How Sónar Festival’s Global Curation Is Built For Musically Adventurous Travellers

BY Conor McTernan

Sonar Festival
Courtesy of Sónar Festival

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As Sónar celebrated its 2024 edition, we caught up with Lee Gamble, Candela Capitán, Olof Dreijer, Diva Cruz and more to explore why over 154,000 ravers journey to Barcelona each June.

What comes to mind when you think of Barcelona? That it’s a popular travel destination, perhaps, or a culturally rich city in Spain that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, or that it’s renowned for its varied architecture. The diverse population of its dense urban sprawl, coupled with its location on the northeast coast of the Iberian peninsula, make the perfect home for Sónar – one of Europe's leading electronic music festivals that attracts over 154,000 visitors each year.

Sónar-goers are veteran ravers, many of whom have made the yearly pilgrimage to the event, near-religiously since it started 31 years ago. Long before techno tourism boomed in popularity, and electronic music festivals became a deciding factor on travel calendars, Sónar had consistently drawn swathes of music and technology fans to the Catalan capital due to its foundational programming; the curation juxtaposing global club sounds with a staunch commitment to the peripheries of the scene.

As electronic music evolves, venture capitalism and dominating live music giants increasingly call the shots globally, leading to hegemonic lineups. An escalation in travel costs and artist fees has perpetuated a Eurocentric scene. How can festivals break out of this, and use their platform to promote and connect hyperlocal microscenes around the world?

Enter TIMES, a new European Union-backed initiative based on the movement of electronic music scenes, funding avant-garde curation and unlikely artist collaborations between cities with a world view that focuses specifically on diversity issues within the sector, movement of migrant people and reconceptualising borders. TIMES is a cohort of 10 European festivals including Berlin Atonal, Creative Broadcast, Elevate, Insomnia, Le Guess Who?, Nuits Sonores, Reworks, Semibreve, Sónar, Terraforma, Unsound – the majority of which are independent festivals that share a common thread in their curation. Individually, they emphasise the importance of grassroots communities, with some steering away from more traditional locations in their respective cities and choosing, instead, to repurpose abandoned spaces.

To understand more of this expansive three-year project, we travelled to Sónar to speak with some of the participating artists – Olof Dreijer, Diva Cruz, Lee Gamble and Candela Capitán, Toro Collective, to name a few – and participating curators to get their unique perspectives on connecting the dots between hyperlocal microscenes and future-proofing festival culture through meaningful collaborations between international travel destinations.

Olof Dreijer Diva Cruz Sonar Festival
Olof Dreijer Diva Cruz Sonar Festival
Olof Dreijer & Diva Cruz

Stockholm-based creatives Olof Dreijer (former frontman of The Knife) and Colombian-Swedish percussionist and vocalist Diva Cruz debuted their hybrid live show at Sónar in Istanbul and Barcelona this year, mixing ancestral drumming with vocals and DJing. Together, they explore rhythmically diverse sounds and promote diversity through joy and activism.

What do you two have most in common?

Olof Dreijer: Good food, rhythm and we are both left-wing; we share opinions of many things that should change in society.

When and how did you first meet?

Diva Cruz: I play live with Olof's sister (Fever Ray) so that's how we met. We've known and been working together for a long time.

You're both based in Sweden and here we are in Barcelona. What are the major differences or similarities between these cultures?

OD: Stockholm is very remote. There is a small scene but it's very concentrated. It's roughly the same amount of people, but Barcelona is much more urban. It's cold in Stockholm and not much going on in the streets – so I'm happy to come here! Barcelona also has a much bigger diaspora.


What is the musical spark or catalyst where you two collaborate? Polyrhythms seem to be a big focus.

OD: We both like Brazilian music a lot. Diva comes from a salsa background, so we mix different kinds of salsa and samba grooves in response.

Diva, as a percussionist, what’s your ideal BPM to drum or shake to? and which instruments have you got with you today?

DC: 126-126 is nice! We both have timpanis, tambourines and chocalhos from Brazil.

OD: I also have tamborims from Brazil, and Diva has her Colombian maracas.


What scenes, communities or emerging music genres have you been paying attention to?

OD: Brazillian Funk. South African gqom music and there is so much good house music done by people not from the West.


