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The Tomorrowland Experience: Mind-Blowing Even If You Aren’t Into EDM

There is a reason why the Belgium music mecca tops global bucket lists and it has very little to do with BPM


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The main stage at Tomorrowland Belgium

At Tomorrowland, I discovered the magnetic pull of the humble bindi. My first few hours at the venue saw at least a dozen sociable (and high af) strangers at the festival greeting me with a spontaneous shimmy–“Hey, you Eendeeah right?”–accompanied with swift Bollywood-style neck and hand movements. All sealed with speedy selfies and Snapchat stories. Of course I relished the entertainment I spawned. Or rather the red dot between my brows–bought a few months ago in an oppressive Thane-bound local–did.

The previous day, before the festival opened its doors to the public, the visiting press was permitted to run wild at the scenic venue. You only had to set foot on the entry bridge made of wooden planks engraved with ubiquitous festival branding and wanderlust quotes to know you were in for some serious Alice In Wonderland-ing (brought to you by generous alcohol sponsors, of course). Earlier in the morning, the apples offered to us as a snack in our Tomorrowland shuttle from Brussels to the venue, Boom, bore impressive, presumably edible branding. Over the next three days, I would be savoring Tomorrowland Freshly Squeezed Kiwi Juice at the media center and wiping juice mooch with napkins bearing the Tomorrowland logo. The locks that secured our Dreamville camps were also branded, just like the highly sought-after cell phone power banks on sale at the venue. Toilet paper at porta-potty was left untouched. I got my first lesson in branding at Tomorrowland.

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The festival venue was a fairy tale picture of castles, bridges and water bodies

The premature perambulating on that Thursday caused more than its fair share of sensory overload. Blame it on the spooky beauty of the yet-to-be populated castles, secreted performance arenas, fairy tale bridges and a most magnificent fire-spitting dragon stage. The festival venue wasn’t even a ‘venue’ but more like half a town. Mid-way through this exclusive saunter across 16 stages, I found myself at the edge of what was a bay-shaped raised ground enveloping a wide land pit. In that recess stood the mammoth main stage–an Amazonian edifice with mini waterfalls and multiple tiers–of a scale that made the maintenance lorries ferrying equipment around look like rodents in comparison. You don’t quite know what production quality means till you visit Tomorrowland.

The first whiff

The theme for Tomorrowland 2016 was ‘The Elixir Of Life’, thus legitimizing the free use of vaporous adjectives to describe the fest, in writing and hysterical conversation–mystical, ethereal, magical, mythical even. I’ll try and refrain from using these here. At least till I get to the part about the funny guy in a skimpy bum-baring chambermaid costume ambushing unsuspecting (male) attendees. That was magical!

Apart from the sights and sounds, the smells at Tomorrowland were an experience in itself.  You got the first whiff of The Elixir when you checked into the campsite. With jasmine and lavender in the air, frisking was a cakewalk. And while the floral-headbanded staff finished check-in formalities, you munched on the free peaches placed on the counters. We were staying at the ‘Spectacular Tent’ area, an organized campsite with spectacularly pitched tents arranged in neat rows. But the majority of festival-goers, 36,000 to be exact, stay in Dreamville’s bring-your-own-tent space. That campsite houses everything from a bakery, butcher shop and supermarket to a tea house and post office (!).  The bustling food court there is a glutton’s paradise with every imaginable cuisine on offer.

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Flag capes were as common as crop tops at Tomorrowland Belgium 2016

Much like the football World Cup, Tomorrowland tests your knowledge of national flags. Given that almost 200 countries find representation at this Belgian EDM mecca and flag capes are as common as crop tops, identifying these national emblems can become an endemic OCD for GK nerds at the festival. Do not underestimate the frustration of standing behind a multi-national group of revelers, racking your brain to distinguish a Laotian from a Thai flag or a UAE from an Egyptian one.

That evening, an official opening party, The Gathering, was held at Dreamville, headlined by Dutch house veteran Tiësto. If this camp-side revelry was anything to go by (the venue filled to the brim in no time), the following three days were going to be quite an experience.

