Dhërmi, Albania
20 - 27 June

Marketed as a new festival in an undiscovered location, Kala’s exact coordinates were kept secret until months before its inauguration. While many festivals boast paradisiacal settings, the mystery of Kala’s whereabouts wasn’t a hyperbolic sell – it was the real deal. An island hidden away from the peripheries of dance music, a place where raves hadn’t been staged before.

In the past, Albania has been dogged by a negative reputation, with high crime rates scaring off would-be tourists. Now, following the fall of its communist structure, Albania – a country rich in history and natural beauty – is in flux. There was the sense that a festival, like Kala, could be hugely instrumental in cementing the country’s status as an area open to tourism and as a result, what we experienced was a place that was truly welcoming both to travellers and electronic music.

The outline of the festival was spread out across several beaches on a strip of the Albanian Riviera. When tracing the outline of the site by foot, there was the curious sheen of the new. Upon the second afternoon of the festival, with the majority of festival-goers still yet to arrive, locals were seen gently hosing down the dust of concrete roads that had – according to an early arriver – been paved overnight. Arrangements of vibrant flowers were stemmed in fresh compost, painting the site with bursts of tropical shades. The decor of the site felt neat, quaint and comfortably curated with the tourist in mind. Hotels lined the coast and the main stage, Empire, was where the first party began with Moodymann on the decks.

Though the festival sells itself on its location, the music programming was anything but an afterthought. Eris Drew – delivering one of her first few shows outside of the US – raced through a highly energetic set on the second night, later dropping a head-turning garage track in the last quarter. Jan Schulte kept ravers on their feet deep into the early hours with his unpredictable selections. As the sun rose, the Düsseldorf DJ dropped Spandau Ballet’s Gold, before leaping into the drum’n’bass classic Ni Ten Ichi Ryu by Photek.

As the majority of festival-goers filled the site over the course of the week, the main talking point was the festival’s open secret, Gjipe Island. Accessed by a choppy boat ride, this more remote part of the island had a different atmosphere to the carefully trimmed grass that made up so much of the festival. Hidden away just beyond the stage was a breathtaking canyon and onwards, a waterfall with a plunge pool. Balearic and disco sets shaped much of the sound of Gjipe, with the sunshine tones playing off the natural stone walls of the canyon. Soothing eastern melodies from Bjørn Torske were stunning in the tranquility of the setting, and sunny synth pop from Jan Schulte (Club Tropicana by Wham!) kept dancers on their feet.

Back at the Yacht Club, Danielle gave ravers a respite from the day’s mellowness with a set that saw her drop Spin Cycle by Syclops, Spaced Out in South London by Controlled Weirdness and Martyn’s 41W. The Pilotwings delivered tripped out vibes with 80s synth pop interspersed with spangly guitars, breakbeat and a disco version of Just As Long As I Got You. Cheers erupted from the crowd as further into the festival, Andy Blake dropped Goldfrapp’s Strict Machine deep into the night – his set comprised of surreal textures mixed with house, acid and mottled alien sounds.

As can be expected from the first edition of any festival, Kala had a few teething issues. Midway through Roy Ayers’ set the sound switched off, but the crowd – determined to keep the energy levels at a high – chanted the lyrics a capella back to the funk and soul legend.

The sound issues were easy to forgive whilst immersed in the unique atmosphere of Kala. Brewing on the Albanian Riveria is a flurry of real excitement for change. Bar staff – who, at times, were comprised of inexperienced teams – seemed in awe of the event, wanting to muscle in on the wave of music. Locals enthusiastically poured large quantities of alcohol into drinks, which was good value for what you paid, hotel staff were seen soaking up the sounds on the shore after their work shifts and government officials danced backstage. At a time when there are global clampdowns on dance music and blatant disregard for youth culture, it’s refreshing to step foot in a country that not only tolerates loud volumes, but wholeheartedly embraces them. Case in point: Prime Minister Edi Rama joked about possibly gifting festival-goers with free beer and on the last day of Kala, actually delivered on the gag; 1500 cans of beer were sent down to Splendor Beach, free for people to pick up.

On the last day, we ventured down the stretch as far as you could possibly go, beyond the festival itself. Bricks in the road bore a looser structure as you walked onwards, not yet cemented in firmly. A sign signalled the end of the road and surrounding us were empty structures waiting to be filled with beaches; cement mixers were parked by the side and all around us was a thin layer of dust lingering after the site’s partial construction. Parts of the country, outside of the event, had been left unconstructed as summer had arrived, and the builders were to resume the process after the season. Who knows what Kala may be like in a few years time, but at the moment, it’s on the cusp of something truly exciting – a country still taking shape, but determined and hopeful for expansion and change.