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From Belfast to Bombay: Nurturing Clubbing Culture

Sarah McBriar of Belfast’s AVA Festival talks about building a scene amid tight deadlines and uncooperative authorities; to speak at a music conference in Mumbai this week

Kenneth Lobo Mar 08, 2016
Sarah McBriar. Picture: Courtesy of The Exchange

Sarah McBriar. Picture: Courtesy of The Exchange

India’s electronic music landscape has evolved at a scarcely believable pace in the past decade. DJs, producers, fans, clubs and festivals have all multiplied in number and quality. Perhaps the only aspect of the scene that hasn’t sustained the interest of punters, stakeholders and sponsors is the music conference. Global Groove, organised by the Goethe Institut and UnConvention, put together by the British Council, stand out as highlights in this space. They were both one-time events organised back in 2009, before merging into Soundbound [2010], its DJ-meets-indie combination didn’t match its predecessors more focused efforts.

In the seven years since, many have attempted, with varying degrees of success [IndiEarth XChange in Chennai and Palm Expo in Mumbai stand out] to replicate the winning formula: relevant panels discussing subjects that haven’t already been trolled to death on Facebook, healthy international representation, artist showcases and most importantly, attendance by key local stakeholders.

Since 2014, the Exchange, set up in partnership by the UK Trade & Investment, along with the scene old hand British Council and Indian dance music behemoths Submerge, has attempted to highlight Indo-British music connections. The first two editions have had its fair share of hits [insight from local promoters and artists] and misses [fogey men in suits completely out of sync with the independent scene]. Last year’s most poignant moment actually took place after the conference. DJs Pearl and Nikhil Chinapa spoke candidly to a crowd of eager young Indian producer-DJs about the challenges of the industry seated on the floor of the auditorium at the Lalit.

The latest installment of the Exchange features a partnership with Belfast’s AVA festival and an additional local partner in Bhavishyavani Future Soundz. The house and techno line-up includes sci-fi-funkadelic purveyor Space Dimension Controller [Jack Hamill] and techno stalwart Phil Kieran in addition to several local heavyweights like M.Mat [Mathieu Josso], Sandunes [Sanaya Ardeshir] and Big City Harmonics [Rohan Hastak].

Belfast and Mumbai, it seems, have more in common than being port cities and supporting each other’s freedom movements. Both cities have tight deadlines and civic authorities that make is harder than usual to fuel a vibrant clubbing ecosystem. ROLLING STONE India spoke with Sarah McBriar, Creative Producer & Founder of AVA Festival & Conference to get a lowdown on the electronic music front in Beflast, on the eve of the Exchange, which takes place at Khar Social on March 9th.

Tell us a little about the Belfast scene.
The Belfast crowd is one of the best in the world. You only have to watch the AVA Festival x Boiler Room Belfast [Space Dimension Controller or Bicep’s] to see how energetic and into it they really are. Belfast has a very exciting and healthy electronic music scene and a number of very talented producers and DJ’s. The licensing laws and trading hour restrictions limit what the city can offer in terms of clubs and nights. However, it is a small enough city — just under 600,000 — so there are only so many that the city could have.

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The authorities have been very supportive of AVA Festival, however clubs and music venues have faced many issues, with the most recent being the potential closure of Mandela Hall of the Queens Student Union. Mandela Hall is one of Belfast’s most praised music venues, and there is a petition to stop its demolishment, but it looks as though the University are going to knock it down and replace with a ”˜student centre’. A key issue with Belfast is the lack of venues and the restrictions on licensing laws. It’s a difficult business.

You’re well-connected with several key stakeholders in the Indian music scene – Submerge, Wild City, Magnetic Fields, Bhavishyavani Future Soundz. How did that happen?
Yes. I came out to Mumbai in December and had an incredible time. The Exchange in December connected me with the right people, which was super important. I had time to view various venues, I had time to meet the right people properly and I had time to understand the scene better. There is an exciting underground scene in Mumbai that is bubbling away”¦ very much looking forward to Wednesday, especially Sandunes.

What are some of the objectives you hope to achieve with the Exchange in Mumbai?
We hope that bringing out talent from AVA, and working with emerging talent in Mumbai and establishing a collaborative event and shining a light on the more underground side of the scene will open doors for all. We are also bringing out a number of attendees, who aim to develop working relationships through the conference. Music is about connections ”“ so this event is special.

Belfast boasts of some cutting-edge, top electronic music artists including Bicep – does that help in any way?
Hundred percent. Bicep have had a huge influence, people know they are from Belfast across the world as they tour regularly. It has certainly heightened the attention on the city, which is great. Similarly AVA has drawn a great amount of attention to Belfast and the emerging artists. The press, exposure and even post conversations we have had has definitely supported this. Belfast suffered a bad reputation in the Seventies and Eighties. People were inclined to overlook it; a rise of great talent and recognition for the musical output can only be a good thing.

[Our] other great talents are Phil Kieran, David Holmes, Space Dimension Controller (headlining our Mumbai event this Wednesday). The emerging talent can also see it is achievable, but only with a lot of work and dedication.

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You’re siblings with one half of Bicep – what’s your equation with Matthew?
We both love it. [We] grew up in a very musical household, where there was literally never a quiet moment, which has meant  being in an environment where music is important to us.

I would say that Matthew DJ’ing and producing from a young age certainly influenced me. I was around new music a lot and his friends who also DJ’ed, but I have always been passionate about it myself. We do share similar tastes and share music a lot and try and go and see stuff together. I got into the scene purely because I loved the music ”“ met people through shared tastes and interests. I got into it more myself when I lived in Manchester for six years.

Who is your favorite electronic music artist from Belfast?
Honestly, this is a tricky one for me to answer. Bicep are obviously one of my favourites, not just because they are family, but genuinely I love their music, vibe and parties, very on point to what I like.

Swoose is super talented, Space Dimension Controller is amazing ”“ watch his AVA Boiler Room and you will go nuts to it. I also love Timmy Stewart ”“ he has been DJ’ing for over 20 years and is an incredibly important person within the electronic music scene in Belfast, like a pillar of it. He runs the Extended Play Label, the Night Institute every Saturday in Belfast and is an amazing DJ.

As with the global representation of electronic music, the gender ratios are completely skewed in favour of men. Do you’ll have any special programs or initiatives for women or emerging producer / DJs as part of the AVA festival?
AVA has an emerging producers and an emerging DJ competition that is open to all ages and sex. We are not discriminatory to either sex, and I go out of my way to encourage females to enter the competition. We are also hosting a female panel at the AVA Conference this year.

Visuals are a big part of the AVA festival. Is there a community of VJs in Belfast?
It brings life to the festival, adds another dimension, heightens the experience and for me, enriches the production. I love the visual element; I have a background in theatre so the design of the whole production is important to me. This is quite evident in Bicep’s parties and music, too. There is a strong design element.

There is an amazing collective in Belfast called Guerrilla Shout ”“ who is our partner for AVA and are also coming to Mumbai.