Day one

The first day at Tomorrowland makes curious meerkats of even the most seasoned EDM-ers. While its monstrous scale grips your attention at first, the best part about the festival is mostly experienced in the tiny details: moisturizers in loos, perfume-puffing crew showgirls taking care of your BO and entertainers stationed at picturesque spots solely for providing selfie company.

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The perfume-puffing showgirls of Tomorrowland

After tiring myself out doing two circuits of the entire venue, I parked myself at the main stage to watch a part of the daybreak session featuring Fedde Le Grand. The Dutch house artist shouldered the burden of kickstarting the party very well with his rather diverse set. It had everything from four-on-the-floor mixes of tracks by electronica biggies Axwell, Lukas Graham, the playlist-favorite Major Lazer and his own new and old stuff. Later in the evening, the stage also hosted Dutch producer R3hab who played to his strengths, putting out a formidable playlist of his hit tracks. Tomorrowland is not a place where DJs like to take chances experimenting with playlists, something which works wonderfully for the audience who get their money’s worth by watching their favorite artists in their (predictable) element. The flip side is that almost every second stage you halt at blasts “Lean On” by Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat MØ.

The most memorable sets of the day were at the Mau5trap vs Pryda stage which hosted artists like London tech house duo Pig & Dan, Welsh house DJ Sasha and Swedish techno producers Adam Beyer and Ida Engberg. EDM’s favorite rebel, the Canadian progressive house hitmaker Deadmau5 and his Swedish counterpart Eric Prydz played a captivating headlining set at the stage. The tracklist was quite the bomber with songs like “There Might Be Coffee,” “Imaginary Friends,” and the closing number “Raise Your Weapon.”

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Back at the main stage, Tiësto and his Swedish homie Alesso played the final two sets and proved why they are the big boys in the EDM game. Besides the stunning sound and light, their clinically precise playlists were compiled keeping in mind the capricious mood swings of the average festival-goer.

Another highlight of the day was when Tiësto had met with three Indian electronic music acts – New Delhi producers Sahej Bakshi aka Dualist Inquiry, Madhav Shorey aka Kohra and Mumbai funk-disco duo Madboy/Mink–as part of Budweiser’s ‘Journey To Tomorrowland’ campaign. They all chatted on camera about the scene in India, Tiësto’s upcoming projects, whether he personally listens to each of the millions of tracks people send him and stuff like that. Tiësto seemed like a really nice guy.

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The ‘Spectacular Tent’ area at Dreamville campsite

For the next three day, my two-km-long march back to Dreamville as part of a boisterous drunken exodus would involve a lot of singing, mostly vowel chants, delivered at the top of the lungs. Back at the campsite, the hubbub would continue, fostering newfound friendships and hookups. The venue town of Boom is known for its particularly moody weather, a glimpse of which was first revealed to us in the wee hours of day one when the sun gave way to a nippy shower as if someone had pulled a lever on it.

Day two

Tomorrowland is not a bad place to overcome body issues. That is because every morning it presents the crushing choice of bathing in open showers versus standing in a long queue for an hour to access a curtained bathroom. The ones who value time often always come back from the festival embracing their imperfect bodies. I chose to skip shower the first two days.

Monetary transactions at Tomorrowland are completely cashless and once you’ve topped up your wristband with ‘pearls’, the festival currency, you can pretty much roam without a wallet. While the festival isn’t obnoxiously expensive, it’s not too easy on the pocket also. I paid 12 pearls (almost 20 euros) for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and smoothie at the small food court within the Spectacular Tent arena.

Day two’s standout set, at least among overzealous Indian fans, was Kshmr’s. It was a catalog of some of the best work by the American DJ-producer. He played everything from his hits from 2014-15 such as “Kashmir” and “Jammu” to the more recent “Tsunami” and “Dharma.” Festival regulars The Chainsmokers, Yves V, Nicky Romero saw a packed main stage and it only got denser as prime-time slots were played by the likes of Afrojack, Dmitri Vegas & Like Mike and Axwell/Ingrosso.  I also managed to catch some exciting DnB artists at the Star Warz stage such as the Belgian duo Murdock and the Brazilian DJ Pedro Lima aka Level 2.

