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AVA Festival 2023: Belfast's rave haven for homegrown talent

DJ Mag ventures down to Belfast's Titanic Slipways for the ninth edition of AVA Festival to learn about its continued dedication to championing homegrown talent alongside electrifying international headliners

Since 2015, AVA Festival has been a staple of the Northern Irish capital’s musical and social calendar. “It’s like a national holiday,” Belfast-born DJ NIKKI O grins, as the sun shines ahead of a weekend dubbed affectionately by locals as “techno Christmas”. For its ninth edition, the two-day event has returned to the site of the Titanic Slipways, where both the Titanic and Olympic ships were built. Now, 10,000 ravers are beginning to congregate for a weekend of round-the-clock NRG.

Bass is in the air in Belfast long before the sound systems boot up though: from our Uber driver’s son, who we’re told was gifted a controller for his birthday, to the hotel clerk, a young local lad with an auburn fringe, who mixes techno in the evenings after work. “I’m actually hoping to play AVA at some point,” he grins, peering over the desk to eye-up the site that’s steadily filling across the street, “I’ve got mates who’ve played before. Why not, aye?”

Why not indeed. At AVA, the possibility is by no means out of reach for emerging local artists. While some festivals may expect DJs to flex impressive resumes, tour calendars and social media followings in order to make the cut, that simply isn’t the case here. Even as AVA is growing in size and popularity, the team behind the festival remains fiercely committed to championing Irish artists and placing as much fresh talent onto the bill as possible. Local DJs are as much a part of the draw as the international heavy-hitters that grace the line-up; ravers coming to the Slipways expect to see a spread of Irish talent, and this year, it shines. Efa O’Neill, Reger, Crilli Dnb, KETTAMA and Síofra are just a few of the buzzy homegrown names billed alongside the likes of international mainstays including DJ EZ, Central Cee, Peggy Gou, Interplanetary Criminal, I. JORDAN and Eliza Rose.

Photo of the Nomadic stage at AVA

At the heart of this is Emmett Costello, AVA’s Senior Programmer & Curator, and the man with the busiest inbox in Northern Ireland. For him, emerging talent is fundamental to AVA’s ecosystem, which functions more like an expanding pool rather than a pipeline. “Part of my job is really trying to be aware of all the new music that’s coming out of the city,” he explains, “I try to have my ear to the ground for artists who might be a good fit. A lot of DJs will also hit me up directly, in DM’s or by email, asking if they can come down and play. I tend to use a bit of both.”

2023’s edition, which is slowly roaring into action around us, boasts the festival’s most diverse line-up yet – spanning everything from house, techno, breaks, and jungle, to post-punk, hip-hop and new wave. Costello is quick to reassure the rave purists, though. “At its heart, it will always be a grassroots, homegrown Irish electronic festival, even if we’re booking artists like Central Cee, or Mura Masa and Biig Piig last year, that are developing our programming. This year, 70% of our artists are still Irish and over 90% of the programme is electronic. We’re constantly asking ourselves whether we’re sticking to our values – are we doing enough to support the Irish scene.”

As we speak, one of the artists to break through off the back of Costello’s labour, Belfast selector Swoose, is playing on AVA’s newfangled Pumphouse stage to a rowdy crowd. Last year, he was the penultimate act on the locally programmed Grasses stage. The year before he opened the Nomadic (known then as the Boiler Room stage). “A lot of it is also about putting artists in different scenarios to help them develop,” Costello explains. “We’ve got a good variety of stages for artists to move through and try out for size, and I think that is a great help.”

Costello also coordinates and judges AVA’s Emerging Talent Programme, which for the past six years has offered vital creative opportunities to burgeoning UK and Irish DJs, producers, and visual artists. The programme has proved to be a great jump-off for homegrown underground talent, with previous alumni including Acid Flex resident Cartin, and buzzy Belfast selector CAOIMHE, as well as Dublin’s techno troubadour DART (Dublin Area Rapid Trax).

Drone shot of the AVA site on the Titanic Slipways

“This year, 70% of our artists are still Irish and over 90% of the programme is electronic. We’re constantly asking ourselves whether we’re sticking to our values and if we are doing enough to support the Irish scene” – Emmett Costello

For NIKKI O – who plays on Friday – AVA has been a foundational part of her DJing journey, and remains so even as she gears up for her debut appearances in Ibiza this summer. “It was the first festival I was ever booked for,” she says, “and I’d already been coming for five years by then.” We’re perched on a bench in the shade-starved backstage area, the airwaves still ricocheting from Nikki’s own 4/4 onslaught on the Pumphouse stage. Now something of a Slipways veteran, she reflects on her earliest memories of the festival: “Even though I’d played around the city a fair bit beforehand, it was still probably the most nervous I’ve ever been before a set. Everyone who makes or listens to dance music in Northern Ireland comes to AVA,” she says. “It’s like a national holiday. Since moving down to London especially, there are so many friends and artists that I only see at AVA now – it feels like a proper wee homecoming.”

