In a City Known For Its Troubles, AVA Festival Is All About Unity
Now in its eighth year, the Audio Visual Arts festival has become the pride and joy of Belfast. We picked the brains of the Irish acts, punters, organisers and local legends to tell us what makes the city so ripe for the techno and electro scene and why they’re looking forward to the bounties of city-wide regeneration.
As the sun uncharacteristically shines down on the industrial docks of Northern Ireland’s capital, it quickly becomes apparent that AVA is a family affair, both in a literal and figurative sense. After having been given a lift to the docks by Willis, Matt McBriar’s dad – one half of Bicep – cool dads reveal themselves to be a prominent feature of the weekend. “Parents are such good craic”, echoes Boiler Room host Evan Curistan into the mic, before DJ and producer Mark Blair’s dad takes his top off and swings it over his head during Mark’s set.
Set across their new location at the Titanic Slipways, this year’s AVA saw over 16,000 attendees, with a majority of local Irish acts like one of Dublin’s biggest, Gemma Dunleavy, Belfast-born Bicep, and Irish-Spanish rapper Biig Piig, as well as British names like Mura Masa and Jon Hopkins. It was clear that repping the quickly-expanding Irish scene was of huge importance to the team behind the festival. For 2022, BBC Radio Ulster hosted The Baltic stage where Irish legends and emerging artists got the chance to play side by side – like Extended Play and The Night Institute founder Jordan – aiming to spotlight a scene which is desperately promising but gets little exposure.
Self-taught sound technician and DJ OPTMST tells me, “It’s like one big family!”, before his set at the Grasses stage this year. In a city with a population of about 340,000, it’s easy to see how the music scene here has become a tight-knit family. OPTMST returned to what he describes as the “ever growing, small scene of Belfast” back in 2015, founding Ayeland Studio – named after the Irish slang aye – “The relationships I ended up making through music became my core community. That's why I wouldn't leave in a rush, you can’t beat having really close relationships…It’s become a second family.”
As a city which has seen waves of traumatic violence from the “Summer of ‘69” through to today where Loyalists and Republicans still occasionally clash, intergenerational trauma trickles through the city’s streets. Sprawled out on the grass under the sun, Hannah, co-founder of youth culture magazine Yeo (the word for the “colloquial battle cry” of Irish Youth, as told by co-founder Saul) tells me, “everybody is suffering from intergenerational trauma, but our generation is pushing the arts and culture scene”, she continues,
“Northern Ireland is always left behind. When it comes to the arts, we still have a long way to go. There’s so much talent here and it’s so important to represent our generation. That’s why AVA is so big.”
Over the course of AVA, we chat with Joe, a Belfast local who says “Protestants and Catholics are being united”, echoing Andrew Mure from Plain Sailing “The North and South are coming together.” Glasgow born DJ and BBC Radio 1 producer Euan McVicar echoed Joe’s thoughts, “when you come here, you understand the tensions, but music is an escape.” The city is quite literally painted in politics; huge murals cover the sides of buildings showing martyrs who were previously depicted to deter the glorification of violence among inner-city youth. Driving down the Shankhill Road is a deeply sobering experience, our cab driver repeated the phrase “...he was shot by Loyalists” at the turning of every corner. But entering through the gates of the festival, the violence of the past that still hangs over the city somehow lifts, drowned out by heaving techno and heady vibrations.
Saul of Yeo Magazine tells us, “We’re having a Renaissance at the minute. The generation before us went through the war. That’s why the punk scene was so big.” After the Troubles’ notorious Punk era which produced Stiff Little Fingers and Rudi, and inspired the lyrics of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, the Northern Irish are now self-proclaimed techno-heads for much the same reasons – a head-banging escape from sectarian violence. With exports like Bicep, Or:la and Calibre, the techno and electro scene has a lot to thank Northern Ireland for; but despite the overflowing talent, Belfast has still experienced the great brain drain.
Timmy Stewart, resident DJ at Belfast’s The Night Institute, explains that people started going to university in other cities and Belfast became sleepy, “but now something has happened, and AVA has been pivotal to that.” Timmy is a bit of a legend round these parts, 28 years ago he started his career under Acid House great David Holmes by bombarding him (Timmy’s words) with mixtapes, and has since mentored Bicep and more recently discovered Dart. He tells me, “Bicep would come to Shine (an underground Belfast techno club) and hassle me for track IDs… they had a little folder called ‘Tracks That Timmy Would Play’”. Timmy “T-Bone” Stewart is at the helm of Belfast’s new sonic generation alongside AVA founder Sarah McBriar, hosting his own party in Belfast’s The Night Institute as well as his mentoring initiative Extended Play alongside club founder Jordan, which is aimed at “finding out who the new people are across Ireland.”
After working as a producer at Glastonbury, AVA founder Sarah McBriar was keen to challenge her hometown’s talent drain. Having built a platform for emerging talent, she tells me that now, “everyone comes back [to Belfast] for a party”, and events like this are vital in keeping the heart of the scene beating, especially in a place where it’s harder to push-up and promote local artists. We talk about her favourite spot in and around the city, The Sunflower being one of them; it’s one of the only pubs that kept a security cage around its door, which was erected after a shooting in 1988 resulting in three dead.
Ulster Sports Club is on the tip of everyone's tongue, from organisers to acts and punters. It’s probably this democratic nature of the sports club that has allowed it to amass this legion of fans. I’m told repeatedly that it’s thee spot in the city. It’s a classic old venue adorned with the typical pool tables and that amazing, nostalgic pub-dance-flooring downstairs. Ulster is where all the new DJs in Belfast are playing and it’s often packed with locals spilling out the door. Banana Block is another buzzy spot recommended by punters, home to the official AVA afterparties – a newly renovated space in East Belfast with an industrial history, housing Marion Hawkes’s Sound Advice record store.
Avoiding politics is tough in Northern Ireland, but it’s not as sticky and hostile as some might expect. DJ and label owner Holly Lester has always been politically minded, an interest which led her to found her label Duality Trax. Citing her father who was “a raver” (told you, cool dads everywhere) as an influence in becoming a DJ, Holly is one of the leading figures in lobbying for a regenerative nightlife industry in Belfast. “We want the government to understand the value of this scene. It shone so much during The Troubles and music has brought two sides together. That’s why the music scene needs to be protected and it needs funding.” Her initiative Free the Night tackles what she refers to as “some of the most aggressive licensing” and lobbies to change the infrastructure and keep the efforts of mentors like Timmy legitimate as well as support platforms like those built by Sarah. “It’s the best it’s ever been,” Holly tells me about music in Belfast, which is why AVA is “really exciting”, she continues, “I used to feel trapped and confined, but now people are mixing sounds”.
In a city known for its troubles, AVA is part of a movement committed to resetting the dominant narrative in favour of unity, not division – making the case for Belfast as a must-visit destination for music and culture.