Creating Community Through Festivals: A Chat with Jason Swamy

Jason Swamy, the Festival Director of Suara Festival, has been a driving force in the world of community and culture creation for over two decades. 

In this interview, Jason shares what first sparked his passion for creating immersive experiences and how he brought his vision for Suara Festival to life. He discusses the importance of understanding and respecting local cultures when organising international events and reflects on the key elements that make a festival truly memorable. 

Jason also opens up about balancing his roles as a DJ, event organiser, creative director, and father while finding time to enjoy life in Bali. Plus, he gives us a sneak peek into what’s next for Suara Festival and his future projects.

Jason, you’ve had an incredible journey in the world of nightlife and events. Can you share what first sparked your passion for creating these immersive experiences and how it led you to founding the Suara Festival in Bali?

My passion for creating immersive experiences began when I was an intern at Star TV. One day, during lunch, a colleague invited me to a rave, where I saw a performance by Welsh DJ and record producer Sasha – this sparked something inside me that completely changed my life.

From then on, I became a bedroom DJ and started organising my own parties. I quickly realised that I had a knack and a passion for creating environments where people could come together, express themselves, and enjoy a sense of community.

Fast forward and my career has taken me through various roles across nightlife and events – I’ve owned clubs and restaurants, been a part of globally renowned brands like small&TALL in Hong Kong, to the internationally recognised festival in Thailand Wonderfruit, major events in Macau casinos and am the founder and creative director of Do What You Love.

I helped bring elrow to China and Ultra to the Philippines, Macau, China, and Hong Kong. Each experience taught me valuable lessons about what makes an event truly special, and it’s this culmination of 25 years in the industry working on a wide variety of projects around the world that is culminating in this year’s edition of Suara Festival.

During the COVID-19 lockdown in Hong Kong, my wife and I reflected on our lives and what we wanted for our future. We had lived in bustling places like Boston, London, California, India, and China, and we were seeking a slower pace of living, enriched by culture and nature. I then met Sergey Solonin whom I ‘zoom dated’ for the better part of two years because I didn’t want to spend three weeks quarantining in Indonesia.

I was really captivated by his vision for Nuanu and where he wanted to take Suara Festival after its inaugural edition to make it something much more international but still respectful and reflective of Balinese culture.

Combining the community experience that he and his brother had created with my international events background, really felt like a no brainer. And so, for this third edition, we now have this incredible festival that really isn’t like anything else in the region that allows attendees to fully immerse themselves in the experience across music, arts and culture while spotlighting local and international talent, both renowned and emerging.

With such a diverse background, having organised events around the world, how do you adapt your approach to suit different cultural contexts and ensure each event resonates with its audience?

Trying to build something as a ‘foreigner in a foreign land’ really requires a lot of work. You need to be able to deeply understand the local culture, values, and the overall atmosphere. Each event that I have worked on has required a highly curated and tailored approach that respects and highlights the unique aspects of each location.

When we brought elrow and Ultra to South East Asia, we worked closely with local talent and key cultural stakeholders to ensure we captured the essence of the local energy, while introducing international elements.

For every event I’ve produced, we start by ingratiating ourselves in the local scene, observing and learning from the community – this helps us to create events that are authentic. For Suara Festival, we are blending Balinese culture with Southeast Asian influences – from our line up all the way through to stage design, the artisan marketplace and the food and beverage vendors on offer.

Collaboration with local artists, musicians, and cultural leaders is crucial in achieving this balance, ensuring the event feels both familiar, and new, to the audience.

Wonderfruit has been dubbed the ‘Burning Man of Asia’ and has received high praise for its sustainability efforts. Can you tell us about the vision behind Wonderfruit and how it has evolved over the years?

Wonderfruit came to life from the vision of creating a festival that could go beyond music, while emphasising sustainability, creativity, and culture. We wanted to build a platform that would promote environmental responsibility and social change – the idea was to create a festival that not only could entertain, but also educate and inspire attendees to live more sustainably beyond the festival grounds. 

Over the years, Wonderfruit has evolved to incorporate a wide range of activities – from art installations and workshops to wellness programs and talks. It focuses on reducing waste, promoting recycling, and using sustainable materials in every aspect of the festival. Initiatives like plastic-free zones, compostable food containers, and renewable energy sources are just a few examples of its commitment to sustainability.

