The three-member electronic band Balkan Bump mixed loops and beats with trumpet, clarinet and traditional Middle Eastern instruments like the stringed oud and an Armenian wind instrument called the duduk on a recent Saturday at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds.
Projected on the stage behind them was a digital psychedelic backdrop of undulating colors synchronized to the melodies.
This is the California-based group’s first time in Alaska. That’s also true for many of the acts that performed at the first-ever Sacred Acre music festival held in Ninilchik, in early September.
Maz Karandish is a multi-instrumentalist with Balkan Bump. He’s Iranian-American and grew up playing traditional Persian music.
“I am all about bringing those sounds and the music of the East and Near East in a way that is inviting and relatable to West Coast’s American festival culture,” he said. “It’s really the mission because I see it as a form of cultural preservation.”
Balkan Bump was just one of over 20 acts that performed at the Sacred Acre Festival. The event was centered around one genre of music: electronic dance music and the subculture that embraces it. According to organizers, the festival was the first of its kind in the state.
The three-day gathering was held at the same location as the popular Salmonfest music festival, which aims to protect salmon and the watersheds that sustain them. Sacred Acre has a similar conservation mission in mind: to advocate for healthy Alaska fisheries.
Festival organizer Chris Miller said that after paying off the festival’s initial investments, future proceeds from Sacred Acre will be donated toward bringing attention to the effects of trawling bycatch in the Bering Sea.
Miller, who moved to Alaska about five years ago, has been throwing raves in Colorado and New Mexico since the mid-1990s.
“I fell in love with bass and electronic festivals in Colorado,” Miller said. “So I’m just a longtime fan of it and wanted to bring that to this state.”
And he landed on Ninilchik, a community of about 800 people on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Kelly Lyon is with Camp Unicorn, an intentional festival community that she founded with her partner, Cale Laces. The couple lives a mostly nomadic lifestyle, living and working remotely from a converted van.
Lyon said Camp Unicorn was formed to create a safe space for festival goers, offering a community kitchen and bar, heaters, costumes and an art space.
“My partner and I host this space, but the community really brings it in and brings it together,” Lyon said. “It’s community-driven.”
Her partner Laces wore a homemade faux-fur Cruella De Vil dalmatian jacket, otherwise topless in neon reflective booty shorts, sporting a long red beard. Laces is a burly guy, which is a pretty comical contrast to his outfit. But while his costume is playful, his message is serious:
One part of Camp Unicorn is providing test strips for the synthetic opioid fentanyl and distributing Narcan kits, which are used to counteract opioid overdoses in emergency situations.
“We partnered with an organization that distributes these [kits] from Project Hope, which is to help counteract the tide of fentanyl overdoses that we have going on,” Laces said.
Alaska’s fatality overdose rate spiked over the last year, according to the state’s Department of Health, a trend largely driven by fentanyl. Overdose deaths in the state rose from 146 in 2020 to 253 in 2021, according to the department.
Altogether, about 30 Narcan kits were donated to Camp Unicorn for the festival weekend. Volunteers with the camp were trained on how to conduct tests for fentanyl and how to administer Narcan.
Lyon said she only tested one sample over the festival’s three-day weekend. After testing what a festival-goer was told was the drug ecstasy, they found that it contained fentanyl.
“A lot of people have said they feel a lot safer knowing that these [kits] are available and around,” Laces said.
Safety at the festival was a major concern to more than just the Camp Unicorn folks.
Miller – the festival organizer – said a full security team and medical staff was on site in case of emergency. The local EMS also showed up to assist. He said there were 16 helpers who wandered around the festival grounds keeping an eye out for anyone in need.
According to Miller, there were no major medical incidents, but some nearby neighbors complained about the late-night noise. Each evening’s performances didn’t typically wind down until 6 a.m. the following morning.
“We really tried to create an after-hours environment to control the campgrounds and keep the sound away from the houses,” he said. “That didn’t quite turn out right.”
Overall, Miller considered the festival a success. He said around 2,500 people, including the vendors and volunteers, visited the fairgrounds for the weekend. And over 300 of the ticket sales came from out of state.
“I think we put Ninilchik on the map in the electronic world,” he said. “The electronic world has a lot of sway and a lot of people. We’re here to stimulate the economy and help save the Bering Sea’s ecosystem.”