Sónar 2022: Techno, Disco, Rave, NFTs and Everything In-Between
Jun 28, 2022
Ana Monroy Yglesias
14 min read
I’ve always wanted to go to a music festival in Europe, and the 29th annual Sónar held June 16-18 in Barcelona was exactly what I was looking for. Since 1994, the innovative “music, creativity and technology” event has presented dance music in unique and engaging ways—they’ve been known for stunning visuals, exciting artist pairings, and boldly exploring who is captivating the underground.
A lot has happened in the world since the last Sónar in 2019, and they’ve done their best to keep up with it. The art space at the daytime venue has gone fully virtual, with a gallery of mind-bending NFTs, V.R., and AI-generated creations. Sonar+D talks and events followed suit, including subjects like an “AI-powered Soundscape Experience,” “Future of Music: AI-driven Virtual Artists,” “What you really need to know about web3 masterclass,” and more.
The daytime venue at Fira Montjuïc was intimate and playful, with four music stages, the biggest of which was outside in the sun, with a dancefloor padded in astroturf and shaded along the edges. The nighttime venue, at the massive Fira Gran Via L’Hospitalet, about 20 minutes away by metro, was a cavernous space with four stages and bumper cars hiding in the middle.
The music was stellar and eclectic. I love when the element of discovery feels like a key part of a festival experience, contrasting a lineup with the biggest names we’ve seen on almost every other lineup that year. On the first day of the event, I was excited for Sega Bodega, UNIIQU3, Ms Nina, and Jayda G. I was thoroughly delighted by the outdoor SonarVillage lineup, which happened to be all women, who slayed and served up extremely diverse and joyful sounds.
On Thursday, recently recovered from COVID-19 and free from quarantine, I arrived at Fira Montjuïc around 5 p.m., in time for the last half of Sega Bodega’s stellar live set downstairs at SonarHall. He sounded amazing, and the stage design was trippy af—the lasers shot out from under him and his microphone, giving the effect that he, too, was a laser. I had to stare at the flowing, ethereal tulle curtains behind him—mixed with smoke, lights, and more lasers—to determine if they were virtual or real, as they also looked like lasers. The vibe was sexy, sultry, and smokey rave, a perfect complement to the Irish-Scottish singer, songwriter, and producer’s music. By the time his set was over, my upper lip was sweating heavily under my mask, and I’d yet to find a spot to stand where someone wasn’t smoking a cigarette, so it was time to go back above ground to SonarVillage.
London-based Manara had been throwing down when I arrived and was still serving up her bouncy blend of Bollywood club edits and ’90s and ’00s pop—she ended with Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and global club rhythms. I was still covered in sweat outside, but I followed the wisdom of the crowd and danced in the shaded bits of astroturf. In the crowd, booties bounced, and hands were filled with squirt guns, bubble guns, fans, and Estrella Damm beer. Despite the humid heat, we were ready to get down, and the fabulous femmes of SonarVillage were fully prepared to serve it.
The stage was split with a D.J. booth and a larger live setup, allowing seamless transitions between sets. As soon as the Backstreet Boys classic ended, UNIIQU3’s energizing presentation of the Jersey Club sound she’s at the forefront of began. Starting 111 percent lit off the bat, she held nothing back for her first Sónar performance, commanding the decks with her bouncy, sexy selections and coming out front to rap and dance to her original tracks. The crowd swelled, no longer able to remain in the shady parts. At one point, a loop of Lil John shouting “okaaaaaaayyyy” echoed between the spaces of another track—he was our hype advisor during her set, and I think he would’ve approved.
For her 2018 track “BUBBLE GUM,” she came out from the decks to rap and twerk to it. She closed with her 2021 club hit “Microdosing,” letting us know with a smile, “You guys definitely don’t microdose, my love. You macro dosing it!”
Next up was more fire from Lady Shaka, who is indigenous from New Zealand and joyfully brings Afro-Pasifika diaspora culture to the club. Her dancers donned traditional Polynesian dance attire and shook it to “Dutty Wine,” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and “My Tahiti,” the latter of which she went hard on the ukulele. Nostalgic pop had a strong presence on Thursday, which I was happily surprised by. When I heard the shrill sirens of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” I jumped up from my padded seat at V.I.P. to report back to the dance floor. She mixed it into Rosalia’s “MOTOMAMI” and later, during Fergie’s “Glamorous,” came out from behind the decks to dance.
The double scoop of vegan gelato I’d eaten earlier to fight the heat had burned off hours ago, and it was time to eat some solid food. While waiting for a veggie burger, I saw UNIIQU3 waiting for her sustenance there as well. I said hi and told her I appreciated that she just went hard right out of the gates. She said thank you and gave me a smile that seemed to say, “Girl, this is how we do it.”
