Vibe Check Review: Hulaween Cultivates Vibrant Free-Spirited Community in Florida Swamplands

Love was in the air at Suwannee Hulaween 2019

Author Note: “Vibe Check/Sound Check” is a two-part review series/podcast that analyzes concerts, festivals, and other musical events. The Vibe Check portion is solely dedicated to painting a picture of the event’s “vibes,” a word millennials and Gen-Z loves to use that Oxford Dictionary defines as “the atmosphere of a place as communicated to and felt by others.” The Sound Check portion will detail and review every aspect of the event’s musical performances, from the artists to the audience.

From the high school students of Suwannee attending their small town’s big festival, to the silver-haired superfans of The String Cheese Incident making their annual cross-country pilgrimage, everyone who attended Hulaween this past weekend faced the same fundamental question: would they hold themselves back from expressing themselves freely out of fear of being judged by others, or would they leave their insecurities at the entrance gates, step out of their comfort zones, and escape to a spiritually liberating society where everyone lives true to themselves without fear of judgment, if only for a few days.

In all honesty, it’s a concept that sounds a little hippie-dippie to, well, just about any human being who thinks about it for more than five seconds, but Suwannee Hulaween and their genre-infusing founders, The String Cheese Incident, have been changing lives with the music and camping festival since its inception in 2013.

Closed-minded individuals may have initially come in, made fun of people who lived their lives differently from them, and went home thinking “wow, there are some weird people in this world.” Admittedly, when my friend and I first entered the unusually colorful Floridian swamp for Hulaween this weekend, we also joked about our surroundings, from the lingering aroma of body odor and smelly herbs, to the questionable costume decisions made by the people around us. Progressively throughout my first day, I felt ashamed to have made fun of those who were courageous enough to live their lives to the fullest – especially because I definitely wasn’t.

Friendly neighborhood skeleton, Bones, spreading the positivity

I too felt the urge to dance to the music, but my insecurities told me I was an awkward dancer; I too wanted the comfort of walking around shirtless in the sweltering heat, but my insecurities told me I was too scrawny; I too wanted to have fun, but my insecurities told me I would only be made fun of.

While it’s arguably human nature to judge others before we judge ourselves, I challenged myself to stop thinking about the people around me and what they might think about me, and surrender myself to how I truly want to live – a chain-breaking change of heart that made my festival experience unlike any other.

As I was laying down and contemplating my life on the grassy field before the festival’s main stage, aptly named The Meadow, I encountered a young man flailing around a four-foot plastic skeleton that was being controlled to give passersby high fives and hugs. I caught up with the Halloween decoration-wielding individual, and he responded to my question about his buddy Bones’ backstory with, “You know, I’m not even this social in real life. He just brings it out of me!”

For many, Suwannee serves as a momentary utopia away from reality: introverts can be extroverts, music fans can unashamedly dance along to their favorite songs without a care as to how they looked, and performance artists (such as hula hoopers, poi spinning, baton twirlers, etc.) can pursue their passions in front of pockets of captivated audiences.

Storyteller and puppeteer Yoshi Hamaya at work

Bones wasn’t the only inanimate object dancing around, however, as one artist in particular caught my eye among a crowd of thousands: during Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s cover of the Grateful Dead song “Eyes of the World,” puppeteer and storyteller Yoshi Hamaya was meticulously animating a wooden marionette to life as his fingers finessed the puppet’s strings into dancing so human-like, it appeared to have a will to dance of its own.

I was only able to fully appreciate Hamaya’s masterful puppeteering when he handed his puppet to an onlooker who had requested to try and make the puppet dance, too. The wooden figure’s rightful owner made it look so easy that the onlooker transformed the once-graceful marionette back into a lackadaisical piece of wood as they tugged on its twine.

It’s individuals like Hamaya, bringing their talents and passions to the forefront, that made Hulaween such an interactive experience for everyone involved. It would have been nearly impossible to walk for a minute inside the festival grounds without finding someone’s performance art leaving passersby in awe, whether it’s through an intricately coordinated marionette or a social plastic skeleton.

Suwannee Hulaween gave a platform for more performance artists than any other festival that I’ve attended before, and one reason might be because this event is a pleasant deviant from the norm in today’s corporate music festival landscape – there wasn’t a sponsored stage, there weren’t ads plastered on fences, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar company trying to sell you their brand right around every corner. Instead, small businesses such as clothing vendors, food establishments, and event performers were given the opportunity to connect with individuals without having to compete with big-business.

This was made most apparent in Spirit Lake, a beautiful interactive area of the festival that housed a music stage, roughly a hundred art pieces, and hours of performances from fire breathers and twirlers and much more. The images below don’t do the magnificence of the park as much justice as I’d like, being new to photography myself, but I hope each image can paint a picture as to the amount of detail and talent put into every inch of the festival grounds.

Suwanne Hulaween is a magical music and camping festival that is only as amazing as the individuals who make it possible, from the musicians performing onstage to the artists sharing their artwork offstage; from loving fans creating a loving and accepting community to The String Cheese Incident bringing us all together to party in the bogs.

At the end of the festival, I exited Spirit of Suwannee Music Park a different person. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to judge others less, care about how others may judge me less, and proudly express myself even more – and I’m positive that I’m not the only attendee with this take-away.

I can honestly say that I plan on attending this festival for years to come, and I hope to see y’all there!

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