Review: Sunfall 2016

Art & Culture

With so many new events constantly popping up on the festival landscape, it’s not difficult to feel a bit fatigued by the whole enterprise. Anyone looking to enter this competitive field has to make their mark somehow; either by harnessing the shock of the new, or by aiming for expertly managed quality. Or, ideally, by succeeding on both counts.

Enter the inaugural edition of Sunfall, held in Herne Hill’s Brockwell Park. The festival was able to capitalise on its stellar lineup by largely delivering on all other aspects as well, and by introducing a day/night dynamic that transcended any initial suspicions of gimmickry to deliver a series of great experiences on a variety of scales, both shared and separate.

In particular, the daytime sound was resoundingly ace across the four stages – loud and pristine – something that should never be taken for granted at an inner-city park festival. By putting such emphasis on sound quality in the run-up to the event, the organisers left themselves open for a fall, but they came through and delivered on their promises.

Hey, it wasn’t perfect – toilet queues were pretty bad, as were the food and drink prices… but we’ve all come to expect the latter from a London day festival, and in terms of logistics, everything else ran pretty well. The site itself was well chosen, with short distances between tents, ample space to lounge around, and a gentle hill leading down towards the Main Stage bringing some character to proceedings.

Another smart move was how the stages were broadly split up by genre, with techno to the West, house up North, all things bass down South, and the Main Stage playing host to marquee names like Jamie xx and Moodymann. Some of the clashes are unbearable, but we roll with the punches and manage to pack loads in. At its best, Sunfall did an excellent job of joining the dots and showing how well disparate genres can be incorporated into a small-scale festival. Namely – house and techno can co-exist perfectly well with bass music! