Why In With The New Is The Best Policy: Sonar Festival 2011 Review

Melissa Bradshaw heads back to Sonar in search of fresh experiences - and finds that it's the newer sounds, rather than familiar faces, that are the festival's lifeblood. Photos by Pere Masramon for Red Bull Music Academy

The first time I went to Sonar it was a big new world full of cool people and, more importantly, music that had a certain mystique – for me at least. Among the thronging of twenty-somethings, I heard things in a combination like nowhere else. Some acts had massive historical status, some were new, niche and exciting. The second time I went to Sonar, I turned up alone in the middle of a trip through Europe thinking I’d bump into a friend or two, and found I couldn’t turn round without bumping into a someone. It was great, and grooving under the open roof of Sonar Lab to Theo Parrish and Flying Lotus, joined on stage by Rustie and Hudson Mohawke, around all my friends with the sun coming up, is one of my happiest memories. Two years later – is it because I’ve become part of that world that was once and foreign and a bit aloof, or is it because I’ve grown, seen more, been through more music? – I know that at Sonar I am going to be saturated not just in sun but familiar music and people. I am, of course, going to have fun. But is Sonar now just going to be the things I know condensed into a weekend in the sun? Or can it still be something bigger, into which I venture into unknowns and emerge, newly learned and inspired?

I emerge on Sunday morning with my memories already blurred not by intoxication, but simply sleep deprivation and sheer data overload. Recollection comes randomly and in the wrong order. Stupidly but unavoidably I turned up to the festival already low on sleep. After navigating some boat clubs and ice cream vendors on my way to the Wednesday night RBMA barbecue intending to show some face and go home early to catchup on rest, I find myself instead dancing to Jackmaster playing R&B, house and freestyle til the weeniest hours, with a Sonic Router sticker on my ass. Even relatively sensible Sam, aka Floating Points, complains of the effects of drinking two vodkas before eating and disappears only to reappear an hour later. The next day, suffused in the sounds of his arduous crate diggings, we are Plastic People on a Saturday night transposed onto a sunny lawn full of strangers. Some of whom do not seem to understand us.

The rest is jumbled memory flashes: we are waiting for Aphex Twin, and Scuba is playing something surprisingly hard and techno to an enormous crowd. Then Aphex Twin begins with surprisingly unhard sounds – nice, pretty bleeps, spreading out in patterns of stops and starts. For a while. Then things get tough and the bleeps turn into sirens, chasing panting robots, which speed up into a full on metal machine chase. As we stagger, possibly not unintimidated, to escape on the bumper cars, there is a kind of alternately enchanting and driven electro emanating from the Sonar Car, which later expands into a slower, deeper tilt – music from Russian beatmakers Mujuice and DZA, respectively. At some point, somehow in some other time, I am on stage with Deviation friends and at the end of a set of the new ‘post dubstep’ sounds (Pearson Sound, Swamp 81 stuff) Benji B plays Gill Scott Heron and Jamie XX’s ‘New York Is Killing Me’, and possibly the anthem of Sonar 2011: Africa Hitech’s ‘Out In The Streets Jungle VIP’. Or it could have been the other way round. Then I am in a circle going wild to Toddla T, who had his huge crowd swaggering with bent knees to the latest genre Moombahton – created from a track called ‘Moombah’ slowed down to the tempo Reggaeton if you didn’t already know know’ – which turned into house and a huge crowd going crazy for Gypsy Woman and Voodoo Ray. One of us, having failed to persuade the rest of us to join him on stage, is bounding around the stage on his own, in circles, waving his arms histrionically at the audience. Presumably a day later Steve Spacek’s almost delirious vocal jams over an uncompromising set by his Africa Hitech companion Mark Pritchard seem equally funny. I think on the same night I am intimidated by the enormous crowd gathered for Mary Anne Hobbs, who is playing in her eclectic style and walking on a huge screen through an enormous forest.

