Katie Thomas travels to Albania's stunning Ionian coast for Kala, the country's first international music festival.
If you, like me, find it hard to imagine Theresa May dropping into a UK festival, then imagine my surprise when the Prime Minister Of Albania and the Minister For Tourism arrived in Dhërmi, a beautiful seaside town on the Ionian coast, to learn about the inaugural edition of Kala. On the Friday of the week-long festival, Prime Minister Edi Rama spoke about the preconceptions people have of Albania. "It's like going to prison and finding a five-star hotel," he joked. "[Albania] is like the forbidden fruit… Take a bite and you'll want it all the time."
From the locals and the staff to the national press and government officials, every Albanian I met was immensely proud to be hosting Kala, the country's first international music festival. (So proud that, on the final day, a palette of Albanian beer arrived on the beach, a gift from Prime Minister Rama.) Run by the team behind Snowboxx, Kala got its name from the Hindi word for "art." With a capacity of under 2000 and a handful of stages dotted along an emerald coastline, it felt like the start of something magical, perhaps similar to the free-spirited beginnings of The Garden Festival in Croatia. The crowd, which was predominantly British, was equal parts silly and respectful. The Macarena, the limbo, pebble fights and twirling parasols were all spotted on the dance floor, and when the music stopped each morning, the last ones standing clubbed together to clear the beaches of rubbish.
The production had a cute DIY feel. Courtesy of Adrienn Peterffy, who works with Secretsundaze, the stages, built from reclaimed wood, were decorated with beads, flowers and feathers. The lighting was simple but effective. Warm pinks and blues swivelled over the dancers, punctuated by the occasional strobe. Around the main stage, Empire, palm trees glowed green. Raised decking, normally a waterside restaurant, housed a bar area that looked over the pebbled dance floor. Flowerbeds lined the pathways, freshly planted at great expense especially for Kala by the mother of the restaurant owner.
During the festival's more downtempo moments—Tom Misch's rendition of "Movie" or Roy Ayers' jam session—people sat by the sea as it glittered in the moonlight. Standout performances at Empire included Or:la, whose set stuck with me for its distinctive, percussive style, and Hot Chip's five-hour Mega Mix marathon, which encompassed everything from Krystal Klear and Madonna to Lil' Wayne and KiNK's "Existence." In one of the most interesting sets of the week, Eris Drew served up ravey synths and breakbeat drums, reaching for darker cuts like Ebb's "Raiders."
Beach Cove, another crescent-shaped pebble beach, had a raised DJ booth that looked out to the water's edge. The space came into its own on the final day. Ross From Friends' live show at dusk was a blissful moment, the sky milky as the band performed soaring renditions of "John Cage" and "Wear Me Down." Later, the dance floor peaked for the storied Ibiza DJ Alfredo, who delighted the crowd with cuts like Silicone Soul’s "Right On!" and Jamie Principle's "Baby Wants To Ride (Rubb Sound System Remix)." His inclusion in the festival felt fitting—earlier, someone had coined Kala "the rebirth of Balearic music."
A few minutes down the coast, Yacht Club, a covered deck built into the sea, boasted stunning views. During the day it was a cocktail bar, before transitioning into a dance floor at night. The sound was generally strong across the site, but here it fell flat, feeling abrasive and occasionally distorted. That said, Noff Weezy delivered one of my favourite sets on Sunday evening. Over the course of two hours, the Athens-based DJ mixed acid, '80s Greek synth and Chicago house with bassier cuts like Neana's "Lilin" and Ca$h Bandicoot's "Imma." When she closed with "Supermodel" by Rupaul, I whipped out some regrettably questionable dance moves.
Inevitably for the first edition, there were a few teething issues. The lengthy boat transfer and party from Corfu to Albania led to the logistical nightmare of getting hundreds of drunk people onto their assigned coach. The afternoon music programming suffered from sparse attendance. Kala was a festival and a holiday, so in the daytime punters made the most of the fresh seafood, cheap local beers and various activities, including a wellness schedule, kayaking, pedalos and hair-raising boat trips to Gjipe, a beach accessible only by sea. Overall, though, Kala ran smoothly, and it was lovely to see the team working so closely with the residents. They hired a sustainable tourism consultant during the first phase of planning, to integrate the festival into Dhërmi's summer season rather than imposing upon it. Many of the hotels wouldn't have opened until July, so Kala helped widen their window for business.
The jewel in Kala's crown was Gjipe, a breathtaking untouched beach at the mouth of a red stone canyon, which stole much of the festival away on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Stepping off the boat into sparkling turquoise water, it was like landing on another planet. DJs like Jenifa Mayanja, John Gómez and Nick The Record sent cosmic beats ricocheting off the canyon walls as you wandered through the trees, following the music. Beyond the grassy dance floor at the foot of the cliff, where people lolled about in swimwear and fashioned fern headpieces, you could adventure up the riverbed to a waterfall with a plunge pool.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Moodymann's familiar drawl—"How y'all feelin’ out there?"—echoed across Empire. Somewhere between plays of Debbie Jacobs' "Don't You Want My Love" and Paranoid London's "Eating Glue," I asked Kala's director, Alan Crofton, how he was feeling now everyone had arrived. "I've blown myself away," he answered in disbelief. After a week in paradise that the DJ Brian Not Brian described as "life-affirming," it's safe to say that the festival blew us all away, too.
Photo credit /
Here & Now Photography