Writing about all that I’ve experienced at the Sònar Festival is everything but easy. Here’s a fundamental disclaimer, though: going to every live show that’s scheduled is actually impossible, but it’s also impossible even going to all the shows you’re actually interested in. Spending 18 hours each day in front of a stage goes against the human body capabilities unless you think about using some “external help” – which is ethically wrong, so this wasn’t my case. What you’ll be reading here is the tale of the three crazy days that me and the photographer Elisa Scotti lived in Barcelona, while trying not to be overwhelmed by all those talented artists and by the unbelievably hot weather we came across during the weekend. I won’t be telling you about how we both got a sunburn at the beach on Sunday, or how I discovered that there was a fan in my room, but I did so the last day, so it was basically useless (spoiler: the owner hid it under the bed). No, I’d rather tell you about Stormzy and his top-class show, about how Sheck Wes almost melt our hearts, about how Masego left us speechless. Down here you’ll be able to read about this and a lot more; but my honest advice is to try, at least once, to be at one of the next editions of the Sònar Festival. You’ll be back home with a completely different perspective of festivals, live shows, and music. A better one.
It’s 01.30 am, Barcellona – as the true metropolis it is – doesn’t seem to be actually sleeping; but the hot weather and the fact that it’s just Wednesday make it look like it’s taking a nap. Max, the owner of the b&b I’ll be sleeping in, scared the hell out of me because he wasn’t answering my calls, but eventually, he showed up. Thank god, I won’t be wandering in the city for the whole night. Not this time, at least. I could’ve been worse. Of course, the flight had a 40 minutes delay, and someone at the gate thought he could lift up our spirits by playing the piano – but trust me, unfortunately, he was no Chopin. But still, it could’ve been far worse. Elisa made it to her house too, so we can finally go to sleep. The alarm clock for tomorrow is – sadly – set at 09.00 am.
Barcelona is unbelievably hot. We get to Plaza de España at 11 am, with only one goal: take a look of the Sònar by Day venue and collect our passes for the festival; of course, only after an impressive breakfast. We quickly collect our accreditation. The first impression is astonishing: the space is huge, with a lot of different areas, full of attractions and things to do. We start wandering in front of the main stage, which is already incredibly crowded. All around us, there are big smiles, colorful outfits, (not so) great dance moves and cups – reusable ones, as it will be everywhere in the festival – raised to the sky, as if it was a gigantic, endless toast. The music is loud, the vibrations are amazing, everyone is caught up in the situation, even in the VIP zone, which is usually way more chilly. We are struck by Rejjie Snow‘s showcase: the young Irish rapper (he was born in ’93) is from the 300 Entertainment roster and brought on the stage an energic show, full of soul and deeply linked to the roots of hip hop and black music. The stage is totally his, proving that he didn’t end up working with Joey Badass, Kaytranada, Mura Masa and Jesse James by chance. His show is the last one of the first day; DJs will keep playing in the venue, while I and Elisa decided to take a brief tour of the Sònar +D venue, the area that hosts panel and exhibitions about technology, culture, and business. We’ll be back tomorrow because there’s really a lot to see.
While sitting at Tapa Tapa – the restaurant that will provide to all our food needs via paella and tapas -, me and Elisa talk about the fact that even if today was actually just a warm-up, the energy in the air was already sparkling. People were already looking forward to the day after, but at the same time were deeply enjoying the moment. Between some tasteful paella bites, we begin to organize the next day.
After spending the morning sightseeing as tourists, visiting the Ramblas and La Boqueria, walking way too many miles and sweating way too much, we decide to take a break at a bar, with a fresh beer and the beautiful Plaza de España in front of us.
After lunch, we reach the location of Sònar by Day and decide to dive into the technological wonders housed in the pavilions of Sònar +D. The first impact is a sense of almost bewilderment: people keep coming and going, at every corner projects, initiatives and inventions attract attention with sounds, lights, images, and flashy stands. From the corner of Kickstarter, which hosted projects created thanks to fundraising and others whose campaigns are still in progress, through rooms for meditation through multisensory stimuli, then arriving at masterclasses about the history of theremin or corners dedicated to augmented reality, 3D and graphic and sound design, the entire area is populated by experts, enthusiasts, researchers and operators. The range of fields covered by Sònar +D is very wide, it goes far beyond music, literally embracing science in its entirety, leaving the viewer sometimes enraptured, sometimes doubtful, sometimes smiling, other times literally incredulous. With this incredible mix of sensations still on us, we go back to the sunny lawn and we stand in front of the stage of the Sònar by Day, which is about to host one of the most awaited live shows of the day.
