At Okeechobee Fest, Music, Art Unite in Utopian "Nature Paradise"

"We're going to put Okeechobee on the map."
"We're going to put Okeechobee on the map."
Courtesy of Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival

Put on your imagination cap and allow us to guide you on a journey into paradise. It's a balmy 76 degrees, and the sun falls across your face in beams broken up by the lush thicket of grove surrounding your path. As you emerge from the woodland shade, your eyes adjust to take in a wide, blue sky dotted with wisps of clouds hanging over acres of grassy clearing.

Floating over a welcomed Florida breeze, the kind that tends to blow in only during the first days of March, just as spring breaks, comes a beat. At first, it's faint, a quiet pulse that draws you in and propels you forward. At your sides, smiling faces — some familiar, others not — also follow the sound.

Directly ahead, you begin to make out the source of the beat: three large, open structures surrounded by even more tropical foliage, forming the heart of a sprawling, 800-acre preserve filled with lovingly maintained lakes, beaches, jungles, woodlands, and fields. By the time you and your new friends have closed in on the center, it's become clear where you are and why you've come here. You notice your hips begin to sway and your heart vibrate warmly inside your chest. You're home.

Welcome to Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival, brainchild of cofounders Steve Sybesma and Paul Peck, two industry veterans who came together expressly for the purpose of transforming the lush enclave they've dubbed Sunshine Grove into the utopian entertainment escape it was always destined to be.

"We really want to create a place where people can have a little bit of a throwback experience — a ritualistic, joint, shared experience in a physical place," Peck tells me from his and Sybesma's Okeechobee Fest headquarters in Coconut Grove. As he explains his vision for the brand new, three-day music and arts camping experience launching this spring — "real people, in real time, with real music, just in nature" — it's evident this is more than just another job.

For Peck, a creative mastermind who left his dream post at Bonnaroo to helm this festival, and partner Sybesma, an expert producer who helped launch what is currently China's biggest electronic music festival, this is the pinnacle: their passion project.

Neither Sybesma nor Peck had any intention of leaving their previous work behind. The two met back in 2006, when their respective companies came together in New York to discuss a potential new festival project in China. Although that particular venture fell through, Sybesma and Peck remained in touch. "He never deleted my number off his phone after the first China discussion," Peck laughs.

It wasn't until January 2014, when Sybesma's daughter, a lawyer at a Florida law firm, passed along her dad's contact information to one of her clients. His name was Cliff Rosen, a well-connected developer in Central Florida, and he was sitting on some property he thought Sybesma might find of interest.

"He reached out to me and said, 'You've gotta see this property; I think you can do something on it musically,'" Sybesma recalls. "I was happy in China; I love living in Shanghai — that's my second home." But since he happened to be in the United States for Christmas, Sybesma decided to go take a look. "I kind of did it as a favor; I didn't think I was actually going to come back. I was probably going to connect him with my friends at Live Nation or AEG. After I saw the property, I said, 'Forget it. I'm going to do this myself.'"

Sybesma became completely wrapped up in the magic of the pristine "nature paradise," with its maintained and manicured landscaping, a well-designed mix of natural and manmade, six miles of paved road, and "awesome camping fields," which are flat and grassy with an absorbent, sandy soil underneath. Originally developed by Rosen as an equestrian ranching community just before the big crash, it seems the halcyon property needed exactly what Sybesma had: a vision.

Of course, he knew he couldn't take on the massive project on his own, so he got back in touch with Peck and went to work trying to bring him onboard.

"It wasn't easy stuff," admits Peck. "I was kind of realistic about what I thought my interest level was. I was really happy at Bonnaroo, I was doing projects I really believed in, I had a ton of creative latitude."

Peck graduated in 2001 from Tulane, where he completed an internship at the legendary New Orleans music venue Tipitina's and organized the first of many collaborative, live "super jams" that have become his signature twist at Bonnaroo. Peck signed on to Superfly, the music and lifestyle company that's also behind San Francisco's Outside Lands festival, directly after school and helped launch Bonnaroo the following year. He's since worked with everyone from Skrillex and D'Angelo to John Oates and R. Kelly to create "once in a lifetime" collaborations onstage in real time.

Peck agreed to meet with Sybesma. "I told him realistically, I'm probably not interested unless the property is absolutely exceptional," he says. "The second I saw it, I was like, 'Drop everything — let's go do this.'"

With the help of a team of first-rank festival producers, including head-of-operations Jim Tobin, who's led on-the-ground efforts at Bonnaroo, Coachella, Hang Out Fest, Governor's Ball, and Electric Forest, they're doing it. Sybesma and Peck, along with a handful of key players, formed Soundslinger LLC, purchased Rosen's property, and have been grinding full-steam since. "We're going to kind of put Okeechobee on the map in a sense," Sybesma says.

Upon entering the grounds, guests will undergo what Peck calls a "transformative experience" as they take in massive art installations and light-mapping intermixed with nature. And while the three stages — completely surrounded by trees — are relatively close together, Peck ensures there will be "minimal sound leak from stage to stage." Plus, unlike some festivals where walking from campgrounds to the festival can take 45 minutes, at Okeechobee, everything is more centrally located.

Apart from the main stage and campgrounds, the festival will also capitalize on the various other features of the preserve, including a lakeside beach for swimming while taking in another stage overlooking the water; and a clearing in the tropical woods called "Yogachobee," featuring meditation and massage. Sunshine Grove is flanked by an organic vegetable and herb farm, where the team will be sourcing much of its food for its vendors, although campers are welcome to bring their own. All service containers will be 100 percent biocompostable.

"Burning Man is a reference point for what we're trying to accomplish," says Peck, though they're not attempting to draw a direct comparison. "We really want this to be a hub for a really diverse community." Instead of a "city festival" like Miami's Ultra, Okeechobee Fest aims to be more of an escape. "It's just a different reality, an old reality of living among nature."

With artist installations being culled both locally and across the coasts and Peck busy at work with R&B artist Miguel on his latest one-off collaborative jam centerpiece, the "once in a lifetime" experience they're aiming for doesn't seem too far off.

Peck sums up the Okeechobee Fest experience like this: "This morning, I was in Miami, driving on the freeway, and now I'm out here, underneath a tree, sipping on an organic juice, listening to music, and hanging out with this person I just met this morning. It's why I go on vacation. You want to have this adventure, this experience that you're never going to forget."

Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival
With Mumford & Sons, Kendrick Lamar, Skrillex, Bassnectar, and others. March 4 to 6 at Sunshine Grove, 12517 NE 91st Ave., Okeechobee. Three-day advance passes start at $269.50. Visit okeechobeefest.com.

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