Hong Kong ready to sample Sónar electronic music festival’s unrivalled range of styles and genres
Europe’s premiere experimental electronic music festival, started by three audiophiles, adds Hong Kong to its ever-growing list of global venues
There are electronic music festivals, and then there’s Sónar.
The Glastonbury Festival of the electronic-music world, Sónar has been held since 1994 in its native Barcelona, where it draws a crowd of roughly 120,000 festivalgoers over three days every June. It has spread to more than 50 cities around the world – including, finally, Hong Kong, which is set to host its inaugural Sónar at the somewhat exotic Hong Kong Science Park on April 1.
Organised in partnership with Magnetic Asia, the people behind Clockenflap, the Hong Kong event will feature a suitably eclectic line-up of musicians, including instrumental hip-hop pioneer DJ Shadow, techno legend Dave Clarke, veteran tastemaker Gilles Peterson, grime MC Lady Leshurr, experimental electronic producer Ellen Allien and creative renaissance man Daito Manabe, plus the extensive Sónar+D creative technology expo.
Sónar was born in Spain when music journalist Ricard Robles and musicians and artists Enric Palau and Sergio Caballero met by chance.
“We found we had very similar tastes in music, and we had the idea of an event that would put together the new ideas around technology and creativity, especially music,” Palau says. “We’d been artists, so we had experience being on stage, and also being behind the scenes, working on the production. We knew what needed to be done in order to put on the event properly, and of course we had the enthusiasm that comes from being fans. Probably because we’d been artists, we were very much perfectionists about how things needed to be developed.”
They spent two years developing the idea before they launched the event with a stellar first-year line-up that included DJs Laurent Garnier and Sven Väth, and Holger Czukay of German band Can. Over the years, Sónar has attracted a who’s who of electronic-music royalty, from the wildly experimental to the defiantly populist: Richie Hawtin, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk, Björk, Orbital, The Chemical Brothers, Hot Chip, Beastie Boys, LCD Soundsystem, Pet Shop Boys, Masters at Work, Skrillex, Diplo, New Order and Jean-Michel Jarre, among many, many others. At the same time, the audience has grown steadily every year, from about 6,000 at the first event.
“We didn’t really bother about the size of the event when we started; the growth just happened,” Palau says. “The main thing was the concept – very different styles of electronic music that can bring different audiences together, which then meant everything from experimental electronic performances to rave and acid house, which were just then developing into techno.”
Then, “in 2002, we started answering people who were coming to us, trying to do events like Sónar in their cities”. As a result, Sónar has reverberated through cities including Seoul, Rome, Copenhagen, São Paulo, New York, Chicago and Cape Town. And the festival keeps revisiting places that the organisers particularly love, with four events so far in São Paulo, five in Reykjavik and seven in Tokyo.
Magnetic Asia managing director Mike Hill said the company’s decision to approach Sónar about a Hong Kong edition was partly inspired by the unusual venue. When Clockenflap was forced to leave its former home in the West Kowloon Cultural District after 2015, the Hong Kong Tourism Board suggested an alternative – the Science Parkin Sha Tin. The somewhat obscure location means shuttle buses will be provided.
“I realised it would be perfect for an electronic music festival,” Hill says. “We’d been talking about doing one for a while, and whenever we discussed it, our reference point was Sónar, so we thought, let’s do Sónar here.”
A period of courtship ensued, with Clockenflap’s reputation helping Magnetic Asia meet Sónar’s stringent standards, where partners are concerned. The two organisations are a good cultural fit, Hill says, adding that both are groups of three guys who started organising festivals out of a love for music, and they’re detail-obsessed perfectionists.
According to Magnetic Asia music director Justin Sweeting, “The concept of playfulness also resonated with us. There’s always been a big dollop of nonsense at Clockenflap.”
Selecting and booking the acts, he adds, has been a truly collaborative effort. “There’s a really strong mutual respect,” he says. “Agents keep telling us, ‘You two are our favourite bookers in the world’, so it’s great that we’re working together.”
The criteria used in programming the musical side of the festival, Sweeting says, is “very similar to Clockenflap – all the artists are pioneering and cutting-edge, even if they’re legacy acts. It’s so much fun to put together, and in Hong Kong it’s rare.”
Palau is particularly pleased with the eclecticism of the acts in Hong Kong, adding that the festival is a natural fit for the city.
“I’m really happy with the range of different genres, from the experimental work of someone like Daito Manabe to the hip hop of DJ Shadow and Lady Leshurr,” Palau says. “I’m just very proud we’ve been able to reproduce and showcase what Sónar means.
“We like going to places that have some specific interest for us – where we can go and discover interesting, creative people. Hong Kong is so technological and modern; it’s one of the most exciting cities.”
Hong Kong’s love of technology should make the Sónar+D programme a particularly important part of the jigsaw, potentially attracting a somewhat different crowd from the music. Sónar+D began in 1994 as the Technology Fair. After various incarnations, it became Sónar+D in 2013 and now assembles a range of experimental creators and technologists for demonstrations, workshops, talks and installations that all festivalgoers can partake in. Separate Sónar+D tickets are also available.
“We wanted Sónar Hong Kong to be more than a music festival – to give it some gravitas, and allow the broader community to feel that it has some cultural weight,” Hill says, adding that the Hong Kong government has supported the +D concept. “It opens it up to a whole lot of people who don’t know they’re interested in the electronic-music line-up. It makes people understand that electronic music is culturally significant. It’s not just a rave.”
Pointing to the Sónar+D line-up for Hong Kong, Palau is particularly pleased with the inclusion of Manabe, who is both performing on the SónarClub stage with hip-hop producer Nosaj Thing and giving Sónar+D’s keynote speech.
“It’s something that helps define Sónar as not just a music festival,” Palau says. “We want people to see the crossover between music and all other forms of technology.”
It also plays into the city’s commercial mindset, as well as its technology-loving one, he adds. “We’re at an interesting moment: for the first time in history, a creator is also a developer. Two centuries ago, a talented violinist was not a creator of violins. The attitude now is that something isn’t just an art piece, but also a potential product.”
So important has Sónar become to Barcelona’s cultural branding, and to its economy, that the deputy mayor of Barcelona and a representative of the Catalan government are planning on attending the Hong Kong event.
Palau disarmingly claims he has little idea why Sónar has been so successful, although he advances a few suggestions. “We believe in what we do, we still have that excitement about it, and we are very competitive, ourselves, in creating an event.”
The biggest sign that an event is going right, he says, is “people telling me that they’re discovering new stuff they’ve never heard before, or that they’re just having the best time of their lives”.
“Now there are music festivals everywhere, we’re working on new ideas all the time that make us different,” Palau explains. “It’s one of the reasons we’re still doing it after all these years – plus the fact that we still love it so much.”
Sónar Hong Kong, April 1, 11am-3am, Hong Kong Science Park, Pak Shek Kok, New Territories, HK$180 (Sónar+D programme only), HK$780 (all music performances and Sónar+D programme)