Puglia in August is a world on vacation. The sky a vast expanse of azure, unblemished by clouds, the olive trees swaying in the gentle summer breeze, the nonnos and zios ambling down winding, sun-bleached streets; it is the stuff holiday brochures are made of. Add an expertly curated music festival, courtesy of the folks behind Turin’s Club To Club, and you have what may be the perfect way to spend a long weekend.
While its sister festival in Turin is bustling and reflective of northern Italy’s metropolitan sensibilities, VIVA! Festival is a decidedly more southern affair. Situated in Locorotondo, or more accurately at the foot of the hill on which the historical town sits, it’s a relaxed, highly social festival, where tickets are cheap, stage clashes are few, and crucially, there’s no music before 9pm most nights, so there’s plenty of time for dinner beforehand.
Powder and Jon Hopkins were charged with opening proceedings on Thursday night. Inspired by the laidback surroundings of Locorotondo, Powder’s set was a largely chilled affair building up organic grooves and layers of guitar solos before reaching a rapturous conclusion with the Ex Voto remix of Enzo Avitabile’s Neapolitan anthem, Devozioni Dialettali. Jon Hopkins meanwhile opted to debut a new audiovisual show with trademark melodrama with custom animations and cinematic clips projected behind the producer. Joined on stage by a pair of dancers, who wielded flashing light sticks like semaphore flags, Hopkins filled the Puglian hills with his gargantuan electro until the small hours of Friday morning.
For 2019, VIVA! scaled-down its site, focusing on a more curated, finely balanced line-up than previous editions. Where last year saw crowds thinly stretched between stages, 2019’s audience, especially at the smaller Masseria Aprile stage, was thriving.
However, not every artist felt the benefit of this new set-up. Despite bringing one of the most energetic sets of the festival, Yves Tumor couldn’t entice audience members away from Nicola Conte. Determined not to let a lacklustre crowd affect his performance Tumor dialled the intensity up, leaping into the crowd and doing his best to avoid the overly aggressive security guards attempting to chase him out of the pit.
While only running for two of the festival’s three days, the second stage – a kind of mini amphitheatre turned nightclub, often filled with vision-obscuring levels of dry ice – played host to more than its fair share of unexpected highlights. On Friday night, Nyege Nyege Tape’s Bamba Pana transformed the stage into a hyperactive singeli wonderland, pushing the BPM well above 160 and sending those brave enough to attempt to keep up into a frenzy with the help of MC Makaveli. The following night, as if not to be outdone, Ninos Du Brasil – a pair of drummers and visual artists from Venetto – transformed the stage into a carnival worthy of both Rio and Venice with gold wigs, theatrical face paint and their pounding acid-meets-batucada sound.
If Saturday made one thing clear, it was that there was only ever going to be one real star at VIVA! – Erykah Badu. Performing under her DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown alias, Badu was DJ, MC and singer all rolled into one, switching between her own music, hip-hop classics and funk deep cuts with expert precision, hopping on the mic at precisely the right moments. Bolstering her set were a pair of live musicians on bass and the drum machine, adding extra oomph to every track the neo-soul queen dropped. If you thought Planet Rock couldn’t sound anymore industrial and alien, you haven’t heard Badu unleash it.
To close the final hours of the festival, VIVA! gave both stages over to showcases of Italian nostalgia. Filling in for Jayda G, whose set was cancelled due to an emergency landing in Belgium, Napoli Segreta provided the deepest cuts of Neapolitan-language disco on the mainstage, while amidst the dry ice Ciao, Discoteca Italiana had the crowds in full voice with a set of the finest 60s-80s Italian pop and ballads.
For those in the know, and sober enough to drive, the party didn’t stop at 4am on Saturday though, it merely shifted 20 minutes down the road. In the coastal town of Savelletri, a third stage appeared to soundtrack the sunrise. Fuelled by free brioche and a shot of espresso or, if you preferred, a bottle of vino bianco and a panzarotto snuck from the VIP catering, VIVA!’s hardcore gathered on the beach to end their festival together, watching the Adriatic glow pink and orange in the early morning haze. It was a suitably communal closing moment for a festival that, at its best, encouraged its guests to take a step back from the chaos of festival season, take stock of their surroundings and indulge in a little dolce vita.