Unifier Festival is coming up soon, in Western Mass. Its a deeper, more intentional gathering than most and one you won’t want to miss. Founder Jason Cohen has an exciting story to tell, and one you will want to be part of…I spoke with him on May 22, 2016. [Read full coverage & photos of the festival here]
Saphir – Hi Jason, tell me a little about your own history, that led you to establish Unifier.
Jason – Well, I’m a musician foremost and I was always fascinated with improvisational music that gave me the ability to check out of my head and go into a flowing trance state on the piano. That’s where I started to find my unique voice as a musician. Then I began to have a romantic connection to the accordion before I ever played it. Something about being able to play outdoors, I was a little envious of guitar players that could play around fires or out in the woods and eventually I picked up an accordion and started playing trance music.
Saphir -Trance music on an accordion?
Jason – Oh yeah. Absolutely! It’s actually an incredible instrument for trance. You have oscillators on both sides of the instrument. Whenever you have a musical instrument where both ears are picking up different sounds in the same key, it definitely can be a trance instrument.
I don’t know if your history involves doing fire ceremony, but a rattle in each hand is a similar example. Something that’s related but slightly different, going on in each ear is a really powerful way to induce trance.
I’ve had a lot of magic throughout my life at different times and at one point I started running into some challenges. I got a pretty intense eye infection for 19 days and realized that I needed to try something new, to step away from how I had set things up in my life. I had very clear signs to check out an event called Starwood, which was a pretty wild neo-pagan event. At the time it was near Erie, PA.
While I was there, I had some powerful transformation around an all night fire ceremony, and came back to Boston ready to experiment with the lessons from that. I had already been exposed to sweat lodge ceremonies, and after Starwood I dove deep into getting to all the fire circles. I went to Fire Dance in Boulder Creek, CA which ended up swelling to over 400 people in the few years that I went.
People dancing until dawn around fires, with the musicians close together in a wedge, in service to the container moved me. At some point along that journey, I had a strong call, even though I was clearly underprepared, but I felt a calling to start a gathering called Forest Dance. Forest Dance is my own version, a little bit less into paganism, a little less into the magicians of the golden dawn and magical symbolism and more just into relationship with the earth, to the plants, to the energy of the animals and the life current on the land.
I started engaging in putting on Forest Dance gatherings. The first one was on the Harmonic Concordance on 11-11-2003. I produced those gathering for quite a few years. It went on the road for a few years once we couldn’t go back to the place where we started it. At first it was a heartbreak when they said we couldn’t come back, but that heartbreak turned into an expansion and we took Forest Dance on the road. We went to Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, of course Costa Rica for Envision – 9 years now, at this point a total of 11 states.
Along the way, some friends had a family farm that they bought back, but couldn’t afford to pay their mortgage, so we had an event called Sacred World Independence Day that people called SWID. It was an alternative July 4th gathering.
We had the ceremonial and shamanic aspects of the gathering, but we also got into belly dance and creating little tiny stages and having bands…it become more of an entry way gathering. And we would do an all night fire circle as well. So it was combining cultures.
Saphir– Please talk about what does it mean to say “entry way gathering”? And also explain a little bit about the fire circle.
Jason– I believe that we are all born to be creative and we lose that in our bid to survive through our work. We’re taught skills, with the intention of surviving rather than being taught to be creative. For me, I grew up on the Jersey Shore and there was a lot of talk about the bottom line. Bottom line is profit, bottom line is this….and as a musician people said you’ve got to play cover songs, don’t play your own music because you’ve got to pay the bills. There wasn’t a lot of push on the creative aspects of being a musician.
I find that subcultural experience is important to so many, because people feel like they are not getting what they need out of their own lives and out of the pop culture that they’re given. So you find people seeking some kind of subculture, finding something and then going full on into it for awhile, as long as it works for them, and sometimes longer than it works for them. But its an expansive experience that’s super important.
So by gateway, I mean its a step into various subcultures, coming together where someone might whet their appetite for a different kind of creativity or set of experiences that will help them expand their lives and their heart.
And the other part of the gateway is that, seeing what’s happening with the planet, its time for all of us to deepen our relationship with the earth and to the subtle. So, at SWID for example, you would meet people and then you would maybe take a step further and come to the Forest Dance, or any of the other circles that different people and teachers are offering.
At Unfier, we bring in so many different types of workshops that offer people connections that they can continue beyond the event. They find what they like and what they want to dive into deeper on a path that they choose.
