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How AVA Festival is creating a second age of rave in Northern Ireland

Last month, 16,000 ravers attended Belfast's AVA Festival at its new home on the Titanic Slipways. DJ Mag traveled to AVA to discover how the event is creating a sense of unity, community and a second wave of rave in the city

In 2015, Belfast’s first AVA Festival and conference found its home beneath the towering yellow Harland & Wolff cranes — affectionately named Samson and Goliath — at the city’s T13 Titanic Shipyard. With a crowd of a few thousand, and with performances coming from a pre-’Glue’ Bicep, Glasgow’s Optimo, and Hammer, the small but mighty event cemented itself as a key player in the city’s nightlife scene.

Fast forward seven years, and after multiple venue changes, a pandemic and some of the best Boiler Rooms the UK has seen, AVA has found a new home, still under the watchful eyes of Samson and Goliath, at Titanic Slipways. It’s where both the Titanic and Olympic ships were built and launched, and 110 years later, it’s providing the backdrop for 16,000 ravers to come together for a weekend of unmatched vibes, and a sense of unity that Northern Ireland puts on for AVA each year.

On day one of the festival, before the sets kick off — which are destined to be closed out by the almighty Belfast boys, Bicep — DJ Mag is speaking with Irish DJ, producer and label head, Holly Lester. An AVA regular, Lester is standing in the sun, gesturing at Samson and Goliath over the towering main stage, which is positioned directly in front of the “bow” of the Titanic Museum building. “It feels like a homecoming this year,” she says. “The cranes are back in view… it’s all really familiar. Last year was huge, everybody was so excited to be back after lockdowns. I thought I’d miss that inner city rave feeling that we have at sites like this, but the people are always so rowdy, and they come together. AVA just works anywhere.”

Lester is also part of Free The Night NI, a non-profit organisation committed to creating a safe and culturally rich environment for nightlife in Northern Ireland, who highlight the need for a progressive nightlife economy. Although alcohol licensing laws and curfews are beginning to change and see some ease, NI remains restricted, and AVA is a release, and provides a sense of community — something embedded deep into the history of the country. “I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the legacy of The Troubles,” she says, “and this culture, raving culture, did so much for the two divided communities during that period. It’s not very well documented, but during that period, raving was a huge release. 

“There was so much devastation going on, and I want to start telling people about this because they don’t speak about it. I want people to understand the importance of the culture here, and that’s what we’re trying to do with Free The Night, and with events like this. The zest for release people had is still here now, you see it anywhere that has had civil war or a traumatic event… Georgia, Palestine, and more recently Ukraine.”

“It’s been like the second age of rave here since AVA started. It’s having a second glory day." - Carlton Doom

That sense of unity is of core importance to the younger generation in Belfast, and especially within the music community. Thursday evening featured a number of workshops, panels and a conversation with Palestinian DJ Sama’ Abdulhadi at East Belfast venue, Banana Block. It’s Friday now, though, and we say goodbye to Lester and explore the site.

Despite looking like an initially smaller venue than those that have been before it, the stages on the ground prove to be the perfect distance apart. Only a two-minute walk between each space, meandering through stalls and plenty of places to stop for a break, the music doesn’t carry, and the intimate feeling isn’t disrupted; instead, it’s enhanced. 

The festival’s four stages are warming up nicely, with Derry’s Cartin debuting his new live set in The Grasses, along with the likes of Mount Palomar, Monjola, and Irish singer and AVA staple, Gemma Dunleavy. On the main stage, Eve and Logic 1000 are priming the crowd, before Ayrshire’s Ewan McVicar steps up for a sun-soaked slot. He’s dropping classics like Faithless’ ‘We Come 1’ and ‘Let Me Show You ’99’ by K-Klass, as well as more current sounds in the form of LF System chart-climber, ‘Afraid To Feel’, and his own highly-anticipated, unreleased ID, ‘Heather Park’.

Over at the Baltic stage, it’s a showcase of local culture, with Caoimhe, Rory Sweeney, MC Emby and Belfast duo Plain Sailing warming up the crowds. It’s one of the smallest stages, but is arguably the liveliest, and the waterside tent offering views of the mountains is in full swing by the time Belfast’s Carlton Doom is ready to step up to the fold. He’s another AVA staple and favourite, and before he shells out a set of thrashing techno and signature edits at sunset, Doom reflects on what makes AVA stand out from the crowd. “As soon as you get booked again, the excitement kicks in, even if it’s in like November or something, you know?” he says. “The thing about AVA is that every stage is good. At some festivals, you get left with a stage in a corner and there’s like 10 stoners at it — that doesn’t happen here.”

