Wakarusa: A "Music Festival" Lover's Festival (Review)

June 17, 2015 -

Liane Robinson

As a music lover, a passionate traveler and an avid festival goer I have spent the last 3.5 years on a quest for the perfect festival. This insatiable craving has taken me from Florida to Wisconsin to Costa Rica and almost everywhere in between and I have yet to find someplace as wonderful as Wakarusa. While I am constantly questioning what is perfection, Wakarusa comes as close to that ideal as possible; not too big, not too small, not overly transformational while still being extremely soulful and grounded with some of the best attendees I have come across. Simply put, Wakarusa is a festival for everyone; from the seasoned vets to someone who knows nothing about music festivals, anyone can find a home here. This year's 12th annual celebration is a good indication that Wakarusa is a staple in the Midwest and one of the best kept festival secrets, keeping its small vibe feel while packing Mulberry Mountain with nearly 25,000 attendees.  Tucked away in the Ozarks in Arkansas is the perfect landscape of rolling mountains and lush grounds. There is something truly special that happens once you hit that steep winding road on the way up to the entrance that is unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere; greeted with high fives, smiles and salutations of "WAKA, WAKA, WAKA" I know I'm home.wakkaaa

It's said that the term 'Wakarusa' is derived from Native American culture to mean "ass-deep" but it's safe to say that this year "ass-deep" wasn't referring to the depth of the mud as not a drop of rain was shed. Dubbed 'Swamparusa' because of it's notorious rainy weather, this was the driest Waka since 2011 and despite a 30 minute delay from lightening everything went smoothly. The days were scorching but that didn't hinder true Wakafarians from missing music. Armed with umbrellas, sunscreen, lawn chairs and shade structures of all kinds they endured the heat and took advantage of all the great daytime sets. The 93 degree heat didn't stop the music from playing as artists such as The Revivalist, Ployd, Thomas Jack and Greenhouse Lounge played mid day scorchers and we danced, drenched in sweat and loving every minute of it.dome

Wakarusa takes the cake for some of the best live sets of music I have ever heard, with state of the art stages and crisp sound systems it made for an incredible weekend of music.Thursday night was a good indication of the weekend ahead as members of Umphrey's McGee took the stage with reggae legends Slightly Stoopid and ‘Bandelero’ played as the sun sank below the mountain ridges behind us. The weekend was full of sit ins as musicians explored their wild sides and joined forces onstage with others. Notable sit ins include Big Gigantic joining STS9 during their Friday night main stage performance, the banjo pickin’ folk sisters Rising Appalachia along with songwriter Dustin Thomas gracing the stage with Nahko and Medicine for the People and Quixotic with his smooth violin playing along with The Human Experience during his sunrise set Saturday morning. Staying true to its name, The Satelite Stage feels like a scene from another time and place as it is one of the most magical places to hear music. You can enjoy being front row in the pit or relaxing in a hammock watching the giant lanterns dance above your head while Govinda serenades the crowd as the sun peaks through the canopy of trees at sunrise. sat

What sets Wakarusa apart from its festival counterparts is the sheer amount of music. Over the course of four days 150 acts performed nearly 200 sets of music on six stages from 12 p.m to 7 a.m daily. This year there was a strong hip hop influence on the lineup with artists such as The Roots, Chance the Rapper and ProbCause and it was the perfect mesh with the jam and electronic influences that Waka is known for. Chance blew the crowd away as his set was much more than a show, it was a complete interactive performance calling upon audience participation and allowing us to help steer his creative vessel. With the song lyrics plastered on the massive big screens behind him he allowed the audience to be involved and sing along even if you had never heard his songs. Donned in denim overalls and backed by a full band, the Chicago born rapper lived up to his hype and it was one of the highlight performances of the weekend.acid                                                                                                                                   Music aside, perhaps the best part of Wakarusa is what they stand for. While I did feel a more corporate influence this year between the Budweiser and 7UP sponsored stages and the free samples of Starbucks and Mountain Dew Kick Start they definitely stepped up their game to support the arts. While music tends to be the driving force when choosing a festival to attend, Wakarusa does a great job at ensuring the art side of the festival is just as represented. Live painting at almost every stage, rogue performers, fire spinning circles popping up everywhere and not to mention those huge light up puppets dancing and roaming throughout the crowds. Where else can you be getting down with Major Lazer with a fire breather behind you, a juggler on stilts next to you while a giant LED octopus dances over your head? Even if someone came to Wakarusa and knew nothing about music they would be in awe at the sheer circus like atmosphere that takes place on Mulberry Mountain. With art cars, late night pop up performances, yoga and meditation workshops, flow toy skill sharing meetups, helicopter rides, vendors galore and some of the best eats in the region, there is no shortage of entertainment at Wakarusa.


One of the downsides of large gatherings are the massive amounts of trash accumulated over the weekend and nothing is worse than seeing your beautiful home littered with garbage. While some of the attendees could have done a better job picking up after themselves, Waka did a great job at giving us the tools necessary to be environmentally accountable. Providing plenty of trashcans alongside bins for aluminum and plastic in addition to teaming up with Leave No Trace helped reduce the overall environmental impact. Having incentives such as ticket giveaways and prizes motivated people to be more mindful of there waste and help educate others along the way. To urge people to stray from plastic bottled water, Kleen Kanteen was onsite all weekend selling insulated reusable bottles and serving up fresh filtered water at several locations throughout the festival. In addition to easily accessible water refill stations, Wakarusa had some of the cleanest bathrooms I have experienced at a festival. No one likes to talk about the dirty deeds but when you gotta go, you gotta go and you want it to be as swift and painless as possible. The bathrooms seemed plentiful with minimal wait times, serviced often and stocked with extra toilet paper.


Wakarusa has endured the test of time and will be a staple destination for music lovers and festival connoisseurs for countless years to come. By combining top notch musical performances of all kinds, art and entertainment, mother nature and wonderful staff and volunteers Wakarusa is creating an experience far beyond just going to a music festival. Mullberry Mountain is our home away from home and we look forward to returning in 2016!


Photos by Jamie Seed, SEEN Imagery, Live Edits Lab and Phil Clarkin Photography


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