With Real Madrid’s jersey on – a brave and maybe a bit crazy choice – Masego arrives on stage, followed by a female voice and a full band. Armed with a sax, the American artist put up a huge show, a real clinic on how to conquer, excite and send the crowd into raptures. His voice, the hypnotic sensuality of his songs and the energy transmitted by the instruments on stage proved to be a lethal amalgam, able to involve both the first and last rows, literally kidnapped by the sound. Between soul and jazz, between rap and funk, between electronic music and blues, Masego’s show is all-encompassing, an immersive experience like few others, enriched by the incredible interlude that saw him produce a live instrumental, with the use of his voice and a loop station, and then sing on it with a disarming naturalness. His showcase lasts one hour, but to the present, it seems that very little has passed, and many hope for another couple of hours of the show. Unfortunately, it’s not like that, but there’s no reason to feel disappointed: it’s Friday, and this means that at 10.30 p.m. the curtain of the long-awaited Sònar by Night will rise. Time to cool off, eat a bite and figure out how to get to the venue, and here we are already on the other side of Barcelona, under another stage.
After resigning ourselves to the idea that we would cover more kilometers wandering in the Sònar by Night that crossing the whole Barcelona on foot, we went to the area of the Sònar Club, the pavilion that was going to host one of the most anticipated live of the evening. At 10.30 p.m. it was Stormzy‘s turn: the English artist, who made it to the line up as the substitute for A$AP Rocky – while we’re at it, #FREEASAPROCKY once again -, was aware that he wasn’t in a simple position. Its value as an artist is not in question, but there is also the awareness that many of those present had bought the ticket to see the show of Harlem’s rapper, not his. Remembering this on stage several times, a symptom of great humility and character, Stormzy nevertheless gave the audience an epic show. Energetic, dynamic, able to handle the huge stage alone – and without any particular difficulty -, the English rapper reminded everyone that he was not the second youngest headliner ever at the Glastonbury Festival by chance. Voice of a whole generation of young English people, able to move easily from raw and grimey atmospheres to more chill and enveloping vibrations, Stormzy brought on stage some of his greatest hits, including the recent Vossi Vop – protagonist, in Italy, of the meaningless drama raised by the verse of Ghali in the remix -, Big For Your Boots, Shut Up, and a verse on the success of his friend Ed Sheeran, Shape Of You. An intense show, sometimes frantic, always on excellent levels, both in terms of energy and audience involvement, thanks to the impeccable performance of Stormzy on stage, in terms of raw skills. Some would probably have preferred A$AP Rocky, but Stormzy gave Barcelona a show to remember. British pride!
Not even the time to realize what we saw on stage, that Elisa and I are already anxiously looking for the next location, the Sònar Lab, that would host the live of Octavian. Another member of the English scene, perfectly balanced between the grime sounds and an approach linked to the latest stylistic waves of American rap, the young Octavian brought on stage a load of energy, although his vocal presence was much less impressive than that of Stormzy. The audience was still very energetic, and supported him from the beginning to the end, while the artist born in 1996 dominated the stage rapping, dancing, jumping and moving like a wild beast. The final result is simply perfect: Octavian’s energy is overwhelming, it is transmitted by osmosis to the audience, which is unleashed at his side. The protagonist of hits with superstars such as Skepta, A$AP Ferg, Mura Masa, and Diplo, Octavian’s show has reiterated in Barcelona that he has all the intentions – and the means in order to do so – to become one of the future brightest stars of the world rap scene.
Another round, another race: we leave the Lab and look for – desperately, to be completely honest – the Sònar Pub, the stage that will host the show of Vince Staples.
