10 years on, AVA Festival is still flying the flag for Belfast's party scene - Features - Mixmag

10 years on, AVA Festival is still flying the flag for Belfast's party scene

Returning for its milestone anniversary, Belfast's "beating heart" of dance music remains a scene staple. Gemma Ross reports

  • Words: Gemma Ross | Photos: Hype Factory
  • 26 June 2024

In recent years, Belfast has been the subject of nightlife turmoil – only a small number of dedicated club spaces are in operation across the city, late-night transport finishes up before midnight strikes, and unlike its UK and European counterparts, "archaic" alcohol licences mean venues have seen a reduction in opening hours over the years. And while it’s heralded as one of the best party scenes in Europe (and there’s no doubt it is, thanks to the crowds), the Northern Irish capital is still working through plenty of nightlife issues. The recent admission of a Night Czar - Belfast’s first ever - is a promising first step, as are the countless campaign groups backing the vital growth of local clubland.

AVA Festival remains one of the true bastions of great nightlife in the city. “It’s unlike anything else we have here in Belfast,” explains Holly Lester, a DJ and founder behind campaign group Free The Night, which lobbies for better foundations in Belfast nightlife. She’s sitting on-site at AVA as the sun beats down over throngs of crowds on the festival’s opening day, speaking fondly of its existence in Belfast. In 2018, Holly got her big break on the Boiler Room stage just a stone’s throw from where she’s sat now, which helped her to book shows in Europe and beyond. “AVA platforms so much local talent and has broken many people’s careers, myself included. It really has put Belfast on the map,” she says.

Read this next: “No better crowds in the world”: 10 memories from a decade of AVA Festival

This year, AVA turned a decade old on its Titanic Slipways site - a charming industrial location overlooking Belfast’s port. 2024’s landmark edition expected crowds exceeding 10,000 from May 31 - June 1, flaunting a free-to-attend conference programme at the nearby museum on its opening day hosting panels and workshops, followed by two full days of action and after-parties. AVA pulled in the who’s who of dance music for its 10th anniversary, from headlining talents including New Jersey house pioneer Kerri Chandler to returning Irish superstars BICEP, right across to local, emerging acts.

No anniversary edition would be complete without a stacked line-up, and this year, AVA brought plenty of friendly faces back to its homeground. On its opening day, returning favourites including Swoose and Shampain make their comebacks as the festival kicks into shape, while newcomers get to grips with Belfast’s eager crowds. Bitter Babe and Surusinghe smash through a post-150 BPM back-to-back as the sunshine appears over the Pumphouse, a large open-air stage overlooking the water, bringing in endless crowds throughout the day.

Over on the Nomadic stage - the festival’s famed spot recognised for its 360-degree booth where dancers congregate around the DJ - Ireland’s SLOUCHO makes his Boiler Room debut. With a live set featuring a run of MCs and dancers taking it in turns to hop on the stage, SLOUCHO chops and changes through glitchy breaks and trance-inducing experimental sonics. AVA affiliate and Nomadic stage host EMBY steps up to the platform to deliver ad-lib vocals between deconstructed live sounds.

“Having the opportunity to introduce someone who I think is one of the best new DJs and producers around is incredible,” EMBY tells Mixmag after coming off stage, still reeling from the excitement. “AVA is like Christmas for us,” he jokes. “It’s not even a question whether your mates are coming, because everyone is coming home for Christmas. It’s a nice little checkpoint in the year,” he says. “It’s hard to even be in this scene in Belfast and a lot of people have moved away, so it’s nice that everyone comes back and feels right at home.”

On The Lookout, the smallest of AVA’s four stages where DJs perform from a lookout tower over riverside crowds, local talent is the star of the show. After going back-to-back with Marion Hawkes from the heights of the tower, Belfast’s Jordan Nocturne jokes: “I tried not to get seasick while I was up there!”. In AVA’s 10 years, Jordan explains that he’s only missed a couple of editions. “It’s good to see everybody in one place. In Belfast, electronic festivals are still in their infancy and AVA was really the first,” he says. “Elsewhere, people take events like this for granted, but people in Belfast don’t. They’re here to have a good time.”

By the evening, flocks of punters head to AVA’s main stage, a multi-level expanse that feels intimate by day and gargantuan by night, wrapped with enormous A/V LED screens. Nia Archives is first up of Friday night’s headliners, performing rapidfire tracks from her hit album ‘Silence Is Loud’ as she delivers velvety vocals down the mic. Belfast’s own BICEP follow with a live audiovisual set as part of their new CHROMA project, merging live visuals across multiple screens with their floor-filling club tracks.

The second and final day at AVA has even more energy than its first, and as festivalgoers flow into the site looking fresh-faced, they start filling out the Pumphouse as Kessler appears on stage in front of a modular setup, performing a live set of hardy breaks and 140. The Pumphouse proves a popular spot on the Saturday, with later sets from technical wizard Neffa-T with additional mic duties from Flowdan, and an electro-heavy performance from Effy into the early evening.

Read this next: Belfast's dance music scene is one of the most vibrant on the planet

“AVA has changed a lot over the years, when we started out it was across the road in an old shipping warehouse,” says AVA founder Sarah McBriar when we catch her on the final day of the festival. “It started as a one-day event with two stages and 1,000 people, and now we have 10,000 people every year across two days. We’ve taken it to London and cities all around the world, it’s been incredible to see it perform so well in other places. But Belfast is very much our home and our heartbeat.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find another festival like AVA in Europe. In 10 years, it’s grown from strength to strength, picking up a dedicated crowd that looks forward to their yearly return to Titanic Slipways. From breaking the careers of emerging artists to creating a hub for dance music fans in Belfast where there wasn’t one before, AVA has truly put the Irish dance music scene on the map for the wider world. “We put a lot of energy, time, design, and resources into creating the right environment, so a lot of artists see it as something special,” says Sarah. “The community here is like a family – it’s a really special time for people to come together.”

Gemma Ross is Mixmag's Assistant Editor, follow her on Twitter

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