The way into Serbia’s EXIT Festival is unlike any other. Every year, tens of thousands cross the Danube — Europe’s second largest river, running from Germany’s Black Forest through Ukraine to the Black Sea — into the Petrovaradin Fortress, a 17th-century citadel built during the Ottoman Empire. As we pass through the outermost walls and slowly ascend the site proper, waves of sound work their way down the winding cobbled streets. For four days in early July, this sleepy fort is transformed into a sprawling network of music stages. Rock, metal and indie artists play alongside dance, reggaeton, psy-trance and hip-hop acts. This year Calvin Harris, Iggy Azalea, Nick Cave and grindcore pioneers Napalm Death play the same stage; as one of Europe’s biggest outdoor music festivals, there really is something for everyone.
But there’s more to EXIT than its historic location and delightfully random line-ups. The roots of the festival date back to a darker period in Serbian history, a decade into the Yugoslav wars, where conflicts along ethnic lines led to serious war crimes, among them genocide. A product of the student movement, the first EXIT — or Zero EXIT as it was then known — emerged in the wake of a series of protest concerts.
One concert held in 1999, Šakom u glavu (Fist to the head), showed clips of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević’s clear abuse of powers. The crowd’s angry response sparked an idea among student union reps, and a year later EXIT was born. The annual event has since morphed from a grassroots, counter-cultural movement into a well-oiled production of over 40 stages, pulling top-tier headliners from all manner of music genres and revellers from over 70 countries. But that spirit of basic goodwill, togetherness and the belief that music can bring about social change, remains. Here are five key performances from EXIT 2022.
The mts Dance Arena is heaving as Brazil’s ANNA and one-time DJ Mag cover star Sama’ Abdulhadi take to the stage on Thursday night. “We don’t talk, we don’t plan, we don’t know what we’re gonna play,” ANNA says on an Instagram post ahead of their set. “We just trust the energy of the place, our energies, and we go to have fun.” And fun it is. The pair, who have clearly decided to put the soundsystem through a stress test, pummel the crowd with warbling bass and gloriously dissonant riffs, while screens either side of the stage show close-ups of the duo in full flow, ANNA hopping to and fro and Sama’ quietly focused on the mixer. Two LED screens offer affirmations to the audience: “Let the good times roll!”, “Love Is the Answer!”, “Hey, you are incredible”, a lovely contrast to a mix shot through with twitchy and shimmering techno bangers. They end their set in the early hours with a warm embrace and deafening whoops from the crowd — not their first b2b, it hopefully won’t be their last either.
We arrive at No Sleep Novi Sad, aka the Owl Stage, as Berlin-based Budino takes over from DJ Tennis. The Italian DJ opens with Mario West’s ‘Welkin’, lulling the crowd into her two-and-a-half-hour set, and continues with the cradle-like theme before opting for edgier sounds. Soon enough, we are in clear 303 territory, making way for discordant guitar samples and haunting synths. No Sleep, which has spawned its own festival, has been moved to a slightly more secluded spot this year. The foliage lining the brick walls flanking the stage and green tube lighting fit the music perfectly. Budino sets are nothing short of hypnotic — densely coloured tapestries weaving bold melodies that pull from disco, electro, house and everything in between. She can flow easily from melodic to dark and back again, and this is exactly what she does now; by sunrise she’s back on harmonic ground with transcendent piano stabs and beefy Italo basslines. Definitely one of the festival’s standout sets.
Denis Sulta transforms the crowd at mts Dance Arena on Friday, which appears somewhat more mellow than the night before. Ever the performer, he brings visuals for the big screen that sit perfectly alongside the CGI foliage wrapping the stage columns. As for the set, flashy disco numbers follow cool house and hi-NRG cuts, bringing a much-needed boost to a crowd halfway through the festival. And the DJ glitters as much as his mix — his golden waistcoat and peroxide blonde hair accompanied by flamboyant bursts of fist-pumping and a lively two-step. The Glaswegian has been on a roll for a while, having won two of DJ Mag’s Best Of British awards — 2019’s Best DJ and 2016’s Breakthrough Producer — and now packs out clubs worldwide. But the fresh energy that showed at the beginning of his DJ career is still present now. He waves out to the crowd one more time as a glitchy number signals the end of his set, and we wave back.
Honey takes over from Sulta in the early hours, bringing a house groove very much in the Dijon tradition. The Chicago-born DJ slides in quietly behind the decks (well, as quietly as you can with a camera permanently fixed-on you) and quickly shows her New York leanings, spinning tracks with Latin rhythms, heavy on the percussion. Raised on disco, Dijon witnessed the likes of Frankie Knuckles and Derrick Carter up close and believes in bringing a message with the music. It’s not surprising then, that hers is among the most vocally-driven house sets of the whole festival, filled with choice acapellas — Cardi B’s ‘Bodak Yellow’, Fingers Inc’s ‘My House Acapella (Jack Had a Groove)’, Nina Simone — perfectly mixed in over MAW-like thumping 4/4. It begins to rain an hour in, but the crowd remains faithful, and as night moves into day, Dijon pulls out a remix of Donna Summer’s iconic ‘I Feel Love’. In another’s hands, this might be a little on the nose, but with Honey it feels like a fitting tribute.
Jamiie and Kristin Velvet are tasked with keeping No Sleep lively while everyone else is watching Calvin on Saturday night — all the more room for us. The pair seem to swap in and out in 30-minute intervals, Velvet spinning hypnotic disco and gospel house, Jamiie opting for playful basslines and chopped-up vocals. As we approach 1am, the area begins to fill up again and they up the ante with beefier numbers. The Watergate affiliates make for an electric duo, clearly bouncing off each other’s energy when both on stage. They get us all in the feels, but as Jamiie brings the three-hour set to a close, she throws in a few curveballs, slowing the pace, introducing more synth and wheeling out tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Divine or Dead Or Alive mix. On any other night the pair would pull a bigger audience — thankfully you can still catch their b2b WatergateWorldWide set online.