It is something of a struggle to try and sum up an event like Obonjan. There was the initial ‘hiccup’ with the opening-that-never-was and a barrage of angry punters making their feelings known on Twitter. Then there came the first few reviews, most of which were overwhelmingly positive, to the point where it had the feel of a damage control PR push to compensate for the festival’s earlier difficulties. It was only The Guardian’s coverage that offered up any sense of reality along with the praises being heaped upon Obonjan.
So by the time a trip across Croatia this summer lead myself and three friends to what had been hyped as a paradise in our consumerist 21st century, labelled a ramshackle festival that didn’t know its arse from its elbow, called, “The best place in the world” by others we met on the way, expectations were confused. Departing the pleasant and beautiful (if a little boring) town of Sibenik, we set out on the ferry for an hour-long trip to the promised land.
As per my expectation, there was a varied cross-section of punters in attendance – one Mercury prize winning musician, a handful of middle-aged American housewives, a healthy amount of British hipsters and some European culture couples. That small travelling collective served as a good indication of the kinds of people that were to populate the island; added to that was a real diverse sample of contemporary festival culture, with a range of nationalities and backgrounds coming together to sample what ‘the island’ had to offer.
Having landed in the Eastern Harbour, a layered stone terrace consisting of deck-chairs and oversized bean bags that overlooked a crystal-clear sea and the neighbouring island, we moved up to check in and were eventually directed to our forest lodge. At this point, anyone could appreciate the sheer investment of time and money that has gone into Obonjan – the scale of the infrastructure put into the general buildings aside, the effort that has been put into creating a quality accommodation for the attendees is something that in itself is worthy of recognition. Yes, this festival’s ‘camping’ options will set you back considerably more than your average British festival, but then nobody goes to Obonjan looking for that kind of experience.
Throughout our three days on Obonjan, we found our days fell into a pattern of: wake up when the sun wakes you up, make your way to one of the many beaches dotted around the island, eventually reconvene for some breakfast at the lodge, head to the Eastern Harbour and day drink until an event/talk/band took our fancy. On paper, it might not sound like much, but in the setting of the Adriatic and in constant sun everything is elevated.
Something that has plagued Obonjan since its much-maligned opening is the question of its sustainability. From having to cancel the appearance of artists including Willis Earl Beal due to the delay in opening to the mysterious removal of certain performers from the line-up, i.e. Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul Disco, one constant topic of conversation between islanders was whether Obonjan will survive past its original year.
That slightly existentialist tangent aside though, again I have to give mention to the quality of the content that was put on for the crowd. During our three day stay, music was provided each day and was primarily our reason for getting tickets to Obonjan in the first place; others, it turned out, had come specifically for the wellbeing aspect of events put on by the festival’s organisers, which was only surprising in the sense of it being different to conventional UK festival-goer attitudes.
Across the three nights, there was an offering of three general styles of music that was coincidentally a reflection of the music-lovers attending the festival. Friday saw the electronic offering with Quantic playing a lively and suitably tropical DJ set, followed by an incredible show by Romare that went on strong into the early hours (and upset a few of our wellbeing friends’ sleep). Saturday played host to a night of contemporary r&b and hip-hop, later being credited as the biggest and most popular night of the festival by some members of staff who had been there for the duration – London was represented in the shape of The Age of L.U.N.A who continue to show that there is a bright future for youth hip-hop culture in this country.
Somewhat understandably, they were eclipsed by the act that was to follow, with Anderson Paak being the main attraction for a lot of people who attended the festival during those three days. If this was to be the headline show of the whole festival’s run – it definitely had that atmosphere both from the crowd and from Anderson himself – then there was no way that the man was going to disappoint. An incredible set that showed off his catalogue and his skill as a frontman, something that has slipped away from contemporary musicians outside the mainstream these days; it was all-encompassing, frenetic and engaging, the definition of professionalism in this trade.
Closing out the musical offerings on the Sunday night was Local Natives who were, sadly, let down by the popularity of the previous night’s headliner – the Sunday saw the attendance of the festival in general deplete, with many people (especially those who hailed from the UK) only having travelled out for the Bank Holiday weekend. In spite of that, it made for an intimate set as they worked through a variety of new material ahead of the release of their third record. As the band themselves have already alluded to, this collection will see a shift from their sound based on traditional instruments but on the basis of their performance there is no quality to be lost in that change of direction.
As said at the beginning, it is tough to try and summarise something like Obonjan. There are glorious, overwhelmingly positive aspects to the festival – perhaps experience is a better term for it – that made for an unforgettable few days, and though things like the yoga classes and talks on subjects like the philosophical idea of ‘fun’ may put some people off they really shouldn’t. Regardless of whether you enjoy those kinds of things or not, it’s worth giving them a go in this kind of setting as they will only add to the whole momentum of your time in such a place.
What makes it difficult to sign off Obonjan as the complete deal is that it still has a bit to learn. As good as the music, the cultural aspects and the scenery all were, the more day-to-day elements of the festival need some work to match the lofty standards Obonjan sets itself. Food and drink from the restaurants and bars on the island are, naturally, more expensive than the mainland, and while the quality of the former is outstanding the service (in our experience) sadly let that aspect of the island down. Though probably not targeted at a group of mid-twenties backpackers, there are a lot of top quality crafts and clothing for sale on the island, but unless you’re willing to pay about £55 for a pair of patterned boardshorts then there’s not going to be much there for you.
It would be unfair to castigate the whole Obonjan experience for those elements, and they formed a minimal part of our experience on the island. What made it so special was everything else – the people you end up speaking to on the sun-lounger next to you at the Eastern Harbour, seeing a grey haired attendee doing morning Tai Chi whilst overlooking the sea and sunrise or dancing until 3am at the Forest Bar.
My hope is that those who direct the festival’s future won’t take it in a direction that isolates or puts off those of us who can only afford a three-day (or less) stay with the cost and nature of events, though I genuinely can’t see that happening. With plans to double the accommodation and to instill more stages and events on the island’s slightly neglected West side, the future of Obonjan is promising if a little fragile.
Words by Sion Ford