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GALA: a joyful return for London dance festivals

GALA, London’s first outdoor dance music festival in over 16 months, took place in Peckham Rye Park last weekend. With exceptional programming and an emphasis on creating a safe, comfortable environment for punters, the weekender marks a heartening return of city summer dance events, and provides a blueprint for how they can be executed seamlessly

Approaching the gates of GALA, London’s first full-capacity, outdoor dance music festival since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a familiar feeling emerges. As muffled house beats call out from a nearby stage, and a crowd’s cheer echoes across Peckham Rye Park, a sense of excitement and anticipation that was all but forgotten in the past year fizzes through the chest — “oh my god, we’re actually at a festival”.

While clubs in England have been allowed to open with little or no restrictions since 19th July, and a handful of festivals (including the 40,000 capacity Latitude) have already taken place across the country, eyes remained on GALA as a measure of just how a city festival can go ahead in this transitional period of the pandemic, while still ensuring the comfort and safety of its guests. 

In that department, GALA excels, not least by requiring proof of double vaccination or a negative Covid test taken within the previous 36 hours upon arrival, but also in its infrastructure. A well-spaced site allows for visitors to walk from the The Rye stage, by the entrance, where on Friday live sets from Nabihah Iqbal, Andrew Ashong, Tirzah and more create a breezy vibe, to the main stage, where Rhythm Section’s Bradley Zero hosts a superb opening day of programming, without ever feeling caught in traffic. 

Despite a day of dramatic rain showers, the mood on Friday is electric, with hundreds of eager festival goers readjusting to crowds, bass and bar queues. In the Pleasure Dome tent, DJ sets from Midland and Cooly G, and a highlight live set from Overmono, set ravers’ adrenaline levels to 10. GALA deserves massive props in this space, and at every other stage for that matter, for its sound quality. Where so many London festivals have fallen flat in recent years due to poor sound distribution and volume, GALA’s team have speakers dotted not just within, but outside its main indoor stage. It ensures that the common impulse to cram toward the front is reduced, and even those who don’t quite feel comfortable going into the tent itself can still hear DJs clearly and have a perfectly spacious (if slightly muddier) dance outside the entrance. And God, dancing feels good again after all this time.

That feeling is carried through to the Patio stage, where DJ sets from Zakia, p-rallel, Moxie and Chaos In The CBD build a steady, party atmosphere right to the climactic end of day one. As joyful as it feels to dance on the grass surrounded by people again, reminders of the times we're still very much living in crop up; Joy Orbison is unable to make his sets on both Friday and Sunday due to testing positive for Covid-19. His boots are more than ably filled by Hessle Audio’s Pearson Sound on Friday, but the unfortunate reality of the situation can’t help but linger on the mind. 

Saturday’s stacked line-up leaves festival goers spoilt for choice, and is testament to Gala’s expertly coordinated programming. Proceedings kick off as early as 11:30 with sets from Eliza Rose, Club Fitness, Ruby Savage, Coco Maria and Refuge Worldwide, warming up the slowly arriving gaggles of revelers for another day of electrifying DJ sets, live acts and (slightly) less inclement weather. TSHA and Mafalda get feet moving at The Rye stage, while mid-afternoon sets from Secretsundaze, DEBONAIR, Danielle and Dan Shake sculpt an impeccable atmosphere across the site. 

Having to move between Midland on the Main Stage and Bradley Zero at The Patio makes a compelling case for developing means to be in two places at once, with both local legends delivering irresistible sets brimming with over a year’s worth of stored-up energy. Jayda G’s Main Stage headline set is, unsurprisingly, a weekend highlight of house and disco, while over at the Pleasure Dome, a debut b2b from Eris Drew and Saoirse is a life-affirming eruption of house and classic speed garage.

The sun comes out for the festival’s final day, with punters feeling altogether more settled into the vibe of the weekend. During Leon Vynehall and Young Marco’s early afternoon b2b a rush of light and warmth breaks through the clouds as a melodic breakdown gives way to a pounding rhythm; the feeling borders on euphoria. Remember that?

 
 
 
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Shy One and Jamz Supernova bring the vibe to The Rye stage in the afternoon, while Kornél Kovacs and CC:DISCO bring ample summer sounds to the Main Stage, with the former closing his second set of the weekend with J-Lo’s ‘Waiting For Tonight’ and the latter firing out banger after boogie-drenched banger ahead of closing sets from Motor City Drum Ensemble and Eris Drew. 

GALA’s success is a heartening start for the return of UK city festivals. With exceptional programming and an emphasis on creating a safe, comfortable environment for punters, the weekender ensures that, as we walk out gate on Sunday evening, the warm buzz of excitement and potential for the future that was there when we first arrived returns, more tangible than in it’s been in a long time. 

Want more? Check out our feature on 10 new clubs opening in 2021

Eoin Murray is DJ Mag’s deputy digital editor. Follow him on Twitter @eoin_murraye