SWID was the pre-curser to Unifier Festival. After 6 years we decided to get into Unifer. But before I launch into that…
The Sacred Fire Circle is an eclectic ceremony that goes anywhere from 3 full nights to 5 or 6 nights, the longest ones I’ve run were a week long. We basically agree that we’re all alive, we all have many different beliefs, but for this time together lets experiment with our life force, our faith and try to show up in a sacred vessel that we co-create, where the musicians are in a tight wedge, listening to each other intensely, and in service to the dancers and to the entire fire circle. People dance around a fire and sing and listen and speak truths and everybody is invited to learn how to drum, hold rattles. We’re trying to cultivate as much energy for ecstatic experience as we can, and for getting back in touch with parts of ourselves that we’ve ignored for so long. A lot of things come up for people, certainly tears are shed by many, there is a remembering of what we forgot that we wanted and how we could live. By the end of the week everybody becomes everybody’s teacher, everyone is sharing incredible wisdom, and everybody is raised to high levels of humanity. The dawns specifically are quite amazing and ecstatic when the sun rises.
We’re dancing from midnight until dawn. We get a little bit of sleep for about 3 1/2 or 4 hours, and then wake up, have a meal, and join in what we call seed groups or workshops – 2 different periods per day, and then we have dinner and then we are all in service to the gathering for an hour, then we get food and we sleep for another 2 1/2 – 3 hours. So we break our sleep schedule into twice a day, and sleep deprivation is very much a part of the transformational experience that we get into. We’ve learned how to do it really well. Surprisingly, once you are in the fire circle, it’s not that challenging to stay awake.
Saphir– And its drug free?
Jason – Correct, yes…
Saphir– Can you explain ecstatic experience for my readers?
Jason – I think that our minds are our managers, they are the gatekeepers. Sometimes its our voice, sometimes its our grandfather’s voice or our mom’s voice or dad’s voice – “you can’t do that”, “you have to behave this way”, “someone might not think I’m cool right now” – I’m listening to my inner critic: my leg hurts, my knee hurts, I don’t know if I can make it till dawn, I don’t want to use too much energy…whatever it is, there’s a way that we can allow ourselves to thank the mind for holding the gate, and then allowing ourselves to sink in to a wild part of ourselves that knows what to do, that knows how alive we can be and feel; and how we relate to music and to each other and the fire. There are things inside us that we KNOW, and the mind keeps us from those things, believe it or not. The ecstatic piece comes from a true sense of embodied divinity or freedom or embodied life – we all believe what we believe – for me sometimes it feels like my ancestors are dancing through me, sometimes I just feel completely connected to the forest that we are dancing in, it can be a single rattle, it can be a drum, but I am feeling to the depths of my being….through the music, through the dance, through the people speaking truths, through my service to everybody else in the fire circle. It’s a pretty ecstatic experience, yes it is.
Forest Dance, that’s been running since 2003, has a set of specifically unique aspects or flavors to it. My own history came through the sweat lodge before the fire circle, and the first time that I created a sacred container for Forest Dance, there was a sweat lodge as part of the installation that had already been built on the site. So we created a second fire which is called the root fire as part of our model. The root fire is the internal place – the solar fire in the middle is the very alive active place that we dance around and the root fire is down in the earth and it’s a place for meditation, prayer. The lineage of Forest Dance, comes through fire dance and the fire dance lineage is argued where exactly that comes from. There were 3 different pagan festivals happening around 35 years ago or more – Starwood, Rights of Spring and another one somewhere in the midwest. There are a lot of people who will each tell the story differently, about where it came from. Some people say it came from Rainbow Gatherings.
Certainly there are other cultures where all the musicians play close together and there are people dancing around a circle all night long. That’s been happening in various cultures around the world for a very long time.
Saphir– It’s pretty primal, basic to all of us!
Jason– Yes, I think dancing around a fire with drummer is primal in our bones, but even beyond that, everything is spinning around a central fire, on every level whether you get smaller or larger, its seems that things are spinning around other things. Its fun to play with that while we’re dancing around the fire.
Saphir– So you had SWID for while and then it opened up into Unifier, which is bigger? More of a festival?
Jason– It’s bigger in every way. Attendee wise, production wise, acreage, we’re on 476 acres! You can go down to the ceremonial area and be deep in the ceremony, and stick around there for the entire experience, or you can go up to the main field. We’re in relationship with the Girl Scouts of Connecticutt, it’s their site, and it’s very beautiful.
