7 Jan 2024

Spirit festival founder Franko Heke

From The Weekend , 11:44 am on 7 January 2024
Franko Heke at a festival

Franko Heke: "I knew that I needed to change something." Photo: Supplied

Franko Heke has been running alcohol-free parties for almost a decade. Over that time, they've grown from niche events to huge festivals attended by thousands of people.

Heke joined Susana Lei'ataua to share his story and discuss the rise of the sober celebration.

He was an aspiring musician and lived the hard-partying lifestyle that went with that, Heke says.

“I was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts and my first daughter on the way and basically I knew that I needed to change something because where I was going was a dark place. And it wasn't healthy.

“And I wasn't taking responsibility for myself and let alone my young one that's coming.”

Discovering meditation changed him, Heke says.

“My parents used to meditate. I used to watch them meditate when I was a young kid and obviously didn't think much of it because it looked boring to me… eyes closed, I'm gonna go play while their eyes are closed.

“But it's one of those things, when I turned 28-29, I kind of looked back and thought, oh, I have to do something drastic here because I'm not feeling good.

“The downs are too too low. And it's pretty scary. So I actually found meditation and then yoga and then mantra and music.”

Heke started running free yoga workshops at his Auckland home.

“It basically started in my lounge, the first Wednesday at my house was completely full of people, this was in Takapuna in Auckland 10 years ago.

“I found other people that were interested in just looking after their health a little bit more and connecting on a sober level and having deeper connections.”

Those little Wednesday nights grew and grew, he says.

“They turned into retreats, and then those retreats turned into big workshops and then the workshops have turned into these festivals that we now run called Spirit festival and Resolution Festival.”

They now have a permanent site in Kaipara, he says, one hour from Auckland’s Sky Tower. They run three festivals a year.

The Spirit Festival is both educational and celebrational, Heke says.

“We have about 15 workshop zones that you can go in, and you can learn about maybe fasting or gardening, looking after the earth looking after yourself. Meditation workshops, dance workshops, and it's a place that's family friendly, completely family-friendly, we were really about kaumatua-elders hanging out with tamariki and everyone in between.

“And we just tried to create an environment where people can have a choice to not have to get wasted and lose themselves. They can come and up-level themselves and connect really on a deep level with each other.”

Heke says the economics of sober festivals are challenging, but he's adamant there is a appetite for such events.

“It's a real difficult one to navigate because we basically run these festivals on a shoestring budget, we run them from just pure ticket sales, so no sponsorship. And obviously no alcohol sponsorship, which is the real big kicker for these other festivals. So, it's a struggle, but we get through and we know that we're creating a new way.”

He says sober partying allows for people to connect more deeply.

“We're just doing our own thing and following our heart and our intuition.”