Doom is also excited about the new site. He gestures behind us at the ships unloading pallets at Belfast’s docks, and shakes his head in disbelief. “You’re part of the docks. You’re immersed in a really important part of the city here,” he says. He also affirms Lester’s comments about the unity that raving brought to a broken Belfast. “It’s been like the second age of rave here since AVA started,” he says. “It’s having a second glory day. People make the most of it all day, they turn up for the full day and do it properly till 11pm.”

AVA Festival 2022 boiler room stage

With that, we make our way over to the Boiler Room stage. It’s been a hectic start, with Moodtrax, Brién and Dublin’s DART warming up the fabled greenhouse, and the latter is serving up unreleased heaters from himself, Mella Dee and Skream, and turning the crowd up to top tier rowdy in record time. “This is my second Boiler Room and my fifth AVA,” DART says, once again highlighting that sense of a unit. “I’ll always come back, this is a family. Sarah, Emmett… the guys behind this event. They’ve watched me go from emerging producer to the Boiler Room. It’s all love.”

The Sarah that DART is referring to is Sarah McBriar, the co-founder of AVA Festival. The fact artists on the bill refer to those at the top of the event’s team personally, and by name, is a reflection of the sheer good nature of AVA, and the way it treats not just its guests, but every person involved, from the security to the DJs on the main stage.

“You never really know how something’s going to feel until you’re stood in it,” McBriar says. “The atmosphere last year was magical, there was a real sense of euphoria and being together, and I can already feel that this year.

“Back in the day, raving was a neutral ground in Northern Ireland. There used to be separate entrances at clubs for different religions and stuff,” she continues, “and I even remember the first AVA with everyone under one roof, it felt huge. It’s that Irish feeling of letting go, coming together and unpretentiousness that’s core here at AVA.”

While the live saxophone from Ross From Friends floats across the crowds from the main stage — where the group have delighted fans with renditions of newer sounds like ‘The Daisy’ alongside some beloved earlier tracks, like lo-fi classic, ‘Talk To Me You’ll Understand’  — Rotterdam-via-Belfast’s Kessler is closing out The Baltic, and Special Request and Sama ‘Abdulhadi are in The Grasses. It’s Bicep who steal the show, pulling out all the stops with their live, A/V performance on the epic main stage, closing out the euphoric first day with ethereal anthems like ‘Apricots’ and ‘Glue’.

Soichi Terada, TSHA, Overmono & SHERELLE

Day two serves up more of that same sense of unity and elation. There’s bands like post-punk unit Enola Gay and vocalist Biig Piig, who perform hi-octane live sets, and artists like Twitch, Matheson and Mark Blair priming the festival’s four stages. By the time Melbourne’s Skin On Skin has delivered a brain-rattling, hour-long Boiler Room of unreleased productions, the stage is more than ready for TSHA, who drops tracks by Ahadadream, Groove Armada and Detroit’s Lyric Hood.

In The Grasses, another standout set from the weekend is coming courtesy of Far East Recordings’ boss and all-round beloved producer, Soichi Terada. Performing some of live and sublime Japanese house tracks, including ‘Diving Into Minds’ — taken from his new album ‘Asakusa Light’ — ‘Saturday Love Sunday’ and Shinichiro Yokota’s ‘Do It Again’, it’s truly one of the most uplifting moments in The Grasses. The crowd are swaying their arms from side to side with Terada, who of course, brings out his signature origami puppets. He’s followed by Calibre and Beautiful Recordings boss, SHERELLE, who both drive the energy deeper and darker for the next three hours with an array of jungle, drum & bass and footwork cuts.

As the day winds to a close, the energy is still palpable well into the evening. While the Boiler Room stage closes out with more experimental sounds from Bristol duo Giant Swan and industrial techno heads I Hate Models, The Baltic is stealing the show with three back-to-back sets of undiluted Irish energy from Holly Lester, The Night Institute’s Timmy Stewart, and Jordan Nocturne. They’re three of the festival’s mainstays, and Nocturne especially delivers the belters in the form of Gramrcy & John Loveless’ ‘Highdive’, and a tasty edit of Kylie Minogue and New Order.

As A$AP Rocky collaborator Mura Masa and Jon Hopkins step up for their respective closing sets on the main stage, one of the final sets of the weekend comes from UK duo Overmono, who close out The Grasses. With the warm, fuzzy feeling of the festival at its peak, the crowd remains enthusiastic until the very last minutes of AVA. Against the backdrop of effervescent synths and hazy R&B vocals simmering in Overmono’s live production, it’s a moment to remember, and after their exhilarating set ends, the duo climb down to the barrier to speak, and celebrate, with their elated fans. It’s a real reminder, and final snapshot, of the things that the artists and crowds love the most about AVA: the sense of community, togetherness, and sheer joy that descends on Northern Ireland for one special weekend every year.