FESTIVAL REVIEW: Soundwave 2017
Soundwave has built up a reputation as one of the loveliest festivals Croatia has to offer, here's what we made of it.
It’s just after sunset, I’m sitting on a boat slowly trundling between small islands on the Adriatic Sea, beneath me is the faint rumble of the sound-system, and Alexander Nut is wandering around the deck offering people cups of booze. This is Soundwave 2017.
Nine years ago, New Bohemia founder Noah Ball and Soundcrash mastermind Rob Waller came together to add something new to the ever-growing Croatian festival scene. Outlook was the insane, bass blasting party, Dimensions was the techno expo, and Soundwave became a kind of indulgence. It’s a promoter’s festival, a musician’s festival, it brings together all the acts which the promoters have been loving all year and sets them loose on the beautiful Garden Resort in Tisno for five days. This year that list included GoGo Penguin, The Pharcyde, Egyptian Lover, Laura Mvula, Roy Ayers and Roni Size.
Soundwave is very much geared towards a slow burning approach. There are four stages on the site: the main stage, the beach stage, a third smaller stage and a sound-system just next to the restaurant. During the day, DJs play reduced volume sets as the small crowd (this year there was a total of 2,000 attendants) shuffles around the site in slow motion. People swim in the sea, sunbathe, read, eat and dance in small pockets.
More lively acts start appearing in the late afternoon, and once the sun goes down, the festival transforms. The volume goes up, everyone gets off their feet and it feels for all the world like you’re at a night at Warehouse Project or Brixton Electric, except someone has torn the roof off and turned the heater up past 30 degrees. DJs like Rich Reason and Alexander Nut trade off their chilled daytime playlists for utter madness and the incredible Function 1 speaker systems rattle the entire resort.
It’s quite the contrast, but it never feels overwhelming. Everything at Soundwave feels considered, from the set times to the stage positioning to balance of the lineup itself. Speaking to me on The Argonaut, Soundwave’s party boat, Noah reflects on how his team’s approach has changed in the festival’s nine year lifespan. “Over the course of the year you forget how close to paradise this place is” He says as the stunning Croatian landscape goes by. “For alternative music Croatia has really claimed its place, all the promotors who came out here and started promoting stuff were very much looking for a non-Ibizan vibe. They wanted the sunshine, but with a different vibe. In other places you get DJs which play in the day like it’s midnight in a dirty club and it just doesn’t work, we try to make sure people get to enjoy swimming in the sea while there’s great music playing, downbeat, soul, that kind of thing.”
It works amazingly well, both by the beach and on The Argonaut herself, an integral part of the festival. I went on twice, once for the X Jazz residency and again for Horse Meat Disco, both of them wildly different but equally enjoyable experiences. I don’t think I heard a bad or misjudged DJ set the entire weekend, with some of the best sets emanating from Rich Reason, Gilla, Alexander Nut and several other friends of the festival who had multiple slots. Crews like Shak Out and Meltout also worked wonders with their daytime sets, whilst Mo Fingaz, Mr. Thing, Bobafatt and Werkha all brought it when things got dark.
The live music was the real focal point later in the day though. This year certainly had a noticeable leaning towards jazz, with incredible performances from the legendary Roy Ayers, GoGo Penguin and Moses Boyd, who performed his Solo X work, as the name suggests, solo, armed with his drum kit and a small arsenal of knobs and dials. “Jazz was a real dirty word for a number of years.” Noah says. “There’s a new breed of artists coming through who are really flying the flag for good jazz, but also keeping it modern and relevant, electronica and jazz have melded in a good way.”
It wasn’t all about that though, there was hip-hop, techno, drum and bass, reggae, ska, you name it, but despite the diversity of the music, it blended perfectly. Part of this was because so many of the players came from interwoven scenes, mainly in the UK. At one point during their set, hip-hop duo Children of Zeus called out for their Manchester crew and the crowd erupted, including IAMDDB and Sleazy F, both Mancunian practitioners themselves. Throughout the festival, bands and artists coming together and watching each other perform was a common sight.
Despite the largely British audience, Soundwave is starting more and more to feel like an international festival. A recurring criticism of the festival scene in Croatia is that it is essentially a UK takeover, and one which might not necessarily feel very welcoming to people from elsewhere. At Soundwave it wasn’t uncommon to overhear conversations in French or Spanish, as well as the smattering of locals wandering the site. “Croatia is such a small country, only 4 million people, and the number of them that would have heard of GoGo Peguin or even The Pharcyde is very small.” Noah says “It’s really nice to see locals appreciating us bringing this music to their doorstep. It’s not so hedonistic, Soundwave, the music brings the crowd and with this kind of lineup, you come to expect a more relaxed, open vibe.”
Whether or not Soundwave will truly foster the growth of such a scene in Croatia is difficult to say, but it does demonstrate that nobody is seeking to take advantage of the climate for the sake of a better party. There’s a mutual respect at play, and many of the festival’s visitors were as interested in absorbing Croatian culture as they were in the music on offer. Tisno is only a 15 minute walk from the site, and much of the crowd split their time between the two places. Several of the people I spoke to were also treating the festival as a stop-off on the way to explore more of the country (and continent).
When I first spoke to Noah at the beginning of the year, he explained that, in his view, the most important thing about running a good festival is having a specialism. With Outlook and Dimensions, that specialism is fixed, but by its very nature Soundwave has to change shape each year. Like Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards, it’s a banner for the evolution of music from year to year.
Outlook is turning 10 years old this year, and next year it’ll be Soundwave’s turn. With this year in the bag, Noah already has his mind set on the future. “We’re just gonna bring some new faces and some of the old favourites from over the years, a real celebration. We’ve got some work to do.” He says, as various friends and industry figures nod or wave as they pass by. The development of the festival scene in Croatia is fascinating, and Soundwave is the summit, the family gathering, never destined to expand or change up its approach to pull in a new kind of crowd. For this reason, it’s one of the best festivals in Europe.
Early bird tickets for Soundwave 2018 are on sale now, grab yours here.