Day three

The tiny town of Boom, which loans a chunk of its picturesque land to Tomorrowland every year, is equidistant from the Belgian capital Brussels and Antwerp, the diamond city of Europe.  During the day, many festival attendees choose to take day trips to either of these cities, or the heritage town of Ghent if they have more time on their hands. Boom itself doesn’t boast of any historical/cultural attraction as such except the time-honored beer cafes at the town square. These are a must-visit if you love local brews. But what’s incredible about the town is that despite the influx of almost two lakh attendees every year, it displays no signs of distress. The streets remain exceptionally clean, traffic moves smoothly and locals display their support to the annual event by hanging Tomorrowland flags on the windows of their houses. I met an old Flemish lady whose house was the closest to the Dreamville entry who had handcrafted at least 500 tiny satin flowers to offer to passersby. She also told me about her neighbor’s daughter who, on the first day of the festival, sat on the sidewalk with an atlas spread out in front of her, requesting passing festival attendees to mark their countries on it!

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A Tomorrowland flag on the window of a house in Boom

Music wise, the festival saved the best for last. Dutch trance master Ferry Corsten launched a fierce daybreak session at the main stage which started filling up with people nice and early. Homie and 21-year-old sensation Oliver Heldon, who played a six ’o clock sprightly set at the main stage (blasting top tracks “Flamingo,” “Wombass” and “Gecko”) closed the smaller My House stage too, equally fantastically. The Pussy Lounge had its own thick party going with some intense hardcore courtesy Dutch artist Paul Elstak and The Viper. But for those seeking proper thrills, day three belonged to the main stage, which saw electro house’s current showmen manning the console one after the other — Swedish house duo Dada Life did their champagne-banana shtick while their American brother Steve Aoki obliged the crowds’ persistent ‘cake me’ requests. Aoki’s was also one of the most packed sets before the festival brought out its final prime-time game featuring Steve Angello, Martin Garrix and Dmitri Vegas & Like Mike. While Garrix began the build-up to the finale, streamers and strobes in tow, homegrown heroes Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike exhibited a most gripping, almost theatrical set comprising mostly their super hit collabs (“Hopa” feat. Kshmr, Tomorrowland anthem “Ocarina” with Woldpack etc) and some familiar obsolete chartbusters like Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Californication,” “Gasolina” by Puerto Rican producer Daddy Yankee. Add some more party pills by Dutch duo Bassjackers and Mike Posner and we had a finale shindig.

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They reserved their final 20 minutes to play a delicious vinyl set in tribute to Belgian and Dutch pioneers like Marco Bailey and Speedy J. All in all, a tight mix. And then came fireworks of a lifetime. No matter what your view on EDM might be, Tomorrowland lives up to its name of being a goosebumps-inducing, jaw-dropping spectacle.

As an attendee, it’s hard to not embrace the infectious cross-continental camaraderie at the festival. People are laid-back, super nice and if they’re crushing on you, they’ll come up to you and say it. They’re also generally very high and hence harmless. Sometime in the evening of the final day, Sven, a chatty shirtless “company worker”-turned-gardener who sneakily joined our tiny group and became friends with everyone before I knew it, sat me down and took me on a phone-photo tour of his landscaped wonders – tiny manicured front lawns with pretty hedges and shrubberies, and bonsais arranged on a window sill. Sweet guy but we declined his offer to join him at his apartment later. (“I got a vodka, got a whisky and I also got a room.”) He meant rum.

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The finale set at the main stage was performed by Belgian house duo Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike

Overall, I don’t remember seeing or experiencing anything shady during my four days at Tomorrowland–not counting an incident on the last day involving a hopelessly smashed fellow scribe who decided to drop his pants and roam the festival in his underwear for no good reason and almost missed the flight back home the next morning. At Tomorrowland, anything goes.

Photos: Courtesy of Tomorrowland

 

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