Titanic Slipways

Bristling the leaves on plants, rattling coffee stalls; a propulsive rhythm is reverberating off the walls at the site of AVA Festival. And the event hasn’t begun yet.

We take a tour of Belfast before the festival kick-off, and it’s impossible to mistake the role that dance music plays in the capital’s cultural DNA. It’s the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and on the same weekend is the seventh edition of AVA Festival. Around us are plant stalls at the City Hall’s Spring Continental market; coffee shops pitched on May Street. A bounty of Union Jacks and royal murals paint the streets red, white and blue.

During sectarian conflict, Belfast’s rave scene has provided a space for otherwise-warring communities to come together. One of its most tangible manifestations is one of three venues for the AVA afterparties. Previously a working mens club which saw its peak during The Troubles, Ulster Sports Club has since been reimagined as an event space, and this weekend would play host to acts like local hero Carlton Doom and disco trio Crazy P. Although relationships nowadays seldom depend on an individual’s religious beliefs, it’s important to acknowledge the history that undergirds Belfast’s current dance music circuit and, with that, the cultural significance of a festival like AVA.

What’s more, this year’s edition will see the city’s more contemporary heritage collide with centuries old. Sixteen thousand eager punters descend on the historical Titanic Slipways site, enticed by appearances from city natives Swoose and Jordan Nocturne, and international acts like Logic1000 and Floorplan. Having been conceived as an intimate warehouse festival with an aesthetic that pays homage to Belfast’s ship-building heritage, 2022 sees that intention take full form. Four stages are overlooked by a full-scale Titanic replica, each one leading onto the River Lagan, where each night the sun sets behind moving ships.

“This is the best AVA’s ever looked,” a seasoned attendee assures us on the way in, adding that it’s Belfast’s finest weekend of weather so far. The city’s infamous winds are kept at bay and the sun blazes over Buckfast-clad ravers, who dance with an air of jubilance and relief that, in a post-pandemic UK climate, we can rave again. Everything is in place for this year’s edition to live up to the reputation that precedes the festival.

Covid-related uncertainty came at the cost of last year’s conference schedule, and this year’s edition comes with the opportunity to indulge in a fully-fledged programme hosted in the revamped Portview Trading Centre and second AVA afterparty venue, Banana Block. Ticket holders could hear professional DJ tips from Duality Trax head honcho Holly Lester; participate in panel discussions covering concerns of entering the music industry; and hear an interview with Palestinian techno stalwart Sama Abdulhadi ahead of her weighty set the following day.

Despite the festival site’s intimate feel, its carefully-constructed layout and ample facilities allow for zealous crowds to keep out of queues and in the dance. On Friday, the Boiler Room stage – named ‘The Nomadic’ after the Titanic’s ship – is bathed in the warmth of Bklava’s soulful vocals, an Irish-Lebanese up-and-comer who breaks out into intervals of song over anthemic rave classics, like MJ Cole’s Be Sincere. Floorgasm founder LSDXOXO takes the reins next, delivering his signature blend of sex-drenched club bangers to an enthusiastic crowd; before the hardware-happy Italian duo 999999999 maintain the energy with a high-octane live techno set.

Elsewhere, Aussie jokester Partiboi69 makes a splash at The Grasses, arriving at his set via a Lagan Search & Rescue boat. He takes over from Irish-born DJ and fourth-time AVA artist Sally C, who’s already primed the crowd with rapturous blends of old school Defected Records material, stitched together with newer classics like Bicep’s edit of I Gotta Let You Go.

In comparison to the Saturday, Friday’s headliners are tailored more towards fans of 4×4. Those craving something more rugged could be satisfied at BBC Radio Ulster’s stage, named ‘The Baltic’, which focused on local talent. Here, on a kaleidoscopic journey through grime and jungle, Rory Sweeney is joined by Belfast-based MC Emby who hosts a total of five sets across the weekend. As twilight sinks in, so does a moment many will have been waiting for. Taking to the main stage are local darlings Bicep with a special live, audiovisual show. Their signature soul-stirring melodies and intoxicating projections lends itself to an emotional end to the festival’s first day.

On Saturday, crowds flock to catch a raucous set from Belfast’s own Mark Blair, made up of self-made techno edits of Da Hool and Rhythm & Gash – which is appropriately met with a sea of pounding fists. Whilst local pride is in the air, so too is his t-shirt. He’s copied his father, Desi, who joins him topless alongside his mother, Debby, for the last tune of the set. “Let’s join him!” shouts Evan Curistan, the host, as he swings his t-shirt over his head.

Once we arrive at The Grasses shortly after, it becomes near impossible to peel away away from the space. We’re enchanted by a synth-driven journey through Japanese house from the nicest man in dance music, Soichi Terada. Belfast native Calibre heats things up in time for the following act, Sherelle, who takes the baton and continues to launch the crowd into a hi-speed education on footwork, jungle and hardcore.

After flight cancellations put a stop to two headline sets from VTSS and I Hate Models, what ensues is perhaps the festival’s most poignant moment. Arriving last minute, Belfast’s CEO of hard-and-fast electronics IMNOTYOURMATE steps up to the Boiler Room stage, playing to adoring fans who chant along to his lethal blends of hardcore and fast techno. This is the culture that AVA breeds: empowering local, emerging talent is at the heart of the festival. It’s infectious, seeping into crowds and leaving many of its attendees with the hope that someday they’ll be on the other side of the stage.

The wonderful combination of Giant Swan’s smoke-enveloped punk and techno soundtracks a serene riverside sunset, giving us the perfect opportunity to reflect on a weekend of community, local pride and triumph. As AVA demonstrates, even after suffering from Covid restrictions for much longer than other parts of Britain, Belfast’s rave spirit is still very much intact.