“I’ve heard the rehearsals and these guys are burning. They’ve got this piece together, and if you don’t like it, it’s your problem!”
We’re at Muziekgebouw for the opening night of Dekmantel 2017, and Steve Reich is introducing Slagwerk Den Haag’s rendition of his seminal composition Drumming.
He’s not joking – the Hague-based orchestra really are something to behold, adroitly phasing marimbas, bongo drums, and vocals into a rich melange of sound which spirals upwards, deftly falling in and out of time with one another.
Considering this is just the third year the programme has included an opening concert, the performance is a testament to Dekmantel’s far-ranging influence and curatorial ambition. The following evening included live sets from luminaries such as Robert Henke, Marcos Valle, and Wolfgang Voigt, the latter of whom plunged Muziekgebouw into near-total darkness for a powerfully affecting performance of his GAS material.
Thursday also saw attendees excitedly criss-crossing the ferry routes between Amsterdam Centraal and Noord to take in the programme of panels and interviews at the EYE institute produced in partnership with Resident Advisor, many of which were free and also open to the public.
Robert Hood’s wide-ranging career retrospective touched on topics as diverse as divining spirituality from dance music to the fearsome extent of Mike Banks’ militaristic drilling of UR during their formative years, while Hunee and Nina Kraviz’s ‘Art of DJing’ discussion saw them offer up candid takes on the ambivalence of IDing culture and the myriad factors that can shape the course of a set.
Even divorced from the context of the weekend these conference events would have made for engaging viewing, but against the backdrop of the festival proper the insights offered up make the experience shine that bit brighter. Kraviz, for example, divulged that she’d returned to Moscow to dig deep through a long-neglected collection of italo and electro records for her opening set on Friday afternoon, and there’s an undeniable sense of being in on the surprise as she warmed up the Selectors stage with tracks like Charlie’s Spacer Woman and The Dirtbombs’ Shari Vari.
It’s a clever bit of programming repeated across the weekend, with big-name act more accustomed to headline slots offered the chance to play extended sets on Selectors first thing – following in Kraviz’s footsteps Marcel Dettmann and Motor City Drum Ensemble duly attracted sizeable crowds keeping energy levels high from the off.
Owing to the quality and sheer volume of artists appearing across the weekend tough calls on where to head next were inevitable, but the irresistible combination of blazing sunshine and Byron The Aquarius’ signature brand of feel-good house drew a large contingent to the Greenhouse stage with many lounging around on deckchairs or dancing barefoot on the grass.
Omar-S continued in a similar vein on the Main Stage – which, despite the expansive scale of its dancefloor area, didn’t once feel impersonal – rolling out a soulful-but-tough set peppered with his own productions. Robert Glasper’s hybrid experiments provided a neat change of pace, creating space for Dekmantel mainstay Joey Anderson to launch into an exploratory set of looping techno and acid before Tony Allen and Jeff Mills’ virtuoso live set.
Dekmantel is replete with small touches that elevate it above many of its contemporaries. Extra speaker stacks are dotted thoughtfully beside stages for those content to lounge around, and as we do so beside the Nissen shed-style Boiler Room stage in the Saturday afternoon sunshine for Dark Entries’ Josh Cheon’s chuggy, melodious set we’re suddenly enveloped in a cloud of smoke from a dry ice machine hidden somewhere in the scrub. Later, when a sudden and torrential downpour sent many running for the trees there were scenes verging on elation as the bar staff tossed free ponchos into the crowd.
The second day of the weekend also brought plenty of curveballs – Ninja Tune signee Jameszoo played Benga’s 26 Basslines into Migos’ T-Shirt before dropping Super Sharp Shooter. Over at the blacked-out UFO tent Donato Dozzy and Peter Van Hoesen worked their way up from hazy ambience to propulsive techno. An undeniable highlight was Jon K and Joy Orbison’s riotous back-to-back, which saw them bounding from dancehall to garage via Nativ’s Shifty and Wookie classic Down On Me elicited particularly strong reactions.
Arca didn’t necessarily feel like a natural fit for the airy, low-ceilinged Greenhouse stage but check-mated any misgivings as he strutted back and forth blasting out a punishing mix of gqom and high-BPM techno, pausing only to egg the crowd on, and, at one point, douse them with champagne.
Back at the main stage Ben UFO delivered one of the weekend’s stand-out sets, dexterously weaving through styles before closing out with Overmono’s gorgeous reworking of Nathan Fake’s Degreelessness.
Come Sunday, Shanti Celeste made short work of energising the bleary early-afternoon crowd, segueing through a mix of timeless-sounding house and setting the stage for hand-in-the-air moments throughout Palms Trax. Opening with the unmistakable chords of Mystery of Love, Larry Heard and Mr. White guided rapt audience through live iterations of Mr. Fingers classics, perfectly timing Praise to coincide with the sunset dipping behind the trees.
The final hours of the festival posed arguably the biggest dilemma in terms of clashes with Hunee and Antal, Call Super and Objekt and Helena Hauff all closing out stages across the site. Having opted for the latter, we witnessed Hauff thunder through a characteristically searing set of acid techno.
Musically, the vibe was austere, but people cheered with every new track, some even crowd-surfing their way around the mist-enveloped stage. It felt like an apt finale. The festival’s rep as a paradise for heads is fully deserved – DJs and attendees alike both bring their A-game throughout the weekend – but the event never strays too far towards snobbishness or stuffy dogmatism. This is the Dekmantel collective’s tenth year in operation, and the fifth edition of the festival, and it’s this innate balancing act of forward-facing programming and a truly inclusive atmosphere that’s ensured their longevity.