With the first edition of Sónar Lisboa just around the corner, we explore the history of this iconic festival brand

There are just days to go until the first edition of Sónar Lisboa 2022, which will take place on 8-10 April at various locations around the Portuguese capital, including Pavilhão Carlos Lopes, the Coliseu dos Recreios and the colossal Centro de Congressos de Lisboa.

The event will feature more than 70 performances, including live shows from Bicep, Thundercat, Leon Vynehall, Polo & Pan and DJ Nigga Fox; as well as DJ sets by The Blaze, Charlotte de Witte, Nina Kraviz, Richie Hawtin, Honey Dijon, and Dixon, among others.

Since its foundation in 1994, Sónar has hosted more than 100 festivals around the world, with 76 editions taking place in 34 cities, including London, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Santiago de Chile, São Paulo, Hamburg, Bogota, New York, Seoul, Rome, Cape Town, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

This latest edition, in the Portuguese capital, follows on from the recent hosting of Sónar Istanbul, which took place in mid March, while the 29th edition of Sónar Barcelona is set to take place from June 16-18.

909originals’ Emer ‘Red Panda’ O’Connor looks forward to this year’s event, while also recalling her Sónar experiences of yesteryear. Over to you, Emer.

Thinking back to 1994, when the only cavernous venue I frequented was the Silver Skate ice-rink in Phibsborough, Dublin 7, dancing on ice to the likes of The Prodigy, Loveland and 2 Unlimited; a Mecca for advanced electronic music was launched in Barcelona, where over 6,000 ravers gathered to pay homage to Laurent Garnier, Mixmaster Morris and Sven Väth in the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) for Sónar by Day and the Sala Apolo nightclub for Sónar by Night.

This avant-garde festival soon mushroomed with attendances soaring to 18,000 revellers in 1996, despite a lack of international press attention. Instrumental to Sónar’s expansion was head of communications Georgia Taglietti, who joined the core team and played a pivotal role in booking Daft Punk at the height of their glory days. Within four short years, Sónar’s media presence alone catapulted to 158 Spanish and 185 international outlets, respectively.

Sónar by Night moved from Mar Bella sports pavilion in 2001 and took no time in settling into area the size of a local airport complete with hangar-sized halls at Fira Gran Via L’Hospitalet.

In 2004, Sónar contributed €47 million to Catalonia’s GDP (according to a study by Deloitte) A follow-up 360º study commissioned by Sónar in 2015 updated this figure to €126 million. Here in Ireland, where groups such as Give Us the Night are currently in talks with government to change our archaic licensing laws and support multi-use creative spaces, let’s hope they are looking at the economic successes of multimedia events across Europe in their deliberations.

Today Sónar Barcelona attracts over 100,000 festival-goers, showcasing the latest trends in dance, creativity, established and upcoming talent, and music technology, all ensuring Sónar remains a trailblazer for the advancement of electronic music.

My first foray into the wonderful world of Sónar was in 2005, where I had the privilege of witnessing minimal techno maestro Richie Hawtin collaborate with renown composer, orchestra conductor, pianist and musicologist Pedro Alcalde and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra (OBC) in the Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona. It was a blissful amalgamation of 138bpm techno and the most delicate classical melodies, and surpassed all expectations.

The following evening I returned for more audio-visual magic and mayhem. The expanse of the Sónar by Night venue eclipsed all musical memories held previously. I spotted a sign on a wall for Laurent Garnier playing Sónar Pub at 2am, then I heard some grooving house music coming from the uncovered area.

Sónar’s outdoor sound system was pitch perfect no matter where you danced, perfectly loud without any one element overpowering any other, and the bass it was so deep you could feel it in your chest, so I kept on dancing like my life depended on it.

Apart from the swathes of people, all I could see in the distance was an individual playing an array of house and techno, who I presumed was Garnier himself, accompanied by a phenomenal live band. The sun came up as the band wrapped to rapturous applause from the crowd and I limped home happy, the guitar riffs, synths and basslines still rippling in my ears.

Many months later it was promoter Eoin Cregan from Bodytonic who told me that my ‘Garnier’ highlight of Sónar 2005, (that I’d told everyone about), was in fact 2020 Soundsystem Live and the DJ was Ralph Lawson! The sign I saw was old and Laurent had actually played a somewhat experimental set the night before.

2020 Soundsystem at Sónar 2005 in Barcelona

I’m delighted now that I stayed on later at Sónar by Night to see ‘Garnier’ but ended up accidentally discovering 2020 Soundsystem and experiencing one of the best live dance music performances of my entire life. It’s perhaps an example of what Sónar endeavours to do, draw the young crowd in with big headliners and then educate them with more esoteric vibes and spread the joy of great music.

“I believe that over the past 20 years, Sónar has become a prescription brand,” Ventura Barba, executive director of Advanced Music, the company behind Sónar and Sónar+D commented in 2016. “People trust our judgment, and some people just come here to discover new acts. That is the beauty of it.”

I returned to Sónar in 2009 and had such dynamite craic and made so many new friends at the off-Sónar parties, that a few weeks later I ended up living in Barcelona for six months, where I met my soul sister and favourite dance-off partner, Clair ‘Bear’ Devine.

Roaming the streets of Barca together we frequented Row 14 on the outskirts, (now known as the infamous travelling Elrow extravaganza), Moog, Razzmatazz and La Cova, not to mention the scintillating underground scene of Poble Nou and all those crazy squat warehouse parties. Our last gig together was the serendipitous sesh revelation of my new favourite tech-house band, Kerala Dust, who dazzled us in musical delights in Porto in December 2019.

Sónar doesn’t only deal in music, Sonar+D is a daytime extension dedicated to creative technologies, conference talks, exhibitions, and AV shows. This year, the discourse will be centred around sustainability and human rights, curated by Catalan multimedia adventurer, Antónia Folguera, in collaboration with a mix of local and international researchers, scientists, and artists from different digital fields, exploring creativity as one of the leading forces transforming reality in the 21st century.

From artificial intelligence to virtual reality, from blockchain to computer-generated imagery breakthroughs to AI presentations, there is something here for everyone intrigued by immersive reflection.

Sónar+D Conferences take place in the Hub Criativo do Beato, located in the Fábrica do Pão de Factory Lisboa and the Sónar Village located by the river in the old terminal of Santos. The musical programme of Sónar by Day will take over the Pavilhão Carlos Lopes.

Sónar by Night will host international acts splitting the crowds across the Pavilhão Carlos Lopes, the Coliseu dos Recreios and the Centro de Congressos de Lisboa.

Sónar endeavours to create cross-territorial dialogue between the local and global scenes and showcase a strong creative technological component. Sónar aims to be a meeting point for innovative music, creativity and cutting-edge technology, bringing together an open-minded national and international audience.

Tickets are available on the official website, www.sonarlisboa.pt, and through authorised ticket partners. There are different ticket types that allow the audience to create their own experience – day and/or night – centred on a single venue or throughout the various locations of Sónar Lisboa 2022.

Stay tuned to find out 909original’s top musical picks for Sónar Lisboa 2022.

[Words by Emer O’Connor]

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