Beards, Blazers, and Balkans: Aaron Matthews Reports From Croatia’s Soundwaves Festival

Aaron Matthews’ favorite DJ is Toni Kukoc.  For 3 glorious days in July, the peaceful fishing village of Petrcane, Croatia finds itself to subject to a British invasion the likes of which...
By    August 6, 2010


Aaron Matthews’ favorite DJ is Toni Kukoc. 

For 3 glorious days in July, the peaceful fishing village of Petrcane, Croatia finds itself to subject to a British invasion the likes of which haven’t been witnessed since the days of colonization, or possibly the Beatles. Their destination: the second annual Soundwave Festival,

A strict anti-drug policy is enforced. One blissed out reveler recounted to me a quiet night spent in a jail cell, when after lighting what my mother refers to as Snoop’s Special Cigarettes, he was put in a figure four and brought to the local prison. But alcohol flows freely, and not just from the four approved festival bars. Savvy concertgoers filled their mochillas with vodka in water bottles, so by 2 a.m., groups of party people could be found dancing along the stony beach, or on top of wine barrels. The global beat culture was definitely in effect from limey DJ Format´s break-heavy mix of funk and backpack rap to funky Frenchman Debruit´s twisted African rhythms.

First night BBC 1xtra DJ Benji B set it off with a body moving mix of populist and underground tunes, from Drum N Bass to dubstep, and hip-hop from both sides of the Atlantic. The beat culture extended to the live performers as well, as the second day presented performances by singer songwriters best known as collaborators with electronica luminaries. Basement Jaxx chanteuse Milly Blue offered a charming set of ukele-driven laments on lost love and overdrinking; the latter topic likely found the most resonance with the soused attendees, and her angelic coo helped the acid sentiment go down easy. British vocalist/beatboxer Homecut reconstructed several hip-hop classics with his mouth and a little help from a sequencer and a keyboard, along with a few entertaining originals.The absolute highlight was a ecstatic a-capella rendition of Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher”, leaving the crowd contented and mellow.

The second night started at the Beach Bar with a dual set from Dilla disciples Bullion and Paul White, whose sample heavy off-kilter beats packed the dancehall with head nods and sidesteps. French producer Debruit offered the best DJ set of the night with an incredible array of fiercely catchy rhythms. Early in his career, the Frenchman has already carved out a distinctive sonic niche: glossy synths, stuttered ADHD drums and chopped vocal samples. Debruit brought out an assortment of original productions along with incredible reimaginings of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-Ha!”, converting the latter into a hyperactive ragga anthem. Bristolian DJ Blue Daisy closed out the night with a surprising mix of new hip-hop, dubstep, electro and whatever else he had handy; he even turned Jimi Hendrix’s definitive reading of “All Along The Watchtower” into a floorfiller.

Where does Dam-Funk fit in with this sound? The ambassador of funk approached the stage dressed like one of G. Clinton’s crack dreams; all black everything with flowing locks, all anchored by his trademark enormous specs. The sleek bounce of songs like “Hood Pass Intact” are driven by fluid, rolling bass lines that stood in stark contrast to the rigid dubstep that dominated most of the DJ sets. The twinkly uplift of “The Sky Is Ours” was perfectly suited for seaside atmosphere, bringing the entire audience off the wall swaying. Backed by the airtight Master Blazter, they blazed through a scorching set that felt too short by half, getting the entire crowd off the wall. Mr. Riddick even got people in the wading pool (yes, there was a wading pool) swinging. Almost enough to make one reconsider the keytar as badass.

The third day brought in a considerable array of live performers with the Put Me On It showcase; it also probably marks the first time a performer asked an audiencie to give props not to the DJ, not to the band, but to the online newsletter that gave the showcase its name. British singer-songwriter Tanya Auclair won over the crowd with a breathy, warm voice and agile guitar and ukulele playing. Bonobo/Flying Lotus collaborator Andreya Triyana sang a hair-raising version of Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” that was so effective, it largely overshadowed her original material. Mr. Hathaway has that effect on people. She was followed by South London MC Tranquill, whose unsteady delivery and clear nervousness belied a serious flow, an MC with real promise. Olivier Daysoul, best known for his work with Hudson Mohawke, offered ebullient R&B lined with glittering synths and thick, new jack style drums. His enthuiasm was contagious and did much to compensate for his laptop-based backup band. DC hip-hop luminary Oddisee closed out the show with the strongest set of the afternoon. Exhibiting incredible crowd control and a well-honed mic presence, the Diamond District ringleader balanced solo joints with a capella freestyles, from “Hip Hop Is Cool Again” to recent highlight “I’m From PG”. Great beats and agile rhyming made it clear why the Sudanese MC/producer has become one of the leading lights in the underground.

Liverpudlian songstress Laura J Martin presented the most unique set of the festival, creating fanciful and defiantly odd songs with flute, kalimba, mandolin and melodica, all played in conjunction with a loop pedal. Martin built layer upon layer of self-made samples, playing over herself until the loops coalesced into weirdly danceable folk-pop.

The Cinematic Orchestra were the festival´s de facto headliners and presented an interesting conundrum: how to translate largely hookless, intimate music for a largely woozy, inebriated festival audience. The Orchestra took to their task with aplomb, delivering gorgeous, intricate compositions that layered instrumentation and samples into washes of digital jazz, hitting the crowd like waves. By the end of the set, the entire audience was drunk off the power, gently rocking back and forth in time with the Orchestra. Deft improvisation blended with prerecorded samples so seamlessly it became to tell where the recorded ended and the performance began. Vocalist Heidi Vogel sang mesmeric phrases and chants over the music, drawing her hands back and forth as if performing an exorcism. “Evolution”´s embryonic keyboard lines sent waves of bliss through the crowd as the Croatian sunset cast a hypnagogic orange glow over the stage. And I forgot my fucking towel.

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