What makes a festival performance stand out as memorable for you?

OD: The fact that the toilets say women/non-binary and men/non-binary, that's an amazing step forward. It was not like this before in the electronic music scene. You can see that they care.

DC: It's also amazing to see female sound engineers.


Favourite tropical bird?

DC: Colibri! I saw these birds in the window of my grandmother's home when I was young. You don't realise how much you miss the sounds and colours of home when you are far away!


Ikram Bouloum

Ikram Bouloum is the lead curator of Sónar by Day. Part of Sónar's festival programming team of five curators, she is responsible for the musical programming and happenings at Sónar's daytime festival at Fira Montjuic. Bouloum cares most about local diversity and connecting the dots between what's happening internationally.

Ikram, what is your guiding purpose with this year’s festival programme, and how has this changed from previous editions?

Ikram Bouloum: For us (as a team of five) we are trying to curate the most diverse kind of lineup, trying to represent different microscenes from the local and national scope but also trying to connect that with what is happening internationally. One of these narratives is choreography, melting disciplines and putting music in a new place; another one is AI and music, how these new tools create new paths.


I saw the Team Rolfes show last night which blew my mind. Tell me a bit about that?

IB: When I met them two years ago at CTM Festival in Berlin, I felt like they represented the future. They melt all their knowledge to make a show happen. They have an educational way of making a visual performance work with different technologies and they worked with Lil' Marika for our show. They are super connected to the deconstructed club world. They are also part of the Club Cringe collective showcase we will have at Sónar tonight.


You’re also an artist yourself. How do you strike a balance between the dual sides of creativity?

IB: Working at a festival gives me the knowledge to understand how the bigger picture works, taking in the work and needs of artists and putting reality by my side. Then for my artistic practice, having oversight of technical production, or how the artists start with a project at Sónar, gives me perspective and learnings about different processes on making a show happen. That's pure inspiration. It feels super connected. It's amazing.


What is it about cross-cultural and multidisciplinary collaboration that works so well at city festivals?

IB: To be working with like-minded people at nine other festivals, each with its context, is a privilege and an opportunity to share ideas, create together and figure out how to build a solid structure for the cultural scene. Together we can make projects happen that wouldn't be possible otherwise. It's a three-year project that will run co-curated projects between the festivals until 2027.


Can you describe the process of selecting and pairing the artists for these co-commissioned shows?

IB: The political side of the project is important because it talks about cultural borders and what they represent, physically and conceptually, in 2024. The first one is focused on the Polish border. And we will have a couple of artists working on that side.


A lot of long Zoom calls. It's a lot of work over many months, but having so many curators working together is a privilege. We also like to build connections with artists and be there with them to explain the process behind the shows we are creating, and the connections that exist within the lineup. It's like storytelling.


Who is pushing their own local microscene forward?

IB: Barcelona is not a city that has a concrete sound. Many collectives are trying to express their idea of a club or a party space in the artistic field. For example, in this edition, we have Toro Collective, who host parties here in Barcelona at Nitsa and Razzmatazz. Tonight we also have Me Siento Extraña, a queer party that amplifies FLINTA voices, and then on Saturday night Club Cringe.


You also co-curate artistic residencies. Tell me a bit about that, what’s the process like?

IB: Yes, that's more like a one-year project with Unsound, Semibreve and Atonal. This year we have Lee Gamble and Candela Capitán which is also part of the AI programme. Today we also have a special project co-commissioned with CTM festival and artists Kianí Del Valle, Hamill Industries and Tayhana that will be super special.


Who is your dream booking?

IB: My dream is already happening. On Saturday we have a six-hour performance with Asian Dope Boys in Stage +D. Everything will be happening at the same time: very visual, very techy, very fresh, very futuristic, very everything.


Sonar Festival
Nuit Sonores x Reworks

Edoardo Visconti and Anastasios Diolazis, the curators of two distinguished European festivals, discuss the ins and outs of working together.

What is it about cross-cultural collaboration that works so well at electronic music-focused city festivals?

Edoardo Visconti: Every festival involved in this project is very attached to their city and the local scene there. What is especially interesting about the TIMES cooperation is to be able to exchange practical organisational information about how our local scenes are evolving, and then try to build bridges between them.