Most of these things were both familiar and new. I have never seen Mary Anne play to 14 thousand people before. I know Africa Hitech make witty, futuristic music but I didn’t know how well Pritchard could mix up almost deranged, new rhythmic vibes from intricate mixes. I knew Moombahton was catchy, but not what it’s like to be part of a congregation captured in its wound down bump. On Saturday night there was a Numbers label takeover in Sonar Lab. With soulful garage and dirty juke classics (from Deadboy and Jackmaster) among the highlights, the particular musical network from which Numbers forms a unique node spread out in its full temporal and global colours. In other words, what I know seemed much bigger than it did before. Mosca’s new tune ‘Bax’ sounded like an old school garage classic, while Jessie Ware performing ‘Nervous’ was a moment in itself. Janelle Monae was astounding, a tiny woman with a huge voice, her hairdo springing undone from awesome physical exertion, fusing choreographed swing and Jimi Hendrix in an impressive entourage of dancers and musicians, in slick black and white tailoring. She was like some spirit who had transcended the 1920s jazz club scene and all of black American music since. A friend pronounced he had a new crush.

It was not just me – a friend also complained that the Sonar lineup has narrowed, and that the from the fewer number of big acts that they pull up from the past there are less underground originators (Richie Hawtin, Ellen Allien, X-102), more cheesy throwbacks (um, Underworld who I saw by accident). On the other hand, seeing many young new artists doing their thing was inspiring. San Francisco’s B Bravo for example, swaggering confidently between boogie and the bass funk of artists like Joker, throwing in the occasional L-Vis, and Manchester’s Illum Sphere bouncing off a hip hop launchpad into inter-generic space, because he has the skills. And of my disordered memories the best are three that, to me, suggest Sonar’s strongest directions. On Friday night I could feel my pulse in the soles of my feet I had danced so much, but somehow at 7am we were all still swaying stuck in the languid time lapses of Talking Head’s ‘This Must Be The Place’ instrumental (you always feel like the vocal is about to come in) and Diana Ross’s ‘Love Hangover’ towards the end of a set by James Murphy – the kind of artful international artist that Sonar is its best with.

B Bravo

Munchi’s Moombahton, epitomised by his track ‘Sandungueo’, is the best alien grinding music I’ve heard in an age: slowing down the template makes the groove extra infectious, and gives space for the comic play of samples and other sonic snippets. And finally, South African dance group’s Shangaan Electro were probably the most talked about act of the festival. The Tshe Tsha Boys and Girls dressed in garish orange, green and brown – jumpsuits, clown wigs, feathery skirts for the girls and mock pregnant bellies for the boys – put on a thrilling, carnivalesque spectacle as Dog, their helmsman, set himself and his dancers increasingly fast targets, with his overall aim constantly 184 bpm (their last record was 183). Which they of course achieved, but the pleasure was the journey there, through all the exuberant happiness their hyperkinetic rhythm and lilting melodic style projects. Theirs was the biggest applause I saw. Dog kept saying how great it was to be in Barcelona, at Sonar. And then he got up on stage and danced too. So, from what is the happiest of my handful of jumbled memories, the answer to my question, however personal, is that Sonar’s best moves this year were when the festival gave a platform to new music born and shaped in specific and otherwise isolated electronic music communities from all around the world. And with this retrospect, it seems a shame that they should spend thousands of pounds on certain overbooked and overexposed acts who they have booked repeatedly, than do more of this in future. But a big, grateful nod to one of the best weekends I’ve had all year.

The day after I have written this review, another memory flash: bathed in flashing white light, both entranced and calmed in the aural massage of Hype Williams. Feels a bit like love. Get very lost in it. Wonder what the sample is – an R&B singer I know well, just a snippet: ‘I’m so tired of the rain, in my life’. The same evening, watching a film, it pops into my head. Ashanti’s ‘Rain On Me’, forever one of the greatest songs about abuse, and the paradoxes that ambitious women still face wanting love. Directed, of course, by the original Hype Williams, and shot in Barcelona. Nice touch – a memory trace to be thought through in future.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today