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Meet the Sound Camps of Burning Man

Some of the most well-known favorites for music lovers on the playa

  • Graham Berry
  • 22 August 2018

Ancestor” dust storms twist and helix across spanning horizons while soul rapturing sunsets distinguish the apocalyptic lakebed that becomes Black Rock City, the home of the annual Burning Man. The widely celebrated ‘social experiment’ in the desert where spectating is not allowed is called ‘home’ by artists and creators from all over the world. It’s here survivalists, thrill-seekers and a few of Silicon Valley’s elite converge to greet each other in tutus, bandanas and rhinestone emblazoned captains hats, while fire belching mutant vehicles ferry from one camp to the next with a full-fledged dance party in tow. Taken as a whole, the city is equal parts culture, community and art, with plenty of rabbit holes to stumble into. Whether you came for the colossal sculptures, the rich community or the experience of a lifetime there’s something for everyone here. Though never curated by the event organizers, even for the discerning music lover, "the playa provides".

"We don't book acts or provide entertainment," says Crimson Rose, Burning Man's co-founder, at the Synergy Art Forum in Russia earlier this year. "[There are] no velvet ropes, no barricades that separate you from truly participating. And when given the opportunity, participants are turned into active contributors to the character of a community. They become the fabric of what is possible."

In other words, the producers and musicians that participate at Burning Man do so as a gift - never for pay. Not even for tickets. It’s this spirit of giving that makes performing in Black Rock City, as well as witnessing a secret set from a favorite behind the decks, such a special experience.

Gear: Function One

Location: 10:00 and A

When friends Sean Behm, Shareef El-Sissi and Ali Khalili discovered a synergy together, they went to Burning Man and hatched a plan to build a landmark that would soon become a calling card: the architectural love-child of an obelisk and a pyramid with a contemporary spin. Instead of rubbing elbows with the established camps around the Esplanade, the three pooled their money to start Kazbah in 2013. They were short on financial resources. They didn’t have big headliners or much decor. But each year the trio upped the stakes, evolving their sound with bigger artists and better gear.

After a few years the Kazbah became a casual place to see the likes of Carl Cox, Richie Hawtin or Dubfire. Heading into their sixth year now as a 501(c)3 on an all Function One rig, Kazbah is proof positive that you don’t need a monster budget or a major label to give the gift of music at Burning Man. Just a desire to carry the torch of participation from one year to the next, and a hunger to do better every time.

Gear: Custom Boxes with B&C 21SW152’s

Location: Deep Playa

One of the most polarizing sounds on the playa, Burners love-hate relationship with Robot Heart is perplexing to some, but it’s safe to say that without Jason Swamy and the rest of the Robot Heart team the US house and techno music scene may have never emerged from the desert the way it did.

At Burning Man, Robot Heart was the first crew creating deep playa parties with highly curated lineups, a pastime that (for better or worse) today is immortalized in YouTube videos, photos, and the occasional ‘gram.

Today, there’s a whole genre of fiercely unapologetic fashion in house and techno and it often can trace roots to Robot Heart. Their often gaudy couture representation at Burning Man has been so pervasive that contention is surfacing with Burners who prefer a little less flash. Matters have become more complicated when the leaders of the popular art car started a stylish albeit eyebrow-raising Burner-esque event called Further Future (which has since gone on hiatus), also in the Nevada desert.

Gear: D&B Sound with 12 30-watt RGB Lasers

Location: Follow the lasers...

At night the Mayan Warrior can be seen from at greater distance than any other art car on the Playa. The same twinkling strobes used in the Eiffel Tower and 12 30-watt strafing lasers dance across the night sky while a German D&B audio delivers the thunder. The vehicle is such a spectacle after sundown that many would probably seek it out even without knowledge of the legendary breakthrough producers that it today is known for.

For founder and creator Pablo Gonzalez Vargas, Rebolledo and Damián Romero, who are charged with Music Concept and Line-up Curation, the Mayan showcases the ascent of contemporary Mexican electronic music while serving as homage to the ancient cultures of the region. Fundraising efforts are being used to build a school for the Mayans in Tulum, and plans to further support Huicholes in the region are already underway. For the average passerby out on the playa, Mayan Warrior represents the most magnificent dance party on the playa and in a world of flame-throwing neon that’s saying something. For audiophiles who share an appetite for Latin American Electronic Dance Music, the Mayan Warrior has become so much more.

Gear: PK Sound

Location: 2:00 and Elektro

Since its inception in 1999, Camp Question Mark has been one of the longest standing and largest camps to offer music in Black Rock City. It was founded by power couple Brian Saccomano (camp lead) and Michelle Hack (camp brain), with lineups curated by Chris Kite. Today it’s distinguished as one of the only camps dedicated to hard-hitting bass music at night.

Camp Q is a certain victory for anyone who wants to experience the wallop of a PK sound system at up to a hundred thousand watts. Crowds of anywhere from 10 to 15 thousand turn out to experience peak nights, garnering attention from top shelf producers like Skrillex (who has performed there the last five years straight) but it hasn’t come cheap. To cover camp costs, they bootstrap the camp with fundraising events year-round. In one of the larger fundraising initiatives, crew members also produce a stage at Excision festival, where all the proceeds are donated to Camp Question Mark to become a part of their gift at the next Burning Man.

Gear: Bowls, Bells, Bits and Bops

Location: 7:00 and Esplanade

For those who lost a loved one recently, Burning Man can be a source of healing. If like many you believe that sound can be a medicine, then you might think of a sound bath as frequency triage. Many camps will be offering sound baths, but the newcomers to the Esplanade at Camp Hello, We Love You will be offering treatments daily in a big air conditioned dome, tuned to a precise 432Hz, frequency that is purported to align the body to nature.

Not convinced? Well, where else but at Burning Man will you have the chance to find out for yourself?

[Photos: Sean Behm / Christian Lamb / Galen Oakes / Jacob Fox / Reid Godshaw / Harmonic Light]

Graham Berry is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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