You could say that Wonderfruit has grown to become somewhat of a beacon of sustainable practices in the festival industry, continually pushing the boundaries of what a music and arts festival can achieve in terms of environmental impact.

The whole thought behind it is by creating a space where people can experience and find out more about sustainability in a fun and entertaining way, positive change can be inspired on a larger scale. While that chapter of my life is now closed, being a part of Wonderfruit all those years are times that I will cherish forever.

As someone who has been involved with iconic events like Burning Man’s Robot Heart and Thailand’s Wonderfruit, what do you think are the key elements that make an event truly memorable and impactful?

The key elements that make an event truly memorable and impactful are a strong sense of community, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and attention to detail. Creating an environment where people feel free to express themselves and connect with others is really important – for example, at Robot Heart and Wonderfruit, we focused on creating unique experiences that engaged all the senses to curate something truly memorable.

In addition, immersive experiences are crucial – stage designs, world-class music acts, and grand and interactive installations. These elements create a multisensory environment that captivates and inspires attendees. Fostering a sense of community and belonging among attendees is also vital.

When people feel they are part of something special, it creates lasting memories that are shared experiences especially when it involves art projects, and spending time in spaces where people can come together and connect.

Balancing your roles as a DJ, event organiser, creative director, and now a father must be quite the challenge. How do you manage to juggle all these responsibilities while still finding time to enjoy life in Bali?

Balancing these roles at times can be super challenging, but my family and my yoga practice which I started during the pandemic, is my grounding force – I also make sure to start my day early with my kids. Beginning my day with family time and self-care ensures that I am in the right mindset before I hit the ground running on site tackling whatever the day has in store.

Flexibility and adaptability are integral, as each day brings new challenges – some good, some not so good. But, that’s the great thing about being based on an island like Bali. No matter what you’re doing you can still take a moment to enjoy its beauty, whether it’s through nature walks, a dip at the beach, or simply spending quality time with family.

This balance keeps me motivated and inspired. Bali’s serene environment provides the perfect backdrop for a balanced life, allowing me to recharge and stay creative.

With such a busy career, how do you prioritise work-life balance, especially now that you’re living in Bali? What practices or routines help you stay grounded and maintain a healthy equilibrium?

Living in Bali has definitely allowed me to adopt a healthier lifestyle. I start my day at the crack of dawn with my kids, followed by a workout session — whether it’s TRX, yoga, or a HIIT class – and meditation. This helps me stay centred and focused throughout the day which as someone with ADHD I really need.

I think Bali’s natural beauty and slower pace of life have been instrumental in helping me prioritise self-care and family time. By integrating wellness practices into my daily routine, I can stay calm and energised, allowing me to give my best to both my work and my family. It’s not always easy, but it’s really important to remain consistent to help keep a healthy equilibrium in order. 

You’ve lived in many different places around the world. How have these diverse experiences influenced your approach to event curation and your understanding of cultural trends?

Living in various places like Hong Kong, the UK, India, the US, and now Bali, has deeply influenced my approach to events. Understanding and embedding myself in different cultures has allowed me to create experiences that resonate with people on a deeper level.

It’s about blending the best of both worlds —honouring local traditions and infusing them with innovative, international trends to create unique, memorable experiences. This helps me and my team to stay ahead of the curve and look to the future embracing innovation and the forefront of culture.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the Suara Festival and your other projects? Are there any new ideas or innovations you’re excited to bring to life in the near future?

For Suara Festival, my intention is to continue supporting recognised international artists, while providing a global stage for up-and-coming talent, and local collectives.

I’m excited about the futuristic innovations and sustainability initiatives we’re implementing at Suara and Nuanu City from dragonfly repopulation projects to bamboo architecture, tech-infused art installations, electric buggies and the multimedia experiences at the Lighthouse.

We are really pushing the boundaries of what a festival can offer and fans can expect. An event of this scale and nature is a real rarity in Asia and so I can’t wait to welcome everyone in late July to see what we’ve been working on this last year at a venue that dreams are quite literally made of soundtracked by a highly curated lineup. It’s going to be pretty special and not like anything else Bali has seen.

At the end of the day, I just want to keep doing what I love – creating events that inspire, educate and entertain while leaving a lasting positive impact on attendees and the wider community. If you don’t love what you do then what’s the point? That’s why I called my creative agency that is producing Suara Festival ‘Do What You Love’ and the holding company is ‘Love What You Do’.

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