OKEECHOBEE — The first Okeechobee Music & Arts festival is just a memory … plus a lot of photos and videos on the internet.
Many people have told me it was not what they expected, and they meant that in a good way.
One word that I kept hearing over the weekend was “respect.”
The deputies and police officers I spoke to said the festival goers were, by and large, friendly, polite and respectful.
The festival goers said the exact same thing about the cops.
“They were so amazing with how they took care of us … Love the Okeechobee police – open minded and amazing!” Syndney Elizabeth-Rae Travis posted on Facebook.
Imagine that. The law enforcement officers from a small, rural community interacted with a large, diverse crowd from all over the country as well as some visitors from overseas, and both sides came away feeling respected.
That went a long way to keeping the atmosphere at the event very positive, peaceful and fun.
Law enforcement officers arrested 68 people, mostly on felony drug possession charges, with a few charged with theft (two of those thefts were golf carts). Of the 68 arrests, six people — including one man from Okeechobee County — were charged with drug trafficking. That might seem like a lot of arrests, but it represents 0.25 percent of the 30,000 people there. That means 99.75 percent of the fans were enjoying the festival and not causing trouble, and 0.25 percent were taken to jail. Actually, the percentage is even smaller because the 30,000 only counts the number of tickets sold, and not all of the volunteers, staff, band members, vendors, etc.
The law enforcement officers worked a lot of hours. However, the Music Festival picked up the tab for the law enforcement and other emergency officials at the event. There was no cost to the taxpayers.
“It’s so wonderful here,” said a young man I met at YogaChobee. “Everyone is so nice to each other. Everyone is so friendly. If only the rest of the world could be like this!”
Hammocks in the hammocks
About a month before the festival, one of the festival masterminds, Paul Peck, told me that he wanted to create some calm spaces within the festival venue to give people a place to get away from the crowds. Scattered throughout the area were little seating areas. There were even hammocks (as in a bed made of canvas or of rope mesh and suspended by cords at the ends) in the hammocks (as in the Florida term for a group of trees). These spaces were colorful, delightful surprises, and just having a place to sit down in the shade for a few minutes did a lot to reduce stress.
As a Floridian, I appreciated the abundance of shade, both from the trees and from the colorful sunshades. The northern visitors were taking advantage of a chance to sunbathe on the AquaChobee beach, but Floridians don’t go outside during daylight hours without a hat or sunscreen, or both.
A not so secret handshake
I learned a new handshake at the festival. I had watched a few people participating in a complicated handshake during which they exchanged colorful bracelets, but I didn’t really know what it was all about at first.
A music blogger explained it to me, and even gave me a bracelet although I did not have one to exchange.
It starts with each person giving the peace sign, and then touching two fingers as they say “peace.” Then each person curves their hand to make half of a heart for “love.” Next they touch palms for “unity.” Finally they clasp hands for “respect.” With fingers intertwined, they exchange bracelets. The bracelets are usually colorful “pony” beads on elastic, she told me, but some people make them from different materials.
Respect: There’s that word again.
The festival had its own medical tents which handled minor injuries and ailments. According to Okeechobee County Public Safety Director Ralph Franklin, from Thursday through Sunday, 16 persons who needed medical help required transportation to a hospital. One went to Lawnwood Memorial and 15 went to Raulerson Hospital. Medical information is protected by law, so they can’t disclose much more than that. However, Chief Franklin did state that none of the cases were critical.
He said there was one minor traffic accident related to the festival.
Many of those who regularly attend major music festivals all over the country remarked that Okeechobee had a different vibe. It was a “kinder, gentler” festival. There was more emphasis on health and wellness, from the morning Yoga classes to the many options for healthy foods served up by the vendors.
All of that was by design. Although it may have looked like it magically appeared, the festival was the result of many months of planning and work by people who quite obviously know what they are doing.
The jazz zone
The layout of the three main festival stages gave the listener a lot of options. There was a crowded crush of fans near the stage, but there were also people reclining on blankets at the back.
I was at the back of the crowd at the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performance, chatting with some folks near a tree. There was a space in front of us where people would walk back and forth to the other stages.
I wished I had brought a video camera because I noticed there seemed to be a certain spot where nearly everyone who passed would be overcome with the desire to dance.
They would be walking along, and just be overcome by the jazz music and dance their way through to the other side, and then resume walking. I saw all kinds of dancing. They strutted, shimmied, twirled, marched, and boogied down. Some of them showed off swing moves. Others skipped and waved their arms. And I was struck by just how joyful was that moment in time. They danced for sheer joy.
Like many Okeechobee residents of my generation, I had never heard of quite a few bands on the lineup. I had enjoyed Mumford & Sons on BBC America. And I had listened to Avett Brothers online. I was already familiar with Robert Plant and Hall & Oates. And I always enjoy jazz. But many of the groups were new to me, and I was happily surprised to find new bands I want to add to my music list.
