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Why Adaptations festival is a statement of the strength of Leeds’ dance music community

In a year full of adversity and uncertainty, Natural Selection's 16-hour party was a life-affirming revival of dancefloors and communal joy

  • Words: Jemima Skala | Photography: Misha Warren
  • 23 November 2021

Since the quiet disappearance of Inner City Electronic amid accusations of bullying and discrimination, there has been an electronic music day festival-sized gap in Leeds’ dance music scene. Local promoters Natural Selection stepped up to the plate with Adaptations, a 16-hour rave across two of the city’s music venues, Belgrave Music Hall and Headrow House.

A quick glance at the line-up sees big headline names like Afrodeutsche, HAAi and Daniel Avery slotted alongside more headsy acts like the ambient experimental duo Space Afrika. It’s also exciting to see the festival giving an equal platform to local selectors with a whole host of Leeds’ finest appearing, from Love Muscle’s Michael Upson to Kessie and Sayang of Flesh in Tension.

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Both venues are still operating as normal on the Saturday with just the event rooms exclusive to ticketholders. Local DJs are spread out across the bar and roof terrace areas of both Headrow and Belgrave, which are accessible to the general public, bringing a taster of the festival to Leeds at large. At first this seems sequestering, keeping the local talent separate to the big name draws, but in the mix, it feels like a more democratic programming choice. As Yasmeen thumps out the hardest possible techno at full volume at 5.30PM and the crowds of people only here for a hen do or a casual drink start joining in with gusto on the dancefloor, it’s clear that this was the right move.

Because we’re living in the age of COVID and because shit happens, there were a fair few changes to the schedule on the day: OK Williams had to cancel her appearance and her WHP set the night before due to illness, and DJ Python couldn’t make it over because of travel restrictions. Some set shuffling meant that India Jordan filled in for OK Williams and local favourite Junior improvised an impressively hard-hitting set crammed full of bangers that simply did not let up between Loraine James and Laurel Halo. It’s a testament to the Natural Selection organisers how well these kinks were ironed out and to the artists as well for how easily they moved around the changes. HAAi and Daniel Avery ended up playing back-to-back for four hours, filling up Belgrave’s roomy event space from midnight all the way through the early hours, ending on Basement Jaxx’s classic ‘Where’s Your Head At’, bringing out a refreshingly silly side to Avery’s otherwise rather serious sets.

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With live performances smattered among DJ sets, Adaptations feels like a suitable place for artists and DJs to test out ideas and strike gold. A prime example is Fauzia, whose DJ sets keep typically high tempo and range across footwork, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass and more. Her February 2021 EP ‘flashes in time’ displayed a softer, more idiosyncratic side to her musical sensibilities, with vocal harmonies floating on top of each other against a backdrop of paranoid beats and synth stabs. Live, it translates to a vulnerable, raw experience, with Fauzia’s own self-consciousness at the late start to her set caused by travel delays adding to the charm and simple beauty of it.

Space Afrika present a moment for pause and active listening; their live rendering of their found sounds and field recordings woven into an electronic tapestry is even more gorgeous than their standout 2021 album ‘Honest Labour’. Live, they are led by feeling, giving the productions an organic quality, with the impression that they are being built in response to the particular set of conditions within the room and within themselves. It’s so mesmerising that the audience all sit down on the hard and dirty gig room floor to better take it in—a sofa that sits inexplicably towards the back of the room facing the stage is draped with people rapt with attention.

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Loraine James’ live reworkings of her own tracks—notably ‘Glitch Bitch’, ‘Simple Stuff’ and ‘Black Ting’ featuring Le3 bLACK—go hard, twisted into new shapes and patterns, morphing before they’ve barely had time to settle. It’s exciting watching artists recasting what their own work can sound like in front of you, especially when this involves a sped-up Spice Girls vocal. Similarly, old favourites that are so ubiquitous as to be fresh when they crop up in a hard, bassy dance set are reimagined throughout the festival: Laurel Halo plays Lauryn Hill’s iconic ‘Ready Or Not’ over a slamming techno instrumental so that Hill’s gentle, loving “you can’t hide” becomes more ominous; and Actress drops a pitched and sped up version of acid house classic ‘Voodoo Ray’ right in the middle of his set to great whoops from the crowd.

The most vital and life-affirming part of the whole day was Giant Swan. Known for their unrelenting, battering techno created with a whole bunch of gear and massive bass amps, they came on-stage all guns blazing. With the volume cranked all the way up, the crowd, which was at the fullest it had been all day, pressed forward eagerly, with the classic taps aff moment for Robin Stewart coming just 20 minutes in. The raw power of their sound was shocking in the most impressive of ways, like the reboot the central nervous system gets when you immerse yourself in icy water. Both painful and beautiful, energy radiated from the room like sheet lightning.

In a year full of adversity and uncertainty, Adaptations was a wonderful, shining touchstone, a reminder of the strength of Leeds’ dance music community. As people filtered between Belgrave and Headrow, there was a tangible excitement floating over everyone, a silent acknowledgement that this was something more than just a club night. Looking out over the crowds and seeing the artists in among the throng getting stuck in, there’s a sense that Adaptations has been built for everyone: artists, heads, newcomers, lovers of all different genres. One can only hope that it’s not just a one-off, that it keeps building momentum and growing year on year.

Jemima Skala is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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