Can you both tell me about each of the commissions you've specifically worked on? Where do they appear and what has the journey been like so far?

EV: We are in a group of four festivals – Nuit Sonores, Reworks, Terraforma and Sónar. There are two different methods of working within the project. There is one which is based on creation and another on co-curations. The idea is to use our festivals to platform and elevate the co-curations. For example, at Nuit Sonores we brought in Unsound and Terraforma to co-curate our nighttime programme. The idea was to connect them to local artists and to bring artists such as 2K88 – a Polish rap and electronic artist we discovered thanks to Unsound.


Anastasios Diolazis: We are at the beginning of the three-year project. It's just started and is quite ambitious. Each one of us has a different philosophy and different characteristics. We have 10 festivals, but each one of us has different attributes with different societies, different cities, different characteristics and different scenes. So that's a nice thing about it, because each one of us can give our philosophy from one to another and bring themes that you know, maybe the other did not think of, or give an extra element. Projects like TIMES prove that there is only something extra to do.


When you attend a festival, what do you tend to look for in the programme?

EV: Music. I always try to also go through some panels or some discussion, but yes, as a music programmer, mostly going to discover shows I haven't seen, find out how people will react. Yesterday I saw the new show of Aïsha Devi’s, which was very beautiful, and I'm excited to see Violent Magic Orchestra.

Lee Gamble Candela Capitan Sonar Festival
Lee Gamble & Candela Capitán

British producer Lee Gamble wrote his latest album Models using AI-generated synthetic voices. To bring it to life, he has collaborated with Spanish choreographer and action artist Candela Capitán in a special co-curated show between Unsound and Sónar. The duo dissect their disciplines and processes.


What do you two have most in common?

CC: Lee and I connect a lot in our tastes for art in general, across all its disciplines. We can understand many aspects of art in the same way, even though our disciplines are very different, as is our way of creating.

LG: Maybe experimentation in forms. We both like to stretch ideas and norms in our work, ask questions with it and break things with softness and/or aggression.

Your disciplines are quite different but overlap in creative abstraction. What is the musical spark or catalyst where you two collaborate?

LG: It’s not so much a musical spark but more a mood we both share about how to present our work. We connect in our love of some contemporary artists who have also crossed boundaries between music, performance art, painting and sculpture. We share interests outside of the ones people perceive us to work in.

CC: I don’t think my works are abstract. In fact, that is what makes my way of creating so different from Lee's. When you see my pieces, there are concrete messages that the audience can receive and read.

Candela, what does Lee’s music trigger in you when you approach the choreography for this project, and can you describe your creative role as performance director on the day?

CC: When starting with the piece, the finished music offered me a series of atmospheres to imagine the body. The sonic softness of the Models album encouraged me to create a choreography that starts with this softness and gradually becomes more violent. Initially, the bodies are in tune with the sound, but exponentially, as the work progresses, they become more violent, generating an increasing contrast with the music.

Can you describe the mimicry and mechanisation of humans versus machines – and any other underlying narratives here?

LG: I used machine learning to create the voices you hear in Models, and those voices were the beginning of the Models project. AI and machine learning is a simulation technology, it’s sort of attempting to show us how good it is at being like us. AI also feels like a kid learning, you know how they just mimic to learn? I’m mostly drawn to the errors in this stuff too, where it gets it wrong, falls over and stumbles on its speech or emotes in a unique non-human way. This is a core idea of Models: the voices are attempting to mimic the human emotional singing voice and this sets the ideas for the bodies on stage in Models too. The voice models are like group minds, and I wanted that to come across in the performance too where some display of information being passed on is on show.

What do the chains and the video-streaming iPhones represent?

CC: In Models, the chains and the video-streaming iPhones serve as symbols reflecting themes of control, surveillance and modern connectivity. The chains symbolise restriction and bondage, indicating how we feel trapped or constrained by social norms, expectations or even our own circumstances. They can also represent the limitations imposed by technology and digital culture, where the freedom of movement and expression can be hindered by the omnipresent influence of the internet and social media. Together, these two elements address the interplay between freedom and control in the digital age, highlighting the complex relationships people have with technology today.

