Isola di Ortigia, Sicily
25 - 29 July
There’s no point in trying to hurry anything when you’re in Ortigia in July. The searing sun that beats down on the Syracuse island renders most labour – physical, mental, emotional – to be sweat-inducing. Phones cease working and brains quickly follow, while foreigners who express difficulty in adjusting to the pace of life will inevitably be greeted with a, “Hey, it’s Sicily.”
Ortigia Sound System, the multi-venue festival now in its fifth edition, benefits from the same laid-back ethos that makes Ortigia so seductive. It looks like a well-curated travel Instagram, and feels like a dream. Helpfully, the programming is linear and spread out, drawing focus to just one stage at any one time – a smart move when night-time temperatures rarely drop beneath the high 20s. And a sympathetic one, allowing plenty of time to refresh your Campari Spritz without spilling a drop.
Perhaps this lack of urgency explains why the venue was only half-full for Jimothy Lacoste’s early evening set at the Mercado, a neoclassical old market building decorated with a tiered fountain and columns that could be described as Doric, or filmic, or both. Luckily, as you might expect for an artist who built their viral fame on a bedrock of detached coolness, Jimothy remained unfazed, flipping on a pair of diamonté Gucci shades to deliver buoyant renditions of I Can Speak Spanish and Future Bae. If some of the cultural touchstones were a little niche you wouldn’t know it; Jimothy led a chant of “Fuck TfL!” before Subway System, presumably the first time such an utterance has been made in Ortigia.
The patio was fuller by the time Kamaal Williams took to the stage. Their expressive set saw Williams’ Rhodes keys and Mcknasty’s drums coalescing, like warm currents, to create wave after wave of 21st century jazz-funk. Just when we thought bucket hats and bass solos couldn’t get any more compelling, a surprise fireworks display began, phosphorescent reds and greens matched by a sustained crescendo that made you feel like extras in a film. Lisbon’s Mafalda remained consistent with the theme, drawing deep droughts from her record collection for her closing DJ set. While Moses Boyd’s Rye Lane Shuffle and Ezra Collective’s People in Trouble felt like courageous selections for any dancefloor, the London-via-Lisbon DJ had strong convictions, and trust in the crowd. Those unsure of the sticky polyrhythms found release in her diversion into gilded soul – most memorably, a well-timed drop of Betty Wright’s Show Your Girl.
The preternaturally chill vibes of OSS took a turn for the astronomical on the second night, when even the planets fell into easy alignment: the blood moon and full lunar eclipse, reflected over the Gulf of Syracuse, certainly added an eerie complexion to Lee Scratch Perry’s Friday night set in the concrete concourse of the Castello Maniace. A long-time resident of some higher plane, the dub pioneer took on the aspect of a wizened preacher in the dry ice and strange light. From an intimate DJ platform in the centre of the milling crowds, he recited dub mantras like Black Ark Vampires in full collaboration with the heavenly bodies.
Unfortunately, the spell was broken later that same evening by a rare lapse in organisation: the shuttle chartered to take us into the Sicilian countryside for the afterparty never materialised, leaving hundreds of festival-goers scrambling for a handful of taxis. But the beauty of the final destination, all fragrant pines and Call Me By Your Name atmospherics, made it difficult to stay cross – though it was surely avoidable. Here, Tunisian DJ Deena Abdelwahed held forth, plotting her strain of agitated, bass music in the rural darkness. The emergent producer and DJ recently saw her reputation climb another few notches recently following a well-received set at Freerotation – and it’s easy to see why. As men clustered at the front of the decks, she responded by tracking deeper and stranger, from the Arabic inflections of her own Walk On, Nothing to See Here, into roiling, cavernous techno and footwork.
It was a hard act to follow for Call Super, but few are as well acclimated to early hours raving than the Berlin linchpin. As the sun got higher, dancers retreated further into shade, but the music stayed full-beam taking in oddball disco and quasi spiritual house skronk (see: Blaze’s Seasons of Love). When he drops the Tony Humphries mix of The Sugacubes’ Leash Called Love, a handful of people sprawled on the lawn leapt to their feet, rediscovering one last jag of energy like a tenner down the back of the sofa.
Thankfully, given the late finish, Saturday night’s headline set by James Holden & the Animal Spirits returned to the luxuriant textures and open-ended sounds that defined so much of the festival’s evening programming. Visually, it was one of the weekend’s most arresting performances, making full use of the Main Stage’s impressive lighting rig and swirling visuals. Against the backdrop of the Castello Maniace, the band ran confidently through expanded versions of album tracks such as Pass Through the Fire. The psychedelic themes of the band’s eponymous LP came vividly to life in a live setting – new addition Wacław Zimpel, on alto sax, added welcome warm jazz overtones, and Holden was clearly enjoying himself, bobbing side to side and taking time out to thank the audience and his band in between tracks.
Sunday night, by contrast, was dedicated to sounds a little closer to home. The Napoli Sound Showcase offered a pin-drop on the music coming out of the emergent Naples scene. It was a suitable coda to a festival where attendees are steeped, almost by osmosis, in Italian culture: the food, the vistas, the people, the interval DJ’s frequent deployments of the pop hits of icon Franco Battiato. Of the three DJs playing, Nu Guinea stand out. The duo played a set that was pop-adjacent, blissed out and attuned to the euphoric demands of the Italian dancefloor, with their own tracks garnering the most enthusiastic response from the clued in crowd. As the sounds of an Italian cover of Psycho Killer reverberated off the castle walls, you’d be forgiven for feeling an overpowering desire stay a little longer. No stress though. No stress.