Angolan-Portuguese singer/songwriter Pongo was commanding the stage, glowing in neon pink as she served up her energetic neo-kuduro sound. This sound brings the Angolan genre to the club, which she was responsible for launching 14 years ago—when she was just 16—in Lisbon, Portugal, with “Wegue Wegue” (as a part of Buraka Som Sistema). For this seminal song, she brought over a dozen audience members to dance and power kick with her.
Last was Canadian environmental scientist and funky house queen Jayda G. They closed out an excellent day of joyful sounds and energy from an amazing group of women at SonarVillage on a very high note.
I was three or four glasses of Spanish wine deep, and my note-taking went to the wayside to get super down with this queen of joy. I did successfully Shazam one track from her set—the groovy disco bop “Over You” from Ken@Work. She also played some James Brown and served up pure upbeat, joyful vibes that danced through house, soul, funk, and disco selections while dancing hard.
I returned to the fairgrounds on Friday, excited for the day and night ahead. I was keen to see something I’d likely not see anywhere else, so I beelined to the X indoor stage, adjacent to SonarVillage, for flamenco experimenter Niño del Elche, performing with an 80-piece band from his homeland of Valencia, in a show meant to channel traditional festivals there. The set began suddenly as the band began marching from the back of the room, making their way through the crowd to somehow fit on stage. Niño stood behind them, with his D.J. next to him, beginning with a spoken introduction in Spanish, welcoming us to the wild party that had just started. The first song had him singing chant-like over a jingling Arabic-influenced rhythm (Valencia is part of Moorish Spain) as he slowly waved his hands out flat in front of him. There was another song where he sang “la la la la S.E.X.!” atop a groovy, housey rhythm, ending with “En Valenciaaaaaaa!”
Niño de Elche
It was strange, experimental, and beautifully paid tribute to Valencia. And even technical difficulties couldn’t limit the energy or send the crowd away. As he shouted "Bienvenidos a la experiencia de la cimica natural! … la vida es para vivir! Toma, toma, toma!” (Welcome to the experience of the natural chemical… Life is for living!) as we danced hard. He ended with a flourish of hard techno, screaming with the mic in his mouth—legend.
Back at the outdoor stage, as the sun set, Parisian electro-pop duo Polo & Pan—with help from their vocalist Victoria Lafaurie—took us on a shimmering, buoyant, and synthy trip around the world. The crowd was again packed, including a guy—my festie crowd hero—with crutches, one in the air, spinning various hats on it. Lafaurie was the show’s star, owning the stage with her sultry voice and dance moves.
For “Tunnel,” Polo & Pan’s Cyclorama collab with Los Angeles swag maestro Channel Tres, Polo channeled some of his swag as he rapped his bars. They closed the joyful set with “Magic,” also from 2021’s Cyclorama.
House music power couple Eris Drew and Octo Octa closed the second day at SonarVillage with two and a half hours of vinyl, vibes, and upbeat ‘90s-leaning house. During the Chemical Brothers classic “Star Guitar,” they shared a cute, long kiss.
It was finally time to venture to Fira Gran Via L’Hospitalet for Sónar by Night. German trio Moderat was first on the agenda, playing at the SonarClub stage. Their dark, deep, and moody beats were the perfect welcome to the night. Amidst the smoke, Sascha Ring, aka. Apparat, and Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary, aka Modeselektor, were vibing hard. The gray and red-tinged visuals were fittingly dark and captivating. They blended tracks from the recent MORE D4TA with older classics that still pierce my soul deeply.
The tightly packed crowd only started to thin out as the sun began to rise. The duality of this odd hour wasn’t lost on me. It’s the worst because you’re not asleep yet, and the best because the dance floor begins to clear and people are on their most extra behavior.
We meandered through the various rooms to find our way to the outdoor SonarPub stage for Bonobo’s live set, which was somehow even more packed. The vibes and stage were fantastic, but it was impossible to dance and difficult to see the action, so we didn’t stay for too long. After ordering two delicious crepes (I only needed one, oops), we made our way back to SonarClub for French duo The Blaze, whose fire visuals and dreamy live set kept the crowd alive.
It was time to head back to SonarPub for Agoria, and luckily the crowd was starting to thin out, so there was some room to dance to the techno-led late-night grooves. Niño de Elche was on stage with him to assist in delivering their perfectly strange 2021 collab, “What If Earth Would Turn Faster.” Keeping the spirit of art and technology in mind, Agoria offered a free NFT via a Q.R. code on the screen. The vibe was dark, sexy, and techno.
A friend that has been to past Sónars texted me the day prior about bumper cars, and I was hoping this was still a thing. When I saw them at the night venue earlier that evening—and heard the gleeful screams and various joyfully chaotic sounds and neon lights flashing—I was relieved and excited. Ahead of ANNA’s closing early morning set, a friend and I hopped in a car and incited head-on collisions. Luckily, no one was hurt, and we laughed a ton. Since I’m not a late-night person anymore (I love sleeping) and I was tired earlier in the day, I was worried about being able to make through the aggressive schedule, but here we were at 6 a.m., ready to dance out any remaining energy to ANNA’s unrelenting sunrise techno set.
Her hour-and-a-half of dark-yet-rhythmic techno bangers were enhanced by visuals from Maotik, moving quickly in time with the high B.P.M. of the music and resembled strings of light. As her mostly unShazamable set wound down, we realized we’d done it. We made it to 7:30 a.m. on the dance floor—we’re definetly fucking forever ravers! Time to dig out the sunglasses and ride the subway back home for a long nap before the final day and night of Sónar.
I set an alarm to see alt R&B powerhouse serpentwithfeet at 4:30 p.m., something that, since becoming a full-time freelance writer, I am morally against. Yet, despite the effort, I didn’t make it. Instead, I got lost on the way to the metro while having a sensual experience with the tapas I was eating while walking there (ugh, how American of me).
My final day of Sónar began at the Lounge+D, where I caught the last half of Agoria’s engaging talk with journalist Christine Kakaire on creativity and Web3. Afterward, I said hi to Agoria and walked with him and his lovely NFT friends (they were real, fungible people, just into NFTs) to the digital art gallery.
We had a very meta moment while watching the digital frames flash through various strange psychedelic NFT works when one of Agoria’s suddenly appeared. I appreciated the enchanting movement of many of the pieces and learned from one of his friends about the A.I. programs that co-created some of the art. Wild.
My favorite part of the gallery was the hilarious and playful Face2Wikipedia, by Andreas Refsgaard. On a computer, you input your name, “what you’re famous for,” and take a picture of your face. Then, the G.P.T. 3 text generator serves up a fake Wikipedia page. I thought I was 17, which, thank you, and that I had worked with Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Ariana Grande in my successful career as a professional hype woman. OKAY!
As engaging as the art was, it was time to move. At SonarVillage, New York’s D.J. Python, the creator of the deep reggaetón sound, was throwing down Latin-tinged groovers while casually looking like he just got out of class, donning a brown leather bookbag the whole time. Right after, Italian production duo Nu Genea served up their sunny brand of Naples funk with a live band, complete with congas, an amazing singer donning wings, and lots of upbeat rhythms.
After walking out of the venue to catch an OffSónar party at a nearby faux castle, Poble Espanyol, I decided to run over to pet a dog waiting to cross the street. The dog bit my hand, and I spent the next seven hours in the emergency room, most of which I was waiting. I was heartbroken to miss the Chemical Brothers, who I’ve yet to experience. Eventually, I made it to Sónar by Night around 4 a.m. to eat a much-needed pizza and hear the last bit of Charlotte de Witte slaying SonarClub. I asked everyone I talked to how Chemical Brothers were—they were great, of course. I also missed Arca, Joy Orbison, and Eric Prydz—Sónar held nothing back to close things out!—but I am writing you with a healing, not-infected hand, yay. And at least it wasn’t super crowded anymore as I dragged my exhausted ass through the space again.
French funk maestro Folamour gave me life as I sipped on a Fanta and danced as gingerly as possible. He served up infectious house, disco, joy, and his new Power to the Ppl live A/V show outside at SonarPub. The visuals included illustrated versions of him with a bucket hat and some holographic bucket hat ones; cute. The chant-along chorus of Brazilian disco heater “A. E.I.O.U.” from Di Melo is now one of my favorite songs; thank you for that, Folamour. As the sky glistened into the morning, he dropped the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive,” and we all got down.
Siberia-born, Naples-based Anifsa Letyago, one of the newer killer techno queens, closed things out in style at SonarClub. She delivered spacey, strange, and sickening techno with mind-bending, liquidy visuals by Alice Erre, some with her face as artistic inspiration.
My friend and I snuck away at 7, half an hour before she ended with the debut of her new single “Haze,” only because sleep was desperately pulling on our eyelids.
I cannot wait for the 30th-anniversary edition of Sónar next year. I will be there, and I promise I will not pet any dogs unless the dog clearly demands it.