You’ve performed together a few times now. How different was this show compared to Unsound in Kraków or the recent Barbican show in London? Does the space you’re presenting affect the plan for the overall performance?

LG: The venue is important, for sure. As a performance piece, the staging can alter how people perceive the work. Candela and I are super specific in how we want Models to look and sound, but it can be adapted to different contexts. It can be an intimate show, but the choreography is so strong – the spectacle can carry a really big crowd.

Candela, you’re based here. How does performing in your home city feel compared to anywhere else?

CC: Performing at Sónar is especially important to me. It always excites me to perform in my country, especially in the city where I have developed my professional career. Sónar is a festival with a magnificent programme, and I am thrilled that performance art is increasingly being included.

Toro Collective Sonar Festival
Toro Collective: softchaos & Engalanan

Made up of softchaos, Toro is a collective that draws on rave culture in search of opportunities for sonic and visual disobedience. They throw electronic music parties focused on fast-paced, multi-genre club music sounds, creating a home for those who are different to embrace each other.

Talk to me about Toro. How did you all meet?

softchaos: I met Unai (Wicboyx) at a rave (at my place) and through him, I met Adri (Engalanan) – we sort of clicked when we started talking about what we cared about. We’re a curious trio from different places, but I think along the lines of class solidarity, politics and art interests we’re a little weird and happily aggressive, so it works.

As a sound and visual collective, what is the ethos? What does Toro stand for and where are you going with it?

s: The ethos of Toro is to attempt generosity, honesty and a bit of disruption through creative expression. We understand that maybe that doesn’t garner a lot of “cool” social capital, but we do know it makes this shit meaningful, and hopefully attracts an earnest group of people that can openly give a shit. Concerning where we’re going, we try to let that organically form – but we do have a good amount of ambition, so look for us in some unexpected places next year.

Toro feels like a family and a safe space. You had a short phrase or word that you all kept repeating when we met the other day. Do you have a secret language amongst yourselves?

s: We’ve been pretty consistent that we can’t ensure safe spaces, and we say that from a place of honesty. So many of our community members, including myself, endure so much violence daily, that we’d be remiss if we said a club is a safe space. But we do actively say, we’ll fight for you, and we mean it. Also, I was probably just saying “purr” or “period”. They’re both affirmations with a lot of subtext. Sort of like the thousand meanings of saying “girl”. That could mean anything!

Engalanan: We could say a safe 0 family haha. We don't believe in the idea of safe space because we don't believe that any space is safe, even within the family. Our secret language is collective delirium.

What makes Barcelona and the music scene here unique? And how does that compare to other European cities?

E: Barcelona is in a beautiful moment of exploration, new opportunities and meeting with many artists and collectives at an international level.

s: Barcelona’s doing its thing right now. I'm hoping that the city opens itself up to a broader understanding of Black electronic history but with that being said, all sorts of DIY projects make the city exciting, and bigger bookings have some indications that things are slowly changing. Comparatively, there’s a big opportunity for the city’s larger music culture to become more community-minded. Good challenges all around.

Are there any genres or musical styles you're inspiring you at the moment?

E: Collectively, we are inspired by beautiful and aggressive sounds, but above all we take into account the social context from which they come and the values of the musical narrative of which they are part.

s: Honestly, purr. What Engalanan said. I’ve been working on this double EP, and that has me in deep across the spectrum of genres I’ve been ingesting; leaning deep into the genius that is Lil Silva’s production, and revisiting a lot of older Yves Tumor, a ton of Gang Starr and soundscape-y stuff Like Leyland Kirby. A lot of Tim Reaper and µ-Ziq too.

Favourite thing about Spanish crowds?

E: They are always ready to dance, celebrate and discover new sounds.

s: I can’t speak to Spanish crowds, but the people who come to Toro around Barcelona do expect a lot from us. I like that shit, I enjoy the pressure, and it's nice for a standard to be high when it comes to putting this together. I love that we can be a catalyst for younger but serious music heads just trying to survive life. So many queer working class and working poor folks have taken ownership of what we’re putting on for them, and that feels fresh; that feels real, feels worth fighting for.

Head to the TIMES website for more information on the project.

Polaroids by Conor McTernan.