Sónar Barcelona: 16 - 18 June 2011, Spain (Thursday)
A surprise performance by one of the godfathers of Techno in a food-market perfectly encapsulated what the third week in June in the Catalan capital is all about.
Sónar BarcelonaCity: Barcelona, Spain
Spread over three days and two nights, Sonar International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art has established itself over the past 18 years as one of Europe’s biggest music festivals, and one of the most important electronic music festivals in the world. The festival’s starting point and spiritual home is the city of Barcelona, however since 2002 Sonar has leant its name to 24 different events across the world including Lisbon, Washington D.C., Buenos Aires, Chicago, London, Tokyo, and in 2012 the festival will travel to Sao Paulo. In 2011 alone, London has played host to A Taste of Sonar, a festival preview of sorts which featured big names from this year’s festival, Buraka Som Sistema, Dels and The Gaslamp Killer, while SonarSound Tokyo which ran in April featured the likes of Battles, Flying Lotus and Kode9. Not satisfied merely with international expansion, two Sonar events also ran concurrently alongside the festival in Barcelona, with Sonar Galicia held in A Coruna and SonarKids held in Barcelona on the Sunday after the main festival.
Priding itself upon its reputation as a nurturer of all things new and cutting edge, it seeks to feature acts from the world of electronic music both old and new. As with anything that was once seen as innovative, the festival has its detractors, who claim that where it was once the haven of avant-garde electronic music, it has now moved into more populist territory, whereby musical innovators of the likes of Richie Hawtin, Ellen Allien and Ricardo Villalobos have been replaced by more mainstream electronic acts like The Chemical Brothers, Orbital, Deadmau5 and, this year, Underworld. It is a criticism which is not entirely unexpected for an event which has sought to broaden its appeal, but one which is also unfair, considering that Moodymann and Richie Hawtin’s Plastikman played last year and Aphex Twin and James Holden featured this year. Indeed, it is the eclectic nature of the festival, which, while setting it apart from its earlier incarnations, makes the whole event so special, as up and coming artists from as wide a range of genres within, or just outside the electronic sphere rub shoulders with more established names. For every Human League there is a Hiroaki Oba, for every Aphex Twin, a Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble.
This being my third Sonar in as many years, I felt that with my knowhow and meticulously planned schedule, everything would run smoothly right from the off. However, as the saying goes, the best laid battle plans only last until the first shot is fired, and the malfunction of three successive laminating machines at the press office put paid to my wish of seeing Toro y Moi. Walking out into the sunshine to catch the last few notes from his set was but the first of many disappointments that the weekend had in store.
Divided into ‘Sonar by Day’, which takes place in the Center of Contemporary Culture (CCCB) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA) right in the heart of Barcelona, and ‘Sonar by Night’ which occurs in a massive expo center near the airport, it is the day section which is almost unanimously preferred. Set in the tree-lined courtyards which separate the two museums, the relaxed atmosphere underneath the Mediterranean sun is unique to this event, as opposed to the altogether messier and rave-like Sonar by Night. In line with the surroundings, the music featured during the day showcases the more relaxed side of electronic music, and the day-time line-up this year was better than ever.
The disappointment over missing Toro y Moi soon faded as his set was immediately followed by the excellent Sam Shepherd, better known as Floating Points. In the midst of studying for a PhD in neuroscience, the trained Jazz pianist has over recent times managed to fit in around his studies a residency at London club Plastic People and appearances as festivals across Europe. His sets can vary wildly from techno, to IDM to classic disco and funk, and on this occasion he dipped profusely into the latter. With the sun beating down, he mixed jazzy house with soul, funk and blues, creating a wave-like set which flowed over the crowd, cutting out low frequencies to build the most hushed of crescendos before dropping a pounding 4/4 beat back into the mix. While perhaps not the most accomplished artist on show, his set was possibly best suited to the vibrant atmosphere created during Sonar’s day-time edition over the course of these three days, as testified by the smiles and relaxed jubilation that was palpably emanating from the crowd as the entire courtyard was filled with dancing bodies.
