One of our most loved spaces at Woodford Folk Festival over the years has been the Chai Tent. It came in many incarnations, many spaces, and with a few different organisers, but the one constant was the delicious, steaming hot chai shared with friends, old and new.
Before you join us for a cuppa and connection at the new Chai ‘n’ Vibes tent at this year’s festival, we thought we’d share a bit about the history of this brew and its iconic and welcoming zone within Woodfordia.
The Original Chai Tent
The Chai Tent arrived at the festival in 1989, when the Queensland Folk Federation (now Woodfordia Inc.) put on the Big National Folk Festival in Maleny, and when chai was not a beverage that you’d find in your local coffee shop. In fact, this space at the festival was the first festival Chai Tent in Australia and only the second business to be selling this delicious beverage in the country. Fun fact: The first was a stall run by ‘Chai Mick’ at St Andrews market and ‘The Peace Train’ which toured the east coast of Australia in the 80s. The Rainbow Chai Tent still operates at the iconic event, The Channon Craft Market Inc.
Robin Clayfield started the space with her then-partner Skye and friends Karin and Hans Erkin as a chai and cake shop for the festival. It was unique not just because it sold chai, but also because from day one it doubled as a jam space for musicians. Being a camping festival, musicians and festival-goers stayed onsite, and as they wandered past the Chai Tent they could pick up the drums that Robin and her friends had placed out the front. Sitting on straw bales, under a hessian bamboo structure, those drumming circles quickly became legendary, as friends old and new connected with music in the most primal form.
The team changed over the years, but there were always four main conspirators, bringing steaming hot chai and good music to the masses for 23 years in a row. That’s a pretty impressive stint for any business, let alone one that only exists during Woodford Folk Festival. It was definitely always a project born of love. Phil Smith, Annie Wall, Nigel Parratt and Robin were the core group for much of the Chai Tent’s history with Skye leaving to live permanently overseas after the first decade.
As the festival grew, so too did the Chai Tent, with the drum circles expanding, dancers, musicians and spectators spilling out into the streets. The chai was flowing, and the Chai Tent, in its 3rd year of existence, became the first venue or stall at Maleny/Woodford to be open 24 hours a day. The space grew exponentially each year, with the structure moving from bamboo and hessian to hand-sewn canvas, and then a plastic pavilion (for safety reasons). With all owners of the Chai Tent being permaculture practitioners, the space was designed with that in mind, including microjet sprinkler systems to keep people cool and the bamboo being sourced from their space at Crystal Waters – Earthcare Farm. In fact, Woodford still sources some of its bamboos from there for the festival.
The chai was so popular that people wanted to take it home with them, so the team began to package up their original brew of Skye Chai, originally created and ground from whole spices by Skye, with Robin’s help. Annie still produces and distributes it to this day. Hunt it down if you get the chance – it’s delicious!
While the chai didn’t change over the years, the musical offerings did. What started as casual jamming amongst musicians became huge drumming jams that lasted all night. In an attempt to let some other festival-goers get some sleep, a PA was added to bring in more ambient music in the early hours. From here, the owners liaised with the festival’s Programming team to add more structured chalkboard sessions, programmed acts and curated jams where artists like ‘Lindsay Pollock and Friends’ and ‘Greg Sheehan and Friends’ (among others) invited people to jump onstage to play with them. More amplified music was added, with New Year programming including artists like Oka.
Robin reflects on why she loved creating the Chai Tent for Woodford: “My favourite part is helping people feel safe, comfortable and able to relax at the festival – a little window of space where you can take time out of the busyness of the festival and lounge around with friends, catch up, have a yummy cuppa, and watch some good music. But also a place where people can participate.”
Why Did The Chai Tent Stop?
There have been a lot of rumours over the years about why that iconic Chai Tent is no longer at the festival, but Robin is here to set the record straight.
“The reason we decided to stop had nothing to do with the festival. We’d had thoughts of stopping at times over the years, because it was a pretty big stress to put it on annually and would take up months of our year. It was also starting to get a little bit financially precarious, I could say. Just not getting a fair return for the amount of time spent and being able to pay our team what they deserved for such crazy hours.”
Peak chai purchasing was happening at around 1am to 2am, and the Chai Tent needed to be busy at that time to make ends meet. In the days when the Chai Tent was the only stall open in the wee hours, that worked well. But when other stalls began to open into the early hours of the morning and stages began being programmed later into the evenings it started to eat into the Chai Tent’s trade. “We are selling cups of chai, not meals that have a 100% markup on them. We had to sell a lot of that to cover costs”, says Robin. “The trading at night became a bit of a challenge. Plus, with the great acts on the stage and the jams in the tent, people began more and more to sit around and listen and not necessarily purchase anything. When there were huge acts on, so many people filled the venue that people couldn’t even get to the counter.”
Other personal reasons fed into the decision to stop providing the Chai Tent after those 23 years, but at first it was just intended to be a one year break. The team always thought that their children would inherit the Chai Tent, but they didn’t quite make the handover. After over two decades of providing chai and a chillout place within the festival, Robin and the team were enjoying the break from the stress of creating the Chai Tent, and so made space for new projects for themselves.
There have been three different chai tents at the festival in more recent years, including The Holy Chai Tent, which would make the journey from Victoria. However, the time and challenge of setting up a space like this restricted them attending, and they also decided not to continue . Now more and more stalls are opening late into the evening providing delicious warm beverages and spaces for us to enjoy. The lore and love of the original Chai Tent has not faded though, even 8 years later.
The Chai Tent Legacy – and now
Robin is still a strong part of the Woodford Folk Festival team, sharing that sense of safety, belonging and celebration that she loved with the Chai Tent with her Sacred Union Labyrinth. She brings together a team of 14 people who support her during the Build, and they create four ceremonies with live music throughout the festival with other acts also performing for people to walk to the music. If you have not yet wandered through the Sacred Union Labyrinth, it is the perfect way to unwind and reconnect within the high energy of the festival.
Chai is still a strong part of the Woodfordia culture, and we are excited to share that a new crew will be bringing back the concept, the brews and the vibes into the 2018/19 Woodford Folk Festival. Chai ‘n’ Vibes is a social enterprise formed as a synchronistic collaboration between Grounded Permaculture Action Party and Island Vibe – you may have sipped their chai earlier this year at Earth Frequency Festival, Nimbin MardiGrass or Island Vibe Festival.
Passionate about their space being more than a market stall, Chai ‘n’ Vibes aims to be zero-waste, is completely vegan and facilitates a thriving interactive community meeting place, bringing the best chai, tasty treats, jams and feel good vibes.
Being long-time lovers and contributors the festival, the team behind Chai ‘n’ Vibes say they have “certainly drawn inspiration from the long lost Chai Tent of Woodford in days gone by and we are excited to be re-creating the space in a new format.” Come join them for a chai and a chat at this year’s Woodford Folk Festival.