Punk, Music And Counter-Culture As A Force Of UNITY In Northern Ireland

As AVA Festival turns 10...

Amongst other influences, music has always played a fundamental role in the cultural and historical fabric of Ireland and Northern Ireland. In Belfast during The Troubles, the punk scene was pivotal and emerged as a significant force in fostering a culture of peace. The music scene provided an outlet for expression and a sense of identity for the city’s youth amid the conflict and violence. It gave voice to the anger, frustration felt by young people at the time. More than simply cathartic release, it offered an avenue for vital self-expression and played a crucial role in bridging the divisions within communities. 

What we now witness is a new, defiant identity for the city’s music scene that echoes the unifying principles of the role that music played during The Troubles. The driving rhythms we experience in music become a shared language. Within these musical sanctuaries, Belfast continues to redefine its identity – one built not on divides, but on a celebration of artistic expression. 

With that enters AVA on its 10th anniversary. Having been described as, “one of Europe’s smartest young festivals” by Resident Advisor. Since 2015, AVA has been at the forefront of electronic music, visual art, and immersive technology, hosting over 100 events and reaching 25 million people globally. It has fostered hundreds of artists through its conferences, establishing itself as London’s premier Electronic Music Conference despite being Belfast born and grown. 

It’s 10th Birthday festival this May brought together 10,000 guests each day, over 70 local and international artists, hundreds of staff, local creatives and more at the Titanic Slipways. AVA 10 was a testament to the strength of the Irish music community, and those who have worked tirelessly to elevate AVA into a global movement. The theme for AVA 2024 was Unity – and that was felt fiercely across the weekend. 

 AVA embodied its commitment to evolution by curating a lineup of the world’s premier acts for its 2024 edition. The Main Stage, Pumphouse, Nomadic, and Lookout venues pulsated with killer performances across the weekend. Friday highlights included BICEP’s visually immersive and sonically eclectic CHROMA performance, Ross From Friends seamlessly blending underground and pop classics, and house music legend Kerri Chandler closing out the festival with his anthemic hit ‘You’re In My System’. 

Horsegiirl whipped the festival with a high-energy, fast-paced performance. Neffa-T and Flowdan also electrified the crowd with their dubstep and grime sounds, hosted by an OG in the genre. Over at the Boiler Room stage, Belfast’s own MC EMBY commanded the decks across the weekend, highlighted by an explosive b2b from Anz and Special Request

EMBY spoke to me about the importance of AVA in terms of what it does for artists and what it represents: “I remember the last AVA having a moment in the blazing sun where liquid DnB played as I watched the crowd sway in unison belting ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ and it is in those moments that you can see for yourself the unity that AVA and other projects solidify.” Along with other creatives, EMBY highlighted the need for funded creative spaces as, “if we lose the dance floor, we lose a place of unity within our community” 

Local artist Holly Lester took to the main stage on Saturday for her set. Veteran of AVA since her first performance in 2017, Holly spoke to me about the intrinsic role the festival has played in her personal and artistic growth. Coming from a more rural part of the country in Armagh, Holly felt she didn’t fully connect with people at her school and that music brought her joy, focus, passion and “pure escapism”. 

Holly had already been DJing for a decade by the time her first AVA set came around in 2017. However, Holly reminisced about how her 2018 Boiler Room set at AVA was a pivotal moment that “put her on the map”. The set paved the way for more European tour dates and kick-started her international career. It is clear to see that Northern Ireland is brimming with immense talent, and often the key issue is simply providing these deserving artists with a platform to be appreciated on a larger scale. Holly is far from the only local act that AVA has elevated in this way. Belfast born DJ, Reger purchased his first decks 11 years ago. Following his first Boiler Room in 2023, he took to the Lookout Stage at this AVA 10. Seeing herds of attendees at this summer’s festival donning Reger’s merchandise symbolised the flourishing community he has cultivated over the years, and how AVA has facilitated that growth – nurturing both his talent and audience. The festival has become an indispensable catalyst for spotlighting the region’s brilliant artistry and allowing it to reverberate far beyond its borders.

Sarah McBriar, founder of AVA, emphatically reiterated that showcasing and fostering local talent has forever been a core tenet of the festival. “Through the Artist Development Programme AVA helps artists develop their music, grow their audience, their confidence and identity.” The importance of this event in Belfast extends far beyond the individual benefit for artists, it profoundly impacts the wider community of the city and country, the very people who Sarah claims “truly make AVA what it is.” 

“We have always led with thinking about how we want people to feel,” she said, and when that ethos is pursued altruistically, the sense of community, unity, and atmosphere becomes undeniable. AVA is almost “owned by the city itself” Sarah told me, not in an administrative sense, but rather its identity is inextricably intertwined with Belfast. “The heartbeat of this festival is in Belfast”. 

As people we should have more faith in artists who spread unity through their music, poetry and prose than fear of the politicians who spread division and hatred. As we approach the next General Election, we face a pivotal decision about the future direction of our society. A core consideration should be who is truly investing in the futures of real people – the creators, the artists, the cultural driving forces. There has been over 40% in cuts to the Arts Council Northern Ireland over the last decade. As it currently stands, Arts Council NI now receives the equivalent of £5.07 per head of population. This is more than £5 less than the current budget in Wales. Northern Ireland arts receives less investment per capita than anywhere in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. With examples of independent festivals such as AVA serving as pillars of culture and community, we must push for more long-term funding support for the arts sector. 

The creative energy pulsing through this city’s veins produces an underground vibrancy that deserves to be celebrated on a wider stage. Hannah Peel from UNESCO commented: “we are so much more than what has gone before; music that runs through the veins of this city, and yet to the wider world, it is all unheard of, underground, eclipsed by its past but still supplying a pulse and vibrancy that needs to be lauded for the future”. Few places possess such an abundance of creativity yearning to be lauded and make a unifying impact beyond its borders. Renowned local DJ Timmy Stewart’s contributions extend to his weekly residency at The Night Institute. After playing a killer Boiler Room set at AVA 10, Stewart described NI to have a “wealth of next-generation artists that are coming through equipped with the confidence of seeing artists such as BICEP touring internationally and getting acclaim”. The key to having the positivity returned to the community is investing in the now. Examples of independent festivals in Northern Ireland such as AVA are beacons of positivity, fostering a vibrant culture in Belfast. These events allow artists the space to create and to go forward with their art, serving the wider community.

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Words: Esther Follis
Photography: Jack Farrar

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