I was struck by how much some of the groups were influenced by the music I grew up with in 1970s. And I noted that some of these bands would have been right at home at concerts I attended as a teenager. If you think you’re too old to enjoy some of the newer bands, give them a chance. You can sample music online. You may discover new favorites to enjoy.
YogaChobee also seemed like a step back in time. The yoga classes and workshop on astral travel could have been held in the 1970s. The colorful clothing on sale would have fit right in at a 1970s party.
Despite attracting a crowd of more than 30,000 people, the Sunshine Grove property stayed amazingly clean during the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival.
For the most part, festival patrons made the effort to use the trash and recycling bins when they could. But when the crowd was packed at a stage for a performance, it wasn’t possible for them to get to the bins. So there was occasionally some trash on the ground, but it didn’t stay there long. That was thanks to the Clean Vibes volunteers who were constantly on the job. Every time there was a pause in the performances at a stage, and the crowd cleared a bit, volunteers in bright blue Clean Vibes t-shirts could be seen moving in to pick up bottles, paper plates and even cigarette butts. I noticed more than once that some of the festival fans joined in to help pick up trash as well.
The festival motto of “leave no trace” was taken seriously. With a little rain and time, the trampled grass will recover and the site will look as it did before the festival.
Not everyone in the county was thrilled about the late night music. On Saturday, I noticed on Facebook that some Okeechobee residents who live west of the Sundance Trails property as far as the old Okeechobee Golf and Country Club area complained about the “thump thump” of the bass.
But I also spoke to campers at the festival who said they had no trouble sleeping. And I personally observed a toddler who was wearing ear protection peacefully napping within sight of the center stage.
Since my son conducted an experiment involving sound waves for this year’s county Science Fair, I happened to have access to a device to measure sound. So on Sunday, I tried an experiment.
On Sunday, in the audience while Mumford & Son were playing, around 11:15 p.m., it registered 105 decibels. In the parking lot a few minutes later, with the music still going strong, it registered 83 decibels. Driving away in my Ford Focus with the windows rolled up, I could not hear the music at all.
At the intersection of U.S. 441 and S.E. 144th, I pulled off the road and opened the doors. There was no sound from the concert. The only sound to register was when a car passed.
To put that in perspective, I did some research and found that according to the Center for Disease Control, the human ear can normally detect sound between 10 and 140 decibels. They put together a chart of examples:
• 10 decibels — the softest sounds, such as a mosquito’s buzz
• 30 decibels — a whisper
• 60 decibels — normal conversation
• 90 decibels — a lawn mower
• 105 decibels — a bulldozer
• 110 decibels — a chain saw
• 120 decibels — an ambulance siren
• 165 decibels — a 12-guage shotgun
• 180 decibels — a rocket launch.
From anecdotal evidence gathered through comments from other area residents, it seems the complaints about the music were mostly from the area west of the festival, and only from the genres of music with the loud “thump, thump” bass. Anecdotal evidence suggests music from the jazz, folk, classic rock, and electronic bands apparently didn’t travel far from the festival property.
It reminds me of the complaints at county commission meetings last year from those who live in the area of the Stampede nightclub. It’s not the volume of the music that bothers the neighbors — it’s the “thump, thump” of the bass on certain songs that draws complaints.
All week I have been talking to those who were at the festival, and everyone who attended seemed to have a great time.
The newspaper had five representatives (three staffers and two freelancers), ranging in age from 18 to 65, who visited the festival on and off over four days, talking to people there and making their own observations. Their reports matched mine. The vast majority of festival fans were friendly folks who were just having a great time.
I have also spoken to some store managers who saw a dramatic increase in business during the three-day event. Items in high demand included camping equipment, bottled water, ice and snack foods. One observer told me the packed parking lot at Walmart and all the people lined up at the registers reminded him of the day after Thanksgiving sales. The Publix bakery seem to sell out of everything as fast as they could bake it. The deli was also kept busy making subs. Local pizza restaurants were making deliveries to the intersection on SR 70 and Berman Road.
At the county commission meeting on March 10, all of the commissioners spoke about how well the weekend went. All four county commissioners had personally visited the festival during the weekend. They all took the time to see it for themselves and to talk to the people there, and they were all favorably impressed.
They were also pretty happy about all of the positive coverage on television, in print media and online. Okeechobee rarely gets a mention on the coastal TV stations unless there is something negative to report. It was unprecedented to see positive news about Okeechobee County on all of the broadcast stations.
I can see this festival turning into an annual tradition.
In a few weeks the county staff will have a meeting to gather all of the data on the festival, and to make suggestions for improvements. Following that, a public hearing will be scheduled to allow community members to voice their views. I know those with complaints will attend that meeting. I hope that those who support the festival will be there too. And I hope that everyone at the meeting treats each other with the same politeness and respect I saw at the festival.
Showing each other a little respect can make a big difference.
Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org