Sónar 2023 United Global House, Techno & Technology For It's 30th Birthday
Jun 23, 2023
Ana Monroy Yglesias
11 min read
This year, as we grapple with AI's impacts on music, writing, and photography, Barcelona's electronic music and technology festival, Sónar, celebrated its 30th anniversary. A lot has changed in dance music and technology since 1992—for example, digital DJing didn't exist, while this year, Pioneer demonstrated VR DJing technology at the fest. As the world continues to change, we'll always need to dance and gather together and connect over music and art, and Sónar remains a beautiful space to do that, while also questioning our current and future realities. This year's event brought in a peak of 120,000 attendees, 32 percent of whom were international.
Techno king Richie Hawtin, whose played the festival 24(!) times dating back to 1996, says Sónar has played an important role in fusing music and technology. "For someone like me who thought there was a connection between the arts, installations, and music, Sónar saw that from day one. I think that is the lifeblood of Sónar. It is what has made it so strong over the years. It is still the place where technology and music smash into each other. You never know what to expect at Sónar," he told EuroNews ahead of the fest.
I spoke with Berlin-based Spanish DJ Héctor Oaks right after he brought big rave energy to Sónar with the debut of his Fuego Universal live set about the magic of the fest, techno, and AI. He went all-out for the official debut of his new high-energy show, as he brought out guest vocalists and a keyboardist—along with stellar lighting and impactful visuals—to help him amplify and bring his unique, propolusive brand of punky techno to life. The live set inlcuded a selection of his rave classics and fan favorites IDs, along with a ton of unreleased material from his upcoming album. It's safe to say the LP is gonna be pure fuego rave material, like his show.
"I think that is very different to not only to festivals in the U.S., but to all the festivals. They put a lot of care in every small detail, and the lineup is so well curated. They've been doing it for 30 years, so people trust them, and they can experiment a lot and bring very radical underground stuff. I think that's really cool. I also love that it's very eclectic. For me, it's very inspiring to come here," he shared.
When asked about his thoughts on the intersection of technology and music today, he said he's intrigued to see where things head and the different ways producers can experiment with AI, for example.
"The level of technology is so high for the music right now that I think that the technology is growing much faster than the music. With the technology that there is already now, there are a lot of possibilities that haven't been explored so far," he said.
Héctor Oaks Presents Fuego Universal
Photo: Leaf Hopper / Sónar
"I think AI is gonna be crazy for music. I think for producers it's gonna be really good because we are going to be able to do stuff that we weren't able to do before. For example, I could have a guitarist playing in a song if I needed, where now I would have to find a guitarist and bring him to the studio. But I could ask AI to make me a guitar riff… I think it's cool—not to use it as a way to avoid making stuff, but to enrich the stuff you do and explore more possibilities."
He appreciates that the younger generation is also into techno, along with other styles of music.
"When I started listening to techno and going out to the clubs, if you were into techno, you couldn't like any other music. Nowadays, my younger cousins, they are 18, 16, and 12, and they go to a reggaetón concert, and then they go to listen to techno night, and they are the same crowd. I think that's really good for the scene and also very valuable for the artists, because we can crossover more and invent new stuff," Oaks said.
Héctor Oaks & friends perform at Sónar 2023
Photo: Leaf Hopper / Sónar
As for what techno means to him, it's simple yet profound: "The essence of techno is about freedom… I was always a weirdo everywhere and I didn't have friends and then I arrived to techno and everyone was my friend and was so cool. I could be myself."
At Sónar 2023, I received a solid dose of techno, dancefloor freedom, friend-making, and inspiration. I began the fest on a high note (that stayed high all weekend) with a lively, groovy B2B from two stellar London selectors—Rhythm Section founder Bradley Zero and On Loop head Moxie.
Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul shine at SonarVillage
Photo: Martini Ariel / Sonar
I ended up spending all Thursday at Sónar Day's main stage (SónarVillage) because the music was too good to walk away from. Belgian electro-pop duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul served up a playful and energetic live set, reflective of and filled with music from their Soulwax-co-produced 2022 debut collab album, Topical Dancer. I was on the way to check out another stage, but paused when I heard Bolis' fat beat. The thick funky rhythm was that of "Blenda," on which Charlotte opens with a sharp and playful dig at racists: "Go back to your country, where you belong / Siri, can you tell me where I belong?" They danced and brought lightness and humor to similarly difficult and pertinent themes, all while keeping the crowd grooving non-stop with them. They closed with "HAHA," a track that claps back at backhanded compliments and unsolicited bad advice.
The dance party continued with South African house king Black Coffee, who closed out the first day of Sónar 2023 with a celebration of African dance music. He kicked off with beautiful sunset-esque tune "Suna (Da Africa Deep Afrikan Remix)" from Kato Change, Winyo and Suraj as images of beautiful African queens shone on-screen. The first hour of his set also included "Your Love (Caiiro Remix)" from Hyenah and Nanghiti and "Deeper Feelings (Manoo The Dub / Piano Interpretation By Bacanito)" from Fiona Kraft.