Saphir– Everyone knows about the West Coast festival culture in a big way, but I’d love to hear more about the East Coast gathering culture, as it’s emerging, even for myself, it is kind of a mystery.
Jason– I find that it’s interesting how we label things, because when I go to the west coast, a huge percentage of the people who are creating the change out there, are east coast transplants. They come from the east coast and they go to the west coast and they make these things happen. Then what I find here is people get turned on to what we’re doing and then they end up going to visit friends on the west coast that they meet at gatherings here and the next thing you know, they are moving out west.
Gratifly was pretty special in a lot of ways, the panel discussions and the elders – there was something about eating lunch with the elders sharing truths over the microphone from a little stage, that was super powerful. What? We’re openly talking about this with 2000 people here? This is important!
Kinnection Campout, (Asheville) I hear, is super beautiful….I haven’t made it down there yet. The producers, Clayton Gaar and Taylor Pearson, came up last year and worked on production and were part of Unifier. Lovely people. Maurice, from that team, came up, and Brian Zuwicki, who is coming back to run sound on our our B stage, all sweet sweet people who are doing good work.
We have been developing culture out here for a long time, in various ways, shapes and sizes. There is something about east coast people, if you’ve spent time in New York or New England, there is an earthiness, a grit to them, a groundedness. There are a lot of amazing, juicy, good people who are doing great work that are showing up now. As I’ve been developing this festival, I’m trying to do it slowly without shooting ourselves in the foot fiscally, because it costs a lot of money to put it on, but we don’t want to just advertise everywhere because we are looking for people that want to come in and feel comfortable with having true reverence for the earth, having an eclectic ceremony from beginning to end, lighting the sacred fire and showing up in that way. We don’t want to freak anybody out too much.
Also, a lot of us like to party at various times in our lives for sure, in different ways…. but at Unifier, we’re inviting people to experiment at being clear (substance free) at this gathering, without judgment.
I could hire one band with a draw that would completely change the energy of the model of what we’re trying to create, so I’m being very careful as I curate to try to maintain the balance…slow growth, deep roots and reverence for each other and for the planet.
Saphir – Lets talk about Unifier, I like to think that producers spend a year crafting the experiences that their attendees are going to have and what they’re going to offer…
Jason– There’s all kinds of stuff happening. We were in Lebanon, Conn. our first year (this is just our third), then we had to move locations. When you move so much of the energy goes into placing everything that first year and figuring out your systems. And it was great – last year – now we’re getting to polish those pieces. To find out what worked and what didn’t work and to improve our systems to make it a better experience.
The first thing you see when you show up is important to me, as a designer, that first thing you feel. So we’ll have musicians playing at the box office, immediately creating a space when you walk in. And the lake is gorgeous. We have sacred fire that we light on Thursday, so you can come early and sink in to the land and then we carry that sacred flame to the other places around the site and to the ceremonial fire area.
There’s an amphitheater that (our friend & sculptor) Nature decks out with all wood, there are nature altars everywhere. We do an ancestral lantern lighting piece on the lake where we offer blessings and welcome our ancestors at sunset on Friday, and all the musicians and performers are chosen for their heart and spirit.
The food is organic and locally sourced, the children’s programming is beautiful and creative, we love having kids come, we love having our elders come.
There are sweat lodges, we have women’s empowerment happening, Malidoma Some is coming to do grief work, Starhawk is coming to do permaculture on Sunday, grandmother Kaarina is coming from DC – she’s a fierce force of nature….she’ll bring people together and shake ’em and wake ’em up.
There’s also … we like to talk about the hard stuff at our gatherings too, and do real work. There is a lot of intentionality at our gatherings. Environmental justice, social justice, cultural appropriation, there is a lot happening at the gathering and it’s yummy!
We dance until dawn around the fire circle, we dance until dawn on the main stage on Saturday night, from Niyaz to Balkan Beatbox to Desert Dwellers to Emancipator to Human Experience – a high level of good dance music!
And the lake, again, is beautiful, there are kayals and canoes, swimming…
Just a willingness to show up and share deeply of ourselves with that many people is pretty special. And that’s really what we’re looking to curate. A place that you can actually feel okay about being as grateful for your life as you can be and not feel funny about it. To be in reverence.