Boucher Roads Fields, Belfast

Ever since the pandemic forced clubs to shut and festivals to cancel, the music industry has had to adapt to a changing world.

One of the emerging changes within the festival sector, in particular, is the notion of scaling back on booking expensive, international DJs and opting instead for local talent. So far, it’s hard to say how much of this is lip service, but the triumphant return of AVA Festival in Belfast was an example of what this change looks like. And it looked like a lot of fun.

Homegrown talent has, of course, been a key feature of the festival’s ethos since its inception in 2015, when organiser Sarah McBriar welcomed a host of speakers for its inaugural conference, along with a swathe of local selectors including Hammer, Cromby, Swoose, Space Dimension Controller and Bicep – all of whom have continued on to become regular faces at the event. Added to that list were the likes of Sally C, Or:la, Saoirse, Holly Lester, Sunil Sharp and Carlton Doom. The line-up certainly read as a temperature check of Ireland’s most exciting DJs.

Another difference for this year’s event was the absence of the conference schedule altogether. Organisational hurdles in today’s post-Covid landscape may have forced the festival’s hand with these changes, but in many ways this felt fitting. As two local festival-goers enthused on our way into the festival, a Belfast crowd is second to none in its energy, and whether responding to the time away from dancing or the sight of so many familiar local DJs, this one certainly didn’t disappoint.

Early in the first afternoon, object blue’s set of gnarled breaks and rave stabs was met with the same enthusiastic reaction as Holly Lester’s fierce offering of thunderous techno. The latter filled the Nomadic space: its clear-roofed structure reminiscent of AVA’s old B&Q warehouse home or even a turbo-charged version of Dekmantel’s famous greenhouse.

When the day drew on, choosing stages became increasingly difficult. The shadowy DJ Boneyard pulled a huge crowd to the Grasses as the sky turned dark, while Jayda G’s insatiable energy had dancers at the Nomadic bouncing from the walls. There was a similar reaction in that space to JD Twitch and Jonnie Wilkes’ nod to Lee “Scratch” Perry, which certainly ranked as one of the weekend’s finer moments. As is so often the case, the day’s highlight came from Helena Hauff. Her signature brand of muscular electro cascaded around the Surround’s ring of shipping containers, matched at every turn by AVA’s crackling atmosphere.

Day two saw the line-up zero in on local talent. Former AVA Emerging DJ winner Caoimhe, and Däïre, were both highly touted before the weekend and neither disappointed. They both gamely threw it down as ravers filled the site once again. In the afternoon, the live hip-hop and R&B triumvirate of Gemma Dunleavy, Aby Coulibaly and Kojaque were each a welcome change of pace over at the Grasses, while Swoose’s introduction by fellow local selector Julian Simmons hammered home the sense that this was primarily a celebration of Belfast.

Again and again, we couldn’t help but return to this feeling. Against the backdrop of some of the strictest licensing laws and earliest closure times in Europe (rules which are due to change this year), AVA felt like a source of pride for the clubbers of Belfast. As one attendee said: “I’ve been going since the first one and every year it’s an excuse to come back and party with all our friends and see how the festival has grown. It’s sort of grown up and changed along with us.”

Fitting, then, that the weekend played out first with a blinding b2b from old partners in crime Sally C and Cromby. Both selectors reached for their party tracks and tipped the night into pandemonium. They were followed by sets from Hammer and Sunil Sharpe in the Surround and Nomadic areas respectively; the local names played as hard and fast as their hometown peers could lap it up.