When he dropped his track "Drive," the packed crowd went off. He mixed Gotye and Kimbra's "Somebody That I Used To Know" with an amapiano beat and served up Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra's 2015 dancefloor groover, "Too Much Information." I spied Bradley Zero getting down in the crowd, front and center. Black Coffee then took us back to the '90s with Stardust's joyful classic "Music Sounds Better With You," Robin S, Daft Punk, and even REM's "Losing My Religion" and Seal's "Crazy." His set was a celebration of African excellence and rhythms, and a nod to Afro house as the future dancefloor classics.
This thread led me to day two, where I walked in to South African rising amapiano champ Musa Keys getting down with a stellar live set. He taught the crowd his dances and lyrics, and requested we shout "Musa, we wanna party!" We obliged, and he indeed brought the party. As I mingled and connected with new and old friends in VIP at the back of SonarVillage, I was intrigued by Crystal Murray's energetic punk pop and went out to dance to the end of her set. As I moved closer I noted the Rihanna vibes, and sure enough she went into "We Found Love."
Yet again, I was pulled to stay with the lively programming at SonarVillage (which switches between DJ and live sets), and lived for MikeQ's vogue house. His joyful, sassy set was filled with Beyoncé, Kevin Aviance and set the tone for Blessed Madonna to follow up with pure gay club energy. She also served up cunty high energy house, from behind a chrome DJ booth that said "We still believe" in neon. She shared the stage with a gaggle of cute queens that stole the show and pumped up the energy as she set it off with tunes like "Love Thang (Cat Walk Mix)" by Banji Boys and Torren Foot and Azealia Banks' "New Bottega."
The Blessed Madonna and her queens at SonarVillage
Photo: Nerea Coll / Sonar
I did get to catch a bit of Max Cooper's stunning 3D/AV live set inside SonarHall, where code danced on the semi-transparent screens in front and behind him, before making my way to Sónar Night to catch Aphex Twin's abrasive, intriguing brand of electronic music. There, I bounced across the vast expansive of the massive venue, attempting the impossible task of catching everything. I did NOT miss the bumper cars, going for four rounds of exhilaration. Sónar's bumper cars is an institution in itself (ahead of his set, Richie Hawtin posted a pic of himself and Laurent Garnier on them years ago). I really hope someone makes an acid house track sampling the beep that signals the beginning and end of each round.
I've seen Bicep a lot in the last two years, but I remain obsessed and entranced every time. Between the blanket of lasers and their intricate rave soundtrack, it's impossible to not become immersed. And "Glue" always fucking hits. I got to a catch a bit of Fever Ray's Karin Dreijer's haunting, piercing voice, as well as Âme and Marcel Dettmann's techno conference, a.k.a. their five-hour set in the intimate SonarCar stage enclosed by red draping. I wanted to stay there forever, but there was more exploring of the rave cavern to do.
Bicep at SonarClub
Photo: Nerea Coll / Sonar
My final hour (I made it 'til 6 am!) flew by as melodic techno viking Solomun, who made his Sónar debut, presented speedy, infectious grooves as the lighting strobed and a robot-person danced across the screen.
When I arrived for the final day, I checked out the project area, where intriguing, interactive art, and technology were on display. There was art with themes of environmental impact, and old-school-style arcade video games about occupying Mars and turning yourself into code. I was fascinated by the soon-to-be-released Orbita midi controller from Berlin, which looked like a kids' toy but allowed you to make music by placing different color dots on a turntable-like interface.
There was also a brainwave-reading device called ENAKD that creates AI-generated art and poems based on your perceived moods. One read: "The world awaits me / My heart leaps with excitement / Ready to explore / A new journey awaits."
Photo: Sergio Albert / Sonar
The final day and night were filled with more great music, including a double-helping of Tiga (another Sònar regular), who played a fun, funky, acidy daytime set with 2manyDJs and Peach at SonarVillage, and heated techno with a dose of electro with Spain's Cora Novoa at SonarClub. He dropped Opus III's 1992 trance classic "It's A Fine Day" during both sets, mixing it with techno during the latter.
Horse Meat Disco and Prosumer's Sonar Day closing B2B brought one final, joyous dose of gay club to SonarVillage, elevated by fabulous queens who danced onstage with them. The bouncy house-and-disco-filled set included a Patti LaBelle house remix and Soulwax's "Another Excuse" mixed with the instrumental to Lipps Inc.'s classic "Funkytown," which the crowd beep beeped to.
At Sónar Night, after Tiga and Cora got me back in the techno mood—I Shazamed Vitalic's insane "You Prefer Cocaine" three times because it was that hot of a select—Richie Hawtin kept it going. His banging techno selects included "A Surreal Odyssey" from Abstract Division and "The Hole" by BobHz as squares and rectangles danced on screen for his new light show.
Richie Hawtin at SonarClub
Photo: Martini Ariel / Sonar
And when the sky began to lighten, Detroit queens DJ Holographic and DJ Minx brought us home with upbeat house that included Inner City, Cajmere ("Brighter Days") and Green Velvet ("Flash") and closed out with Minx's "The Throne" and Jengi's "Bel Mercy."
It was 7 am, meaning it was very much Sunday and time to sleep, but I wasn't quite ready to say goodbye to Sónar yet. I don't think I'll ever be. I sure hope we get to dance together into the future for another 30 years.