So let’s leave the queen’s land and move to the States: Staples is one of the most eclectic, talented and controversial artists of this generation, as prolific in his songs as he is shy in other areas. The futuristic Big Fish Theory, the irresistible FM!, the now-classic Summertime ’06: all his records come to life on stage, accompanied by provocative and brilliant visuals, which see Staples appear in some TV series and programs that have become landmarks of pop culture – Seinfeld, The Office, South Park, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and others. Provocative and desecrating, but also incredibly talented: on stage Vince Staples is an animal, he goes straight on like a train, and in an hour of a set he literally doesn’t take a break. He doesn’t call the audience too much into question, but we’re overwhelmed by the power of his performance, whether it’s in a “love” piece like Señorita, the hypnotic 745 or the unstoppable FUN! All eyes are on him, his expressive strength is uncontainable, those present try – with poor results – to follow his tight metrics, but explode in a thunderous roar at the end of the show. Vince Staples’ performance was perhaps the most impressive live performance of the evening, simply irrepressible.
In the meantime, the clock marks 2:30 a.m.: the energy begins to abandon us, so Elisa and I decided to let those present enjoy the DJ sets of Peggy Gou and Joseph Capriati, who would have seen us actors, not protagonists. Saturday is now on the horizon, and the combination Sònar by Day + Sònar by Night requires a lot of strength to be addressed.
The heat of the previous days is beginning to be felt: the long walks and the verses are sung at the top of one’s voice the previous day are putting our bodies to the test, but the line up of the day is able to recharge our batteries on its own. We enjoy the morning as tourists, even walking as far as the beach, also having a look at the most famous streetwear stores in the city. Incredible but true, we are able to resist the urge to get the economy going in the city, and we can keep our wallets in our pockets, despite the call of God only knows how many sneakers, t-shirts, sweatshirts, and assorted goods. Proud of our self-control, we end up suppressing our impulses with an icy cerveza, and arrive at the Sònar by Day. It’s the last day, but the energy is the same as the first one: there’s no trace of melancholy, they’re all incredibly charged, the DJs pass with embarrassing tranquility from Gangsta’s Paradise to the K-Pop, and this only ends up sending those present into raptures. We miss Bad Gyal’s performance by a few minutes, one of the most interesting new Spanish voices, even if several colleagues confess to me that “the show was nothing, there was enough autotune for two or three concerts, maybe a bit too much”. We enjoy the dj set still a bit, immersed in the sofas, while we get ready for the night. The last night of Sònar by Night has a lot of fireworks in store: Bad Bunny, Sheck Wes, Skepta, Kaytranada and others. The roadmap is very tight, the calves begin to tremble, the knees kinda do the same, the stomach groans, the brain claims another cerveza. Rereading the names on the line-up, however, is enough to find energies that we didn’t think we had.
While we are still trying to establish if the fault is actually the window’s or not, we enter the Sònar Club and, after twenty minutes of delay, Bad Bunny’s show begins. I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan at all of the latin music, I don’t despise it, it simply leaves me indifferent. However, I was not left indifferent to his show: beloved by the crowd, the young Puerto Rican rapper has not betrayed the expectations, giving those present a Show with a capital “S”. He rapped, he sang, he interacted with the audience, he let them sing when he had to and he energetically guided them when he had to. The club was full of people – probably the live with the biggest attendance of the weekend -, the audience did not miss a word, it was a breathtaking show. Followed by colorful visuals and a perfectly synchronized dance troupe, Bad Bunny cemented his status as Latin trap superstar, also taking – in some ways – the crown of the king of Sònar 2019.
