular families too. And although quite far from my comfort zone I had probably the best three days I had had for a very long time.

Urkult is actually held near a small village called Näsåker, where some 2,000 ancient rock paintings can also be found, in the province of Ångermanland. The village sits in the middle of beautiful green countryside and the festival site has a simply stunning location, surrounded by pine forest, with the main stage in a deep natural amphitheater like bowl.

And the campsites, all set outside the main festival enclosure, are a dream.  The one we stayed in was the “family campsite” and had toilets that were cleaned and restocked with toilet paper regularly and a kitchen area with stoves and microwaves. We could even use the nearby showers at the public swimming pool.

Another campsite was below the festival site by the riverside, with people here regularly sun bathing on the riverbanks, or swimming (and washing) in the cold but very refreshing water.

One morning, after waking up in our oven like tent, we took a stroll down here ourselves to cool off. The shock of the cold water though was not as shocking as seeing a handful of men and women strolling stark naked through the water towards me. Being among other Swedes, I hid my English prudishness and acted like it was all perfectly normal.

The “Drug Free Campsite” was billed on the festival website as “accommodation for people who abstain from alcohol and other drugs.” I was not actually aware though of anyone taking drugs at all during the festival. Perhaps no one felt the need to as this was indeed a natural magical experience.

None of the bands at Urkult are well known, but this helps add to the relaxed environment by taking away the usual need at festivals to try and see all your favourite artists.  And while some bands last year were frankly not that great, the majority were very good and the variety of music helped make it very special.

At the more bizarre end of the spectrum was a chanting Chinese outfit and a Ukrainian/Polish trio who played electronica music with the addition of squeaky multi coloured plastic toys!

But there was also some more conventional and wonderful traditional Swedish folk music, a Canadian blue grass trio who sounded straight out of the movie O Brother, Where Art thou?, a wildly energetic singer from Mozambique, a crazy Swedish klezmer band who had us all dancing in the middle of the afternoon in the hot sun, and the finale was a Swedish hip hop band.

Now, I am not much of a dancer but the mass Polska dance on the wooden decking in front of the main stage on the Saturday afternoon was one of the highlights of the weekend, especially for the kids.

And Urkult is an incredibly kid friendly festival. It is so super relaxed that children are left to wander about on their own, even to and from the campsites.

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At the entrance is a great playground with wooden climbing frames and circus like apparatus for kids to play on. There is also plenty of face painting and other specific kids activities going on all the time.

But the kids were also very much involved in listening to and watching the bands, with no one caring if a view was blocked by kids being on shoulders. The festival is so small everyone could see anyway and it was all just so nice with none of the argy bargy of the usual festival experience.

In fact the variety of people among the mostly Swedish audience also soon became a joy: from babies to pensioners, from far out hippies to regular looking people. All smiling and dancing, with some dancing in some very hysterical wacky ways, amid the trees.

The festival ended with another mass midnight Polska dance at the end of a long energetic weekend. Not long after the sun had magically set again through the tress and beyond the river below. The kids were still going strong but the adults were exhausted and only fit for a good night cup of chai.

There are still tickets available for this year’s Urkult festival which begins on Thursday, July 31st. Visit the website for more details. 

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