It’s a feeling that extends across the site, which feels less like a festival and more like an extended house party as the weekend goes on. Everyone is exceptionally friendly, and in unsurprisingly jovial spirits. AVA avoids the inevitable descent into bedlam, however, by being one of the best organised functions on the scene. Suncream stations are dotted liberally throughout the site to keep red faces to a minimum, security staff are abundant but not impartial to a boogie, and the festival’s spacious lot and reasonable capacity makes for a sense of airiness rarely achieved at popular festivals.

As Nikki shimmies off for some well-earned reunions, someone starts playing Jeff Mills’ ‘The Bells’ at an ambitiously early 4:17pm. Golden hour is in full flow by the time Jossy Mitsu takes to the stage at Boiler Room’s 360° Nomadic arena, serving up a relentless torrent of sweaty house, techno, and bass-heavy club heaters beneath the stage’s signature greenhouse canopy.

For those craving shelter from the evening sun but still looking for some heat, Belfast-based rave cru Plain Sailing kick off the evening’s programming on the Grasses stage with a furious remit of 2-step and UK funky, before handing the baton over to local hero Carlton Doom. A veteran of the festival – and for good reason – Doom solidifies his reputation as one of the most electrifying and innovative producers in the city with an hour of apocalyptic techno.

Another testament to AVA’s eclectic local programming is Enola Gay, whose ferocious main stage set draws as much from leftfield electronica and techno as it does from post-punk acts of the late ‘70s. “I know it’s weird seeing a band at AVA, but what’s the craic?”, frontman Fionn Reilly hollers between tunes, flashing a glinting grin.

Photo of the Nomadic stage at AVA

As the sun dips below the horizon line, the seismic gravitational pull towards the Pumphouse stage for returning favourites, Overmono, becomes nigh on impossible to resist. By the time the duo launch into ‘Gunk’, the euphoric slice of trance-inflected techno from this year’s ‘Cash Romantic’ EP on XL, the new stage is the busiest it’s been all weekend. Darting from garage to grime (courtesy of a surprise entry for Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’) and from rattling breaks to anthemic techno, all of their contemporary classics get a spin.

In what becomes one of the weekend’s most memorable moments, the pair are also joined on stage by Dublin producer and poet For Those I Love – aka David Balfe – for a gut-wrenching live rendition of his debut single, ‘I Have a Love’, which Overmono remixed back in 2021. In their balancing of mainstage accessibility with underground sonics, the double-act have drawn ample comparisons to local legends Bicep in the past, but today on the AVA stage, as the curtain call arrives in the amorphous form of ‘So U Kno’, it’s clear the Welsh duo are in a league of their own.

The rammed warehouse stage vacates at speed as the crowd make their way to catch Peggy Gou, who has taken to the main stage just fifteen minutes prior. Luckily, AVA’s pint-sized site means joining the back of the dancefloor is never disheartening, and Gou is crystal clear as she launches into a trademark suite of pumping techno, playful house, and more abstract compositions. It’s an incredible sight – the best part of 10,000 ravers lost in the dance beneath the bow of the Titanic Museum that leans over the main stage, forging new memories on the hallowed ground of Belfast’s Maritime Mile.

As Gou’s neon visuals flicker out, the dancing continues deep into the night at the festival’s dedicated after parties. Over at local-approved venues Ulster Sports Club and Thompsons, Sligo-born, Berlin-based Spray and Swoose wreak havoc with their 4/4 blends, while Marcus Ward hosts Jossy Mitsu b2b Nikko O, who link up for some nimble late-night carnage. Sleeping is certainly not on anyone’s agenda.

Carlton Doom playing on the Grasses Stage

“It’s always been about putting Belfast on the map as destination for dance music, but doing it in a way that uplifts the local scene rather than just bringing in as many huge acts as possible” – Sally C

By the time the first dancers return to the Slipways at Saturday noon, the concrete is already warm to the touch. A soft haze eclipses the distant mountains that watch over the historic site. Belfast’s ​towering yellow Harland & Wolff cranes — affectionately dubbed Samson and Goliath – sit flush against the cloudless blue sky. The early-starters are rewarded with sets from the likes of Cartin and Reger; local DJs who serve up playful selections spanning breaks, techno, and groovy jungle on the Nomadic and Grasses stage, respectively.

