Dan Davies goes for a festival but stays for a fiesta.
I don’t care what people say about trench spirit, when it boils down to it, festivals are supposed to be in sunny weather, anything else becomes the worst camping holiday crossed cum-car-boot sale with weirdo’s; while music is made from a mud-filled bin.
Judging by the poor Glasto ticket sales (which I believe has naff all to do with Jay-Z) many people felt the same way; so we’d already decided on our summer festival action plan well in advance and booked a budget flight to Barcelona. Unfortunately, lots of other people had the same idea to go to Sónar too. Two weeks before we set off, I receive confirmation of a three day photo pass for Sónar By Day and none for the night event. Oddly, my actual photographer only gets a one-day pass of her choosing.
Crowd capacity is up at Sónar, which is good news for the curators but for me, some of the festival’s unique character is lost. This year the crowd split into two distinct groups: friendly geeks from all nations; and vacuous hair-cut-knob-heads who took up too much space posing, not dancing. The hair-cuts mostly sunned themselves at Sónar By Day by the main stage – occasionally catching the ‘rave lift’ up to the energy drink sponsored bar for the odd four-four shrug off.
For the rest of us, the many other rooms inside the Contemporary Art Museum (CCCB) in the daytime were fantastic; even the ones that were, in fact, rubbish. The real delight of Sónar By Day is that you can see something genuinely mind blowing, or something that is utterly baffling; my first bafflement left me lost for words. Deciding to take in some art in the main building we were made to leave our bags at reception and traipse up the grand (and long) disabled access ramps of the main museum because the lift doesn’t work.
We reach the top and walk into a dark room. On the left there’s a video installation on the wall of a CCTV standard, seemingly showing people walking in an actual gallery (you know with paintings, people and daylight and other ‘bourgeois’ concepts). On the right there’s set of fence posts with photographs of the artist stuck to the top of each. He’s dressed as Che Guevara with his back to the camera, pissing on a motorbike. In the corner is that very bike, painted red just in case you missed the Cold War references.
In the auditorium there is a selection of excellent short films being screened including Soulwax’s excellent Part Of The Weekend Never Dies and a documentary on the Osaka movement; the main theme for Sónar this year is the link between cinema and art forms.
The other exhibition is a collection of photography and video installations using various films for inspiration. Some of the art genuinely connects with the films, including a particularly impressive one which adopted the style and atmosphere of New York Gangster films and applied them to a pastiche of NY residents. Others are more loosely based – often along the lines of ‘I was taking some photos anyway, and then I watched a film and thought they might be connected in some way.’
A band who merges audio and visual art expertly is Pram, who is part of the Capsule showcase on the Friday. Pram delightfully delve into music constructing a lost soundtrack from Ennio Morricone or 60s English TV shows or spookier 70s arts films. The atmospheric music blends perfectly with their home-made movies which are projected like a cross between The Prisoner and Polanski.
Alongside the Capsule-curated showcase is ZX Spectrum Orchestra, an offshoot of the playful Modified Toy Orchestra. This band use just Spectrum computers and the Beep music programme to make their music. Clive One and Clive Two play tracks whilst pixel art monochrome visuals load up. Clive One glorifies ‘Geek Pride’ and delivers such lines as “We’d like to play our favourite algorithm. I’m sure it’s an algorithm you all know and love…” Particularly impressive is the Red Square film that “Took over a year of programming by Clive Two and takes up as much memory space as an e-mail.” Again, the only disadvantage of this space is that it filled up and was impossible to get in to see Matmos as the venue was at full capacity.
There are mixed reasons why we miss the Ninja showcase on Friday afternoon. Firstly, in a sun frazzled state I assume that the main stage is called ‘the village.’ We watch an amazing band who we think are The Heavy when in fact they are a Spanish band called Konono No.1.
‘These are brilliant!’
‘Yeah, it’s like a two-man Latin carnival.’
‘Where are they from?’
‘Brighton I think…’
We only really take notice when a rubbish Spanish hip-hop band is playing instead of Daedelus. We rush over to the tent at the back of the complex but once again can’t get anywhere near for the coiffure’s throngs.
On the final Sónar By Day we’re a little late arriving and spend a lot of time working on a stall in order to earn a three-day pass for my photographer. We hear rumours that DJ Yoda turned up and Kid Acne wasn’t very good from behind our trestle table. We do get a chance to pootle down to see Pilooski but the set is so minimal that our attention begins to wander.
We were also nursing hangovers from Sónar By Night which started off well with Madness teaching even the heaviest tech-head to pogo. Diplo’s set brought on the party hits expertly splicing soca into Brazilian into MIA in with Nirvana, and Justice upped the rock-stakes to ridiculous levels with their stage full of Marshall amps. There’s a dip in the evening as we listen to the subtle beats of dubstep by the Vodafone dodgems and a touch more minimal techno from Richie Hawtin. A lot of time is spent circling the spacious set of aircraft hanger sized buildings. At about three in the morning we consider cutting our losses, but as we’re heading on out we pass by Frankie Knuckles playing ‘You’re Free’ by Ultra Nate and we have to stay.
Suddenly everything falls into place and over the next few hours we dance between, Frankie Knuckles, 2ManyDJs and a sensational carnival set from Hercules And The Love Affair.
Sónar is not limited by the day and night events. Before and throughout the festival there are club nights and parties in which both line-up and atmosphere rival the event. After Sónar finishes on Saturday night the fringe festival continues. Excited to hear our friends have discovered an ‘amazing’ beach party in the next town, we jump on a tram and glide across the city. We arrive and soon realise we’ve been on this beach four years ago and back then the entire stretch was full of sound-systems, and the largest glitter-ball we’d ever seen. This time the party has been condensed within one bar and pool and admission is 15 euros. We decide not to go in and get the last tram home.
We’ve heard that free parties have been cracked down on in recent years as they’re anti-social. These new parties are more contained and safer but like many other elements of the festival, you feel someone else is cashing in.
On the Monday however, we witness a true fiesta flaunting any UK ideas of health and safety and potential anti-social behavior; had the entirety of Barcelona not turned out for Spain’s summer solstice. As we head down to Barcelonetta and stop off at a bar for tapas, the masses continue to stream towards the beach. We hear fireworks in the square behind us and check them out. We have to squeeze into the square as there’s a steel-pan band at the entrance; people are standing all round the edges. In a tokenistic attempt to keep the crowd back there’s a single barrier with a wax flare on each corner. In the centre of the square people are dressed in overalls with devil horns and Catherine wheels on their heads and trident forks with Roman candles stuck to the end; all causing mischief with fire.
We head down to the beach and it’s packed full of all sorts of people sitting around. Every few seconds someone is firing a rocket out of the sand or throwing a banger at our feet. On the main promenade we walk past a band. One chap is on a kick drum symbol and snare whilst the other is playing didgeridoo. As the beats are brought up to drum’n’bass speed the digde player MC’s down his pipe; they’re called Wild Marmalade.
“That’s the best thing I’ve seen in Barcelona this year!” says my photographer. Though ironically she’s left the camera at home tonight.