We barely had the time to dispose of the overdose of Spanish, and we already are under the stage of the Sònar Pub, on which Sheck Wes has just showed up. Added to the line up at a later time as Stormzy, to take the place of Lil Uzi Vert, the New York rapper born in 1998 was a real earthquake. He was very loaded, irrepressible on stage, and he didn’t spare himself at all: whether it was dancing, singing, screaming, singing choirs or sending the crowd out of the way, his face, perpetually dripping with sweat, was proof that he was giving himself his all in every second spent on stage. His show was interrupted by what was hands down the most touching moment of the festival: Sheck Wes called on stage his blood brother – from Senegal, older than him, raised in the African continent -, revealing to those present that this was the first time that the two had actually met in person. The voice of both is slightly broken by emotion, as well as that of all present, and the spotlights of the stage can not help but bring to light more than a few glances in the eyes of everyone attending. But the emotion gives way again to the frenzy when the notes of Mo Bamba coming from the sound system: those present go crazy in a split second, a wild pogo is unleashed, it seems the beginning of the apocalypse. Incredibly, everyone comes out unharmed, screaming the name of Sheck Wes with full lungs. To thank such a warm audience, the rapper plays a preview of his new single, in collaboration with Young Thug. The joy of those present is palpable, as is that of Sheck Wes, showed by a dreamy look on his face and his words: “We are the future, do not allow anyone to take away your dreams”. He’s 21 years old, but his ideas are already quite clear.
Time is tyrant: not even time to metabolize what we have seen, that Elisa and I are already running towards the Club stage. We cross two pavilions and it’s as if we’ve moved from the USA back to England: a huge crowd awaits Skepta, another heavyweight in the line up for this evening. The king of British grime doesn’t have to make us wait, and immediately makes things clear, on the notes of Praise The Lord – again, #FREEASAPROCKY -, while the many present scream along on the refrain and start to unleash. Skepta moves between singles from his new album, Ignorance is bliss and hits from his most iconic album, Konnichiwa. From the most afro atmospheres to the grimiest ones, from the scent of the savannah to the acrid smell of English concrete, Skepta gives the listeners a full immersion in his songs, interacting with them, calling their voice several times, making them vibrate with the power of his productions. The shutdown is the icing on the cake: the whole Sònar goes wild, the pogo is wild – even here, miraculously, without dead or injured ones -, even the press and accredited area can’t resist the overwhelming force of the greatest hit of the English rapper. Skepta thanks the city, says goodbye and leaves the stage, while Elisa and I reflect on the fact that our forces are going to be the next ones to abandon the place. We scrape together what’s left of our energy and move towards the Pub, to find ourselves in front of an incredible amount of people. On stage, since an abundant half hour, there are Kaytranada and his dj set. Underneath, a human tide: there is not enough space to drop even a pin. If you add up the audience of Staples and Wes, you wouldn’t be able to reach these presences anyway. We’re stunned, but we’re also terrified: we don’t have enough strength to launch ourselves into such a pit. We find a slightly lowered mezzanine floor, and from there we enjoy a remarkable spectacle, both for the eyes – the visuals are hypnotic – and for the ears. In retrospect, Kaytranada’s set is probably one of the most roaringly appreciated in the whole festival. As we take down the last sips of the last cerveza, we start to move towards the exit. We cross for the last time the pavilion of the Club: it is 03.30, but there are still many under the stage dancing, smiling; uninhibited, sometimes flashy, but never over the top or harassing. Everyone is having fun, nobody is sick, nobody bothers anyone. There are those who let themselves be ruffled by the bass, those who stare into the light games, those who have fun on the bumper cars – yes, there are also those -, those who twitch their eyes after a shot of Vodka, those who ferociously bite a long-awaited sandwich.
We get on the shuttle that takes us back to the hotel, close our eyes for a moment and enjoy the moment. It was long, it was intense, it was wonderful. Long live the Sònar.
If there were the possibility to import a format like the Sònar in Italy, I would sign with my eyes closed. Impeccable organization, logistics on the spot tidy, perfectly functional space management, impeccable safety and active prevention from all points of view. The Sònar proved to be a safe space to celebrate music in many different ways, leaving all participants the absolute freedom to express themselves. Total freedom that coincided with exceptional self-control: there were no unpleasant episodes, embarrassing, sad or dangerous moments, but only laughter, joy, improvised choreographies and demonstrations of affection for the artists. It’s hard to do better, maybe just by increasing the indications inside the gigantic and sometimes maze-like venues. For the rest, it’s difficult to even think of something better. Sònar’s are the standards that any festival in the world should aspire to. The fact that it’s in Barcelona, a stone’s throw from the sea and from a myriad of bars with frozen beers, well, is just a further bonus.