The line-up gods had seemed to be smiling on me as, almost perfectly, Nicolas Jaar’s performance at SonarHall directly followed that of Floating Points at the main SonarVillage stage. It was much to my, and a large crowd of people’s disappointment to find therefore that access to SonarHall, the only venue to be found inside during Sonar by Day, was barred as it had long since reached maximum capacity. It would not be the first time that SonarHall would thwart well-laid plans, as in subsequent days the situation repeated itself for both Apparat and Actress, and begged the question as to why three of the most exciting and notable names to be playing at the festival were made to play at the stage with the smallest capacity. Upon asking one of the lucky few who managed to squeeze passed The Willys (the rather humorous name emblazoned on the shirts of all security personnel at the festival), it would seem that Jaar’s performance with a live band was technically excellent but was lacking somewhat in adventure, as they churned out song after song to great acclaim without ever daring to wander off-track and improvise. Despite the success of tracks like "El Bandido", Jaar gave the impression that he couldn’t wait to get off stage, which went some way into softening the blow of missing his set.
The benefit of festivals however is that when one door closes, another opens, and in this case missing Jaar provided the opportunity to watch the excellent Little Dragon. The Swedish quartet’s performance swayed between up-beat and drum heavy dance music to start with into dreamy electro-pop entwined with R&B. Front-woman Yukimi Nagano, clad in a fantastic Native American-meets-Nu-Rave print dress, completely bewitched the crowd, striding across the stage drum-stick in hand and orchestrating both band and audience. On record, Little Dragon are an accomplished, if not hugely exciting band, however the kinetic energy they give off live turns them into an entirely different prospect, and one which was greatly appreciated.
Sonar week is a special time in Barcelona, as the festival itself represents only a fraction of what is going on in the city musically, as DJs from around the world flock to the city to perform in what is unofficially dubbed as ‘Off-Sonar’. Alongside the scheduled beach parties, boat parties and just general parties are the surprise events that you can unwittingly stumble upon. One such event was taking place just five minutes away from Sonar by Day in the Boqueria Market, Barcelona’s premier food market, as Richie Hawtin, set up in a fruit stall, played a three hour set to a crowd of hundreds of people. The great thing about a sunny climate is that no matter whether you play jazzy house, dance-pop or minimal techno, it always seems to fit, a feeling which is accentuated when the setting is in as beautiful a city as Barcelona. With the relentless beat pounding over an ecstatic crowd and into the apartments of rather incredulous-looking locals, this surprise performance by one of the godfathers of Techno in a food-market perfectly encapsulated what the third week in June in the Catalan capital is all about.
Heading back to Sonar by Day, we were able to catch the Ninja Tune/Big Dada showcase at SonarVillage, where Shuttle, followed by Dels and then Offshore rounded of the official proceedings for the day. Shuttle and, in particular Offshore, played excellent sets, and sandwiched one of UK hip-hop’s rising stars, Dels. His performance, in comparison to his two label mates was ever so slightly disappointing as the sound wasn’t quite right, with the backing tracks fading into obscurity behind his vocals. Nevertheless, his tech-savvy show did please in parts, and ended strongly with his highly successful single ‘Shapeshift’. Offshore’s subsequent mix of electronica and grime was truly excellent, with a packed out crowd appreciating in particular Bok Bok’s "Silo Pass" and one of Sonar 2011’s anthems (quite why, I am yet to understand), Africa Hitech’s "Out on the Streets".
Moving on from Sonar by Day, we headed to the first scheduled Off-Sonar party hosted by Tailored Communication and Aupeo! on the roof-terrace Sky Bar of the Axel Hotel. Having missed performances by Appleblim and Midland, we walked out onto the Sky Bar to be greeted by breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the deep and down-tempo music of Aus-Music founder Will Saul. Watching the sun set and an almost-full moon rise ended an extremely successful Day One.