I don’t know a lot about Albania, particularly when it comes to electronic music. It isn’t the first spot that would come to mind when thinking about music festivals – it hasn’t got the same commercial reputation as England, Spain or the United States, nor does it have the underground notoriety of Romania or the Ukraine. So when Unum Festival extended an invite to their debut edition in the coastal town of Shëngjin, Albania the first weekend of June, it was an irresistible opportunity to explore this country and visit the first year of what turned out to be a very special event.
Although Albanian cities like Tirana and Pristina welcome million of visitors annually, smaller towns and villages are still emerging tourist destinations. Shëngjin, which borders the Adriatic Sea, is a resort town that’s still growing in popularity, and it seemed like the festival’s organisers were hopeful that it would stir up even more interest in the area. Why not – the hotel offered views of the sea from nearly every balcony, fresh seafood was a highlight at the small restaurants nearby and the historical sites of the nearby municipality of Lëzhe only a short cab ride away.
The festival took place a quick shuttle bus ride from the main hotel, Rafaelo Resort, a complex that the organisers had seemingly entirely booked out for the weekend. Although the situation at the hotel itself wasn’t perfect (the staff were a bit overwhelmed by the amount of visitors and a lot of us had difficulties with our room reservations), the shuttle bus, ticketing and general organisation went off with very few hitches. The music was set to go on for 24 hours a day, so there was a lot to take in – and a lot of room for error – but things ran fairly smoothly for its first edition. In fact, “for its first year, this has been great,” was probably the most overheard statement all weekend long.
The shuttle ride took you around the coast, past old abandoned and rusted out ships, up to a beach bordered by a forest where the festival site was located. Along with a food court area and a small marketplace, the festival had three stages: an impressive main stage reminiscent of something at Electric Daisy Carnival, shaped like a pirate ship, complete with extravagant lighting and a massive sound system. The Beach stage was smaller and accompanied by much less fanfare, and the Into the Pines stage – tucked away in the forest and surrounded by giant neon mushrooms – seemed like something out of a psytrance festival. While the main stage hosted big acts like Luciano and Joseph Capriati, the Beach stage passed more or less under the radar aside from its closing offerings from Butch and Adriatique.
Into the Pines, in my opinion, was the festival’s best stage and where most of us spent our time. Friday night’s excellent sets from Praslea, Dyed Soundorom and Perlon veteran Margaret Dygas set the tone for the weekend. Daytime at the festival was decidedly quieter in terms of attendees – by the time UK-based selector Digby played on Saturday afternoon, the Pines stage had only a small, but excited, crowd. As the sun set, Ion Ludwig started a highly anticipated live set; shorter than his usual offerings (it clocked in at only three hours) but strong nonetheless, pulling in crowds of headsier festival-goers. The rest of the night followed suit: tINI smashed it with big tunes and a lot of energy, while Romanian selectors Raresh and Petre Inspirescu brought the night into the morning with typical journey-like sets and impeccable mixing. Although the Sunday had a load of b2bs scheduled, Laylla Dane and Vera ended up playing separately, which was all the better, with each bringing their own distinct touch. Hearing stories about skipping needles, Berlin-based duo DeWalta & Shannon opted not to play vinyl and gave us the afternoon’s most lively and interesting set (was that Cardi B we heard?). In response, the crowd gave it all they had as a few drops of rain started to come down.
Nighttime rolled in as Sonja Moonear took the stage, and by this time, the rain was coming down properly. It didn’t deter anyone, though, and with the main stage inexplicably closed on the Sunday night, the Into the Pines stage was jam-packed. Moonear’s set was banging, working the crowd with big room sounds perfect for its midnight time slot. Franco Cinelli – one of the best-known techno artists in Argentina – was scheduled for a b2b with Ricardo Villalobos but started off solo with incredibly tight mixing and great track selection. Sadly, it was clear the crowd was waiting for Villalobos, who finally arrived about an hour into Cinelli’s set. Their b2b was, for the most part, good, if a little monotonous at times. The rain was torrential at that point, water logging the entire festival site, and organisers made the decision to shut the festival down. This left many attendees disappointed as the best, as far as we were concerned, was yet to come: Craig Richards and Perlon co-founder Zip were billed as the closing sets.
The next day, however, the festival announced a surprise after party to make up for the abrupt shutdown the night before. Zip, Berliner Tobi Neumann, Sonja Moonear, Roche Madame resident Cesar Merveille and a couple local Albanian artists took to the Discotheque at the Rafaelo Resort for an after party on Monday evening. A funny little club in the basement of the resort, they brought in a better sound system and things started off well with a small but cheerful crowd. Zip, who ended up playing six phenomenal hours, an ear-to-ear grin the whole time, was far and away the festival highlight. Overall it was agreed that seeing him in a dry basement club was better than trudging it out in the rain. It was the happy ending the festival deserved. Although other events, like Sunwaves for example, remain the frontrunner of 24-hour festivals, it’s clear that the Albanians are set to give them a run for their money. A lot of heart went into Unum Festival, and for its first edition, it really showed.