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Sacred music and art draw thousands to Beloved Festival in the Oregon woods

A Sufi singing workshop takes place inside the Doorway to Devotion at the Beloved Festival.

Deep in the thick of the Coast Range, down winding dirt roads, a sacred gathering bursts forth from the woods, a colorful collection of music, art and community.

There’s no shortage of music festivals in Oregon each summer, but there are perhaps none quite like the Beloved Festival, which stands out from the pack by sitting down, drawing a deep breath and collectively seeking a path to a better existence.

Now in its 11th year, the Beloved Festival draws some 3,000 people every year to the small town of Tidewater, filling a large parcel of private forest land with tents, stages and stretched-fabric temples. Their goal is to enjoy, explore and, above all, to connect.

On Sunday afternoon, festivalgoers meditated as African musician Youssoupha Sidibe played his 21-string Kora. They gathered in the Doorway to Devotion for a singing workshop called Sufi Soul. Many sat in an area simply called “Big Love,” filled with blankets and surrounded by spiritual artifacts.

Jamie Hale/The Oregonian
Campers wake up and wander into the Yoga Pavilion.

There were also, of course, many of the trappings one can expect of a summer gathering in the Oregon woods. There was casual nudity, psychedelic drug use, and more vegan food vendors than you could shake a rattle at. Festivalgoers dressed in tie-dye, donned masks and danced with hula hoops. One wore a T-shirt that read “free eye gazing.”

Those in mainstream society may be tempted to use words like “hippie” or “new age” to describe Beloved, but neither feels particularly right. This is not a 21st-century Woodstock, nor is it quite like the long-running Oregon Country Fair. And it’s a far cry from music festivals like Sasquatch, where inebriation is the goal among thongs of young people in attendance.

In fact, while a lot of music festivals attract younger crowds, Beloved tends to draw everyone but. The 18 to 26-year-olds are outnumbered both by the over-50 crowd and those younger than 16, festival producer Elliot Rasenick said. The demographics, combined with the fact that there are no alcohol sales at the festival, help make it a much more peaceful event.

That might make Beloved different than a lot of other festivals, but what exactly is it about?

Jamie Hale/The Oregonian
A masked woman dances with a rattle on Sunday at the festival.

“I think there’s no any way to describe it,” Rasenick said. Or, more truthfully, it’s hard to explain.

Beloved really comes down to the spirit and the soul, he explained. The spirit is about the interconnectedness between all people, and the soul is about being grounded and driven toward change. Over the four days of the festival, attendees discuss uncomfortable social issues, express personal vulnerabilities and make active connections with one another, he said. It’s an event dedicated to communal growth through individual action – and it’s not all talk.

This year’s big topic of conversation was racial diversity. Rasenick and his fellow organizers are well aware of the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd, he said, but instead of shrugging it off, they stopped the music on the main stage Saturday afternoon to bring it up publicly.

They talked about why the festival is so white, what that means for the community, and what they can do to change the experience to be more inclusive. Bring in more vendors of color, someone suggested. Include non-white workshop leaders. Make sure there’s a gender balance onstage.

Jamie Hale/The Oregonian
A workshop takes place inside the Purple Star Temple.

“What we’re defining as sacred is our connection,” Rasenick said. “There are many, many ways to express that unity.”

In that way, Beloved means to act as a sort of prism, allowing musicians, artists and festivalgoers alike to reflect that shared human experience in their own way, shining in their own individual colors. Through that, they hope to grow as people and as a community.

It’s a beautiful sentiment that’s thankfully undisturbed by the kinds of problems that befall bigger festivals. With only 3,000 attendees each year, Beloved can remain true to its ideals, keeping the event intimate while making it big enough to be impactful.

But as the sun sets on their sacred unity, enclosed in this pocked of Coast Range forest, a question is left lingering in the trees: Can they really bring this connection back to the real world?