Making his Boiler Room debut, Reger saunters through cuts from Julio Bashmore, Levon Vincent, and Pangaea, before bringing it home with Gipsy Kings’ unmistakeable rumba classic ‘Bamboleo’, which translates aptly to “wobble” or “sway.” By 3pm, the site is teeming with crocheted co-ords and utility vests (thanks Fred again..) once more, with their owners freshly preened for an afternoon of “Yeeeooo”-worthy techno.

Interplanetary Criminal steps up to the plate for a Boiler Room broadcast packed with unreleased gems and jumped-up classics. Cuts from MC Finchy, Craig Graham, and DBX all garner massive cheers from the mid-afternoon revellers, whose hands are stretched towards the sky for most of the set, while a huge Porn Kings sample almost rips the glass roof off the stage. Somebody lobs a plastic cup of lukewarm liquid into the air as the drop hits, and everyone hollers in soggy glee. Things are also getting giddy at the Pumphouse where Kessler + MC Emby are handing over to Yung Singh after an hour of bass-shaking bars, blends, and rewinds in the techno arena. Yung Singh takes to the booth after snapping a photo with a young reveller sporting an Indian flag as a cape, and wears the same grin throughout his set which charges through nostalgic trance, rugged techno, and hip-hop, expertly infused with his trademark sound.

Ben UFO follows, rifling through decades worth of dance music to an at-capacity crowd. Spriitzz’s ‘Where R U (Ibiza Mix)’ and Joy Orbison’s ‘2M3 2U’ are among the set’s innumerable highlights, and palpably shift the festival’s aura towards nighttime revelry. It’s a bemusing sight as ravers scramble to Shazam between drops, only to be met with disappointment. There’s a natural lull in the action and punters rush to snag refreshments from AVA’s small but perfectly-formed selection of vendors. The festival’s size and layout makes the typically stressful part of these events an absolute breeze, and within half an hour most of the punters are stuffed with fresh tacos, curry chips, and another round of beers.

Photo of Sally C and Or:la backstage at AVA

AVA waits for no-one though, and while the Boiler Room stage closes out with the ‘90s rave gear of Aussie duo X CLUB and the anything-but-dull DJ Boring, The Grasses is stealing the show with three back-to-back sets of undiluted Irish energy from hometown heroes Inside Moves, Holly Lester and Jordan Nocturne. All accustomed to Belfast’s conservative licensing rules, which prohibits sets from running past 1am, they launch into the very thick of it from the outset. “We’ve got that window so the energy needs to be there from the start,” Nocturne tells us later. “It’s always proper full pelt, there’s no time to warm up.”

It’s peak euphoria on the docks by the time Northern Irish powerhouses and AVA mainstays, Or:la and Sally C take to the main stage. Though the closing set could have easily been given to an international headliner, nothing would have felt so right as an Irish peak. Earlier in the day, Sally reflected on her journey to this point with a sense of childlike glee. “I remember the whole buzz about AVA starting,” she told DJ Mag. “I was living away in Scotland at the time and I felt a bit disconnected from the city, so when I finally came over and got to play, it felt like such a reconnection with Belfast. All these years later, it still feels like that for me.”

For Big Saldo, AVA continues to represent the very best in Irish electronic music. “It’s always been about putting Belfast on the map as a destination for dance music, but doing it in a way that uplifts the local scene rather than just bringing in as many huge acts as possible,” she affirms. “I’m super grateful for what AVA has done for me, and glad it can do the same for the next wave of Irish DJs coming up now.” In a special homecoming for the two friends, Sally and Or:la work their way through a banquet of hip-house, electro, and ravey hardcore, pausing only to welcome a trio of dancers to the stage. It’s a fitting end to a festival built on Irish talent – of both the emergent and established kind – and which continues to champion its local heroes even as it swells in size and popularity.

After spending the weekend in Belfast, it’s clear that AVA is much more than just good craic. It’s a lifeline for local selectors looking for a platform, a spirited celebration of the capital’s nightlife arena, and a vital constituent in plugging Belfast’s brain drain, which has seen young creatives leaving from the city en masse in recent years in search of opportunities elsewhere. The festival's inclusive atmosphere is one that unfurls beyond the Slipways and across the capital, to its hospitality workers and cab drivers, security staff and local venues, lifting spirits, and becoming a bastion of promise and opportunity for Northern Ireland’s next wave of electronic headliners. Viva La AVA.