By / Saturday, February 22, 2014 / No comments /


This past week I’ve often wondered how many times I had stared up at that giant, gleaming “U” that hovered above the crowd like some sort of religious symbol on the night of Ultra South Africa, trying to drive home the fact that this world-renown festival was truly here and happening right before my eyes. Everything was bigger, louder and more epic in every way, but I was left trying to reconcile what I was witnessing to why I wasn’t having the absolute best night of my life. 

Oddly enough, the journey of Ultra Music Festival in South Africa began at Sensation Innerspace in September 2013 as exhausted ravers poured out into the parking lot to find cryptic flyers wedged under their windshield wipers, bearing the Ultra logo and a caption that simply read “South Africa, are you ready?” What followed was an ambitious marketing campaign that involved projections of the Ultra logo on landmark buildings around the country. Soon enough electronic music fans were whipped into a frenzy upon the official announcement on 5fm being queued in by W&W’s remix of Live For The Night by Krewella. With each wave of artist announcements, with every Ultra billboard, radio and TV ad, South Africa was fast catching onto Ultra fever. 
ultra south africa
Before I knew it, I was queuing at the gates at Nasrec, with nothing but anxiety and Instagram posts from the Cape Town leg of the festival the previous night to go by. My anxiety, partly due to a social media meltdown of whether Nasrec’s set up was big enough for the masses of fans expected and whether its less-than-glamorous facilities could deliver the same picture’esque festival vibe of Ostrich Farm in the Cape Town leg. As the night wore on, these fears were, in some cases, confirmed and in others proved to be unexpected blessings in disguise.

The parking areas were littered with cars bearing Kwa-Zulu Natal, Lesotho and Namibia number plates. If you doubted the worldwide appeal of the Ultra brand, there were excited fans with flags from Bangladesh, Argentina, Italy and even the Czech Republic. Fans came dressed, if dressed would be the appropriate term, in modest amounts, instead opting for revealing as much skin as possible. Tank tops, shorts, Guy Fawkes masks, flower headbands and even ridiculous but hilarious onesies. Newcomers to rave culture were easily pointed out wearing jeans and polo shirts.

Festival goers in Johannesburg had the options of raging to hard electro with 8 international headliners at the mammoth main stage set up, winding down to the soulful, deep house sounds of the Soul Candi stage or raging to electro again, but on a smaller stage, inspired by the East Rand’s H2O parties; so not much in terms of musical variety for the Johannesburg leg, as many bass fans felt a distinct gap in the night’s soundtrack for a more bass-oriented stage, akin to the Dansville stage in Cape Town to serve as something of a palette cleanser in-between stage hopping from the house stages.  
martin garrix
I arrived as Goldfish were laying down their trademark, summery mix of electro and jazz at the main stage which was nestled at the end of a grass amphitheatre, in the company of warehouses and what looked like an office building, which was something of a constant visual disturbance in the overall hypnotising effect of the towering dome that made up the main stage. The dome was accompanied by rows of LED panels that increased in height on each side that gave off the effect of a giant music visualisation. The other two stages, understandably more intimate and modest in comparison, with the Soul Candi stage looking out over the massive mine dunes that are so characteristic of Johannesburg’s south. Later on in the night, these mine dunes became de facto canvases as laser images were projected onto them, with dazzling effect.

w and wRelative newcomers, Blasterjaxx kicked off the onslaught of international acts followed by crowd favourite and undeniable man of the hour, Martin Garrix, who worked the crowd with relative ease, delivering a set of unadulterated Dutch house much like Blasterjaxx before him. We were treated to hits like Wizard and two renditions of Animals, one playing the part of a melodic set opener. Next was W&W who continued on a similar path, adding a touch of progressive house and crowd participation, as we raised our “W’ Signs with our hands to the setting Highveld sun. By this point, the crowd showed signs of fatigue from the barrage of hard-hitting Dutch house sets, which began to take on a relentless marathon of that unforgiving sound. Though taking cues from Hardwell’s sets and in some cases even using the same mash ups, either way you slice it, it’s the unmistakable sound of dance music right now, and the crowd lapped it up.

