Sónar Barcelona: 16 - 18 June 2011, Spain (Saturday)

Alex Baker
Buraka Som Sistema. Photo Credits: Jessy Boon Cowler

The toll of days and nights spent partying and the effect of cumulative sleep deprivation was clearly evident at the final installment of Sonar by Day.

Sónar Barcelona

City: Barcelona, Spain
Date: 2011-06-18


The toll of days and nights spent partying and the effect of cumulative sleep deprivation was clearly evident at the final installment of Sonar by Day. The contrast between the jubilant scenes witnessed at Floating Points and Four Tet in the days preceding and the somewhat muted atmosphere was tangible, if not crippling. Shangaan Electro however went some way in lifting spirits. With focal point "Dog" jubilantly egging the crowd on, shouting out over and over again “Thank you Sonar! We have 1 million YouTube hits, 1 million YouTube hits” (although trying to find this highly viewed video has proven more difficult than you would imagine). The upbeat and fast paced Afropop, brilliantly supplemented by the fantastically colourful and talented Tshe Tsha Boys and Girls dancers brought a little bit of the Soweto to grateful audience.

The transport issues getting to Gran Via reared their ugly head once more – although they paled in comparison to the on average two hours it takes to get home once the festival closes at 7am – and I just made it in time to catch Janelle Monae’s performance at SonarPub. Entering the outside space to her rendition of The Jackson 5’s "I Want You Back", what had initially seemed like an odd fit for an electronic music festival suddenly made perfect sense as thousands of mainly middle-class English kids tried their utmost to keep up with her energetic pace. Wearing her staple shirt, tie and trousers combo, she belted out hit after hit off of Archandroid, hitting each note pitch-perfect, and wedded her music with performance stunts, donning a cape and painting a picture of a woman’s back above a message which read ‘Love’, and confirmed herself as one of the stand out performers of the night. Finishing with aplomb, her hit "Tightrope" sent the crowd delirious underneath an explosion of confetti.

Janelle Monae [Photo Credit: advanced music - sonar festival]

Next up on the roster were dance-music legends Underworld. I had been left decidedly underwhelmed by their most recent record, Barking and as such entered SonarClub with limited expectations to say the least. However, right from the off they confirmed why after all these years they are still able to do the festival circuit, and indeed, why they still should do the festival circuit. Shunning the complex and beard-stroking visuals favoured by many an artist at Sonar; they brought '90’s rave culture to the fore and from start to finish, created the best atmosphere seen at SonarClub over the course of the festival. Mixing the old with the new, tracks which I had previously turned my nose up at like "Always Loved a Film" and "Scribble" tore the place up. Karl Hyde – with the effects of living in the 90’s for over a decade too long etched clearly across his face – confidently pounced all over the stage underneath psychedelic visuals. Ending on the requisite "Born Slippy", they established themselves as one of the highlights of Sonar 2011.

Underworld [Photo Credit: advanced music - sonar festival]

Wasting no time, it was back to SonarPub to see one of dance music’s most entertaining live performers. Having first discovered them on the same stage two years previously, Buraka Som Sistema were one of the acts that I had most looked forward to seeing again. While on record they are good, if not necessarily fantastic, it is in their live shows where they truly come into their own. For their live set-up they comprise of two DJs, a drummer and three MCs, their pounding Kuduro is built for festivals like this, which when coupled with the infectious energy that flows from the front three makes even the most sceptical of onlookers move their feet. The female MC in particular is a spectacle in herself, and makes Shakira look like nun in comparison. Featuring tracks both old and new, "Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)" and "Hangover (BaBaBa)" in particular stood out and were massive hits. As with their performance two years previous, for one of their last tracks they invited 15 girls from the audience on stage to dance with them – a stunt which no matter whether it is performed by Iggy Pop or an Angolan-Portuguese Kuduro act never fails – and it proved to create an even more carnival-like atmosphere, and ensured that they, along with Janelle Monae and Underworld, formed in incredibly strong start to what turned out to be a fantastic night.

Buraka Som Sistema Stage Invasion

Buraka Drummer

Sonar by Night is by no means your average warehouse party on a ridiculously huge scale, as you can while away hours either sitting down and eating, riding bumper cars or browsing through clothes stalls, in a weird and wonderful setting. Or you can just dance.

The penultimate act of the night was former BPitch Control heavyweight Paul Kalkbrenner. Having moved from his more stripped down early offerings, in 2011 he has firmly established himself in the realms of what I can only describe as Stadium Techno. His set began quite poorly, bringing to mind the thought that Techno, when done well is mind-blowing, but when it is not, it can be utterly dull. While that statement may be true, it faded from my mind as the set progressed, as he ditched the cheese and developed into a pounding and euphoric wall of sound, greeting the slow arrival of the sun and providing a perfect introduction to the best performance of the entire festival.

Having begun his producing career over 11 years ago, and having established the phenomenonally brilliant Border Community 4 years later, James Holden has truly established himself as one of the most important and influential figures in contemporary electronic music, and it was only fitting that he brought this years edition of Sonar to a close. It is his label to which he devotes most of his energies, with only one release of his own material to his name, 2006’s The Idiots Are Winning. As such, his DJ sets tend to vary wildly depending on when you catch him, switching between Trance, IDM and Techno, and almost always functioning as a shop window for his up and coming protégées from within his Border Community family. It was thus with keen anticipation that we awaited to see what he would have to serve up as the headlining act of Sonar 2011.

James Holden

Any worries that he might have entered to far into the realms of self indulgence were dispelled almost immediately as he weaved his magic, beginning slowly and picking up the pace. Harmonies and melody were the order of the day, forgoing the harder side of electronic music for subtle beats as he played a diverse range of tracks, all sculpted into a sound that had his name written all over it. Eschewing the traditional form of simply mixing one track into another, Holden is an advocate of the use of technology, deconstructing songs and building them up again into on-the-fly compositions. Featuring tracks by the likes of label mate Fairmont ("Cannon"), Martial Canterel ("Three Days") and disco legend Giorgio Moroder ("Chase"), his set was one of incredible beauty that shone out in the grey morning light. The ethos behind his music, and the music released on his label, is to produce electronica which is not out of place either in the club or the bedroom, and his set perfectly reflected this. It was, in this writer’s opinion, one of the best, if not the best electronic music performance that I have ever borne witness to, and provided the perfect end to what had been a fantastic three days.





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