Sónar Festival

Forget Ibiza and the industry schmoozathon that is Miami - every June, Barcelona's Sonar Festival extends a warm Mediterranean welcome to techno tourists from across the globe. Overload's Nick Craddock was there to get the low-down, and what a chore it was.

By Nick Craddock

One of the first things to become apparent upon attending Sonar is that it is unlike any festival you will find in the UK. Our traditional pastime here of parading out to the countryside to get mashed, often in the rain, doesn't quite operate on the same level as Barcelona's contribution to the world festival scene. 2001 marked the 8th consecutive year that Sonar opened it's gates to visitors from far and wide for three days and three nights. It's lure proves irresistible to repeat visitors, and it's line-up is persuasive enough to make it a priority to any potential convert in the know. Since it's conception in 1994, Sonar has successfully established itself as a centre for electronics in it's application to art and music, and it continues to provide an environment where both industry types and punters alike can seek insight into artistic trends and the technologies that make them possible.

Proceedings commenced this year on Thursday 14th of June, with the opening of the festival at midday. Sonar's daytime home is split between the city's Centre of Contemporary Culture (CCCB), and the adjacent MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona), with each impressively transformed to comprise four separate areas for performance, along with an interactive area (Sonarmatica); which highlights the multi-media and digital art emerging from a particular city (this year it's gaze was cast on London). In addition to this, there also exists a record fair, technology fair, cinema (Sonarcinema), professional area, and exhibition space for more 'traditional' contemporary art works. The hub of the CCCB is the 'Sonar Village' – an outdoor courtyard with a large stage, several bars and a restaurant. This space manages to effectively serve as a venue for enjoying the music on offer, as well as being equally great for sitting around and getting pissed up in the sun. The combination of both of these activities can produce a result close to absolute bliss. Artists to appear on the stage here included Jazzanova (as part of a full Compost Records showcase), DJ Vadim (and the Russian Percussion), and Andy Votel, but emphasis must be placed on the vast number of DJs and performers who played that are practically unheard of to all but the most worldly music fan.

The selection of artists to appear at the festival manages to cover a huge breadth of styles and origins – care is taken to ensure that it's performers are picked from the international stage in it's widest context. So, whilst big names like Masters At Work, Frankie Knuckles, Jeff Mills, and Carl Cox headline the evening's itinerary, you're just as likely to witness performances and DJ sets from home grown talent in addition to some lesser known acts from across the globe.

Around the corner from the Sonar Village is the 'Sonarlab' – a relatively small marquee that was this year graced by such folks as John Peel and Dave Tarrida. The former took to the decks in mid-afternoon to entertain the masses with his stunning programming which took in Love Will Tear Us Apart, You'll Never Walk Alone (Songs From The Cop version), Teenage Kicks, and a happy hardcore rendition of Mariah Carey's Without You. This was met with suitably rapturous crowd reaction, and big smiles all round. Meanwhile, Dave Tarrida was asked by Tresor to display their credentials, and what an arsenal he had to work with. I doubt it occurred to the crowd that it was tea-time when Tarrida let rip – you wouldn't have guessed anyway, as he dropped tune after tune of label classics and turned the sometime seated area into a seemingly late night sweatbox.

Elsewhere, at the MACBA – an area traditionally reserved for the most experimental strains of music, Mille Plateau held their label showcase in church-like surroundings. Sutekh dished up vinyl-based helpings of all things pop and click, and fellow label mates Vladislav Delay, Kid 606, SND and Curd Duca performed live. Those who had successfully conquered the long queue to bear witness had to contend with some stifling heat, which perhaps didn't create the best environment for the sometimes demanding music... or maybe I'm just a pasty Brit who isn't used to hot weather.

With daytime events finishing around 9pm, there were only a few hours until things kicked off a few miles out of town at the gargantuan 'Montjuic 2' venue, divided into three spaces – 'Sonarclub', 'Sonarpark', and 'Sonarpub' (can you spot a theme yet?). With Sonar's reputation growing steadily with each passing year, the number of visitors has increased proportionately – hence this year's decision to move from the 'Pavello Del Mar'; a leisure centre a few miles down the coast, with the massive advantage of having a terrace overlooking the sea. It would be fair to say that this aspect was missed from Sonar 2001, regardless of it's own considerable merit.

Personal preference went to the impressively lit outdoor stage (Sonarpub) – at it's best on the Friday. You know you've got it good when you can see Isolee, Twerk, Luomo, DJ Jasper (Cytrax), G-Man, and Steve Rachmad play consecutively. All excelled, with the Force Inc. artists in particular showcasing some luscious electronic techno that avoided ever resorting to tired recycled loopery. Top marks especially go to Jasper, who would have taken the roof off were it not outdoors, and Steve Rachmad, who slammed three decks until well after the sun had come up.

Sonar's final night (Saturday) is traditionally a biggie. With Jori Hulkkonen, The Youngsters, Richie Hawtin, Phuture 303, Jeff Mills, Umek, and local man Angel Molina playing this year, that tradition was continued, with each act pushing the vast crowds towards the brink of total hard techno meltdown. A predictable highlight was Jeff Mills' set – with the Purpose Maker throwing it down very tightly, encompassing breathtaking 909 work that put other drum machine wielders to shame. The question of how to follow Mills must have been deliberated over by Umek, who eventually decided that the best approach would be to conduct his set across four turntables (still with the standard two hands). He pulled it off too by all accounts, but by then the kickdrums had become too much. Time to retire outside for rest and drinks, and the happy discovery that Matthew Herbert was to play the closing set of the festival. Billed as 'DJ Mistakes', Ol' Herb did himself proud, keeping asses shaking until after 9am with his inspired / inspiring selection of music. Matthew's ability to craft perfection within imperfection was exhilarating – no mean feat after three days and nights of revelry!

Whilst it is relatively simple to outline the features and benefits of such a festival, it is perhaps more difficult to pin down the essence of Sonar. Certainly, those who attend will endeavour to explain to friends at home exactly why they had such a good time. A combination of location, laid back Spanish/Catalan vibe, and the music itself all play a large part, but even then it's difficult to do Sonar justice. Perhaps the only way to truly get it is to visit in person and relinquish yourself to the Sonarbug... See you there next year?

Originally published in Overload Magazine 8.0
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