Krewella, up next, offered not only a much needed divergence in sound, but also in stage performance with band members, Yasmine and Jahan vocally navigating the cacophony of dubstep, drum ‘n bass and hardstyle with apparent ease. It was a high energy set complete with brief moments of trap and a strategic move to include more Dutch sounds to keep less bass-oriented fans engaged throughout. The crowd was blessed with hits such as Legacy, Live For The Night, Killin’ It and Play Hard, before ending their set to a shirtless crowd, with their foremost anthem, Alive.
Absolutely spent and with a much needed change of tempo, I crossed over to the Soul Candi stage to catch local heroes, MiCasa with lead singer, J-Something, belting out a beautiful rendition of their breakout hit, These Streets. A far cry from the Red Bull, vodka and laser-tinged frenzy of the main stage, the Soul Candi stage opted for a more relaxed, soulful ambience, accompanied by Caipirinhas and sensual, slow grinding. MiCasa ended their set with their most successful hit to date, Jika, to much delight from the crowd as we joined in the Jika dance with enthusiasm. Local heavyweight, Black Coffee picked up where they left off, delivering a set of forward-thinking deep house and minimal techno, even slipping in a recent local favourite, Remember You by Beatenberg and DJ Clock.

Back at the main stage, Alesso, following on from a much talked about Nicky Romero set, kept the crowd in anticipation of his finale, dropping If I Lose Myself to much spectacle, while ushering in the “Main event” segment of the evening with Afrojack, contrary to popular opinion, dropping one of the better sets of the night. Opting to stay rooted firmly in the Dutch house sound he helped pioneer, while managing to keep it surprisingly fresh, even giving Miley’s Wrecking Ball some destructive edge. Ending in an explosion of fireworks and pyro, I was left wondering how the main headliner was still to follow on from this kind of spectacle.

nicky romero20 minutes into Tiesto’s set many felt restless with his set’s lack of big hits, most seemingly unacquainted with his more classic trance hits, Red Lights and Adagio For Strings. The first segment of his set took on a more progressive sound, often feeling as though it had no clear direction, at which point small pockets in the crowd started opening as people slowly began leaving. His set’s saving grace, and the undoubted high point of the night was Afrojack crashing into the DJ Booth, putting Tiesto on his shoulders and taking over the set along with W&W, Nicky Romero and Martin Garrix, all joining in for an unprecedented back-to-back set between five Dutch acts, being later and rather hilariously christened by Tiesto on Twitter as “Dutch House Mafia.” Once the big hits began streaming in again, the crowd seemed to be reinvigorated with a renewed energy, raging their hardest that entire night for the final haul to the end with an Ultra-worthy conclusion of fireworks, lasers, smoke machines, DJs waving the South African Ultra flag, many suspended in complete and utter disbelief of what had just taken place.

Yes, I’ve had better musical journeys at smaller, more intimate parties but going into something like Ultra expecting a personal, more underground experience could only end badly. With an event of this magnitude, there are bound to be one or two flaws, in this case, mostly attributed to a not-so-diverse line up, but nothing could have went smoother on a production and logistical point of view. For a first edition festival of this scale in South Africa, the positive ripple effects will far outweigh the minor missteps. If we needed a louder confirmation of whether the electronic music scene in South Africa was ready for large scale productions, this was it. The scene is undoubtedly growing, so the logical move from the humble pond to the uncharted ocean was inevitable. In many ways Ultra South Africa was a statement, a liberation from small “electro” stages at festivals primarily catered for other genres, to finally getting to enjoy a fleshed out, international standard festival experience of our own.

ultra sa

My hope is that deep house fans that stumbled upon the main stage on their walks to the bars, might have discovered some new sounds and artists they hadn’t considered listening to before, and similarly with a local trance head finding new meaning in South Africa’s vibrant deep house and techno scene. As the tens of thousands of those that attended go out into their daily lives, spreading tales and stories of their Ultra experiences, as the Ultra South Africa aftermovie gets unleashed on YouTube and as thousands of Ultra Instagram posts flood timelines for months to come, it won’t be a surprise when many new faces line up outside the gates next year, itching to get to experience the madness that is Ultra Music Festival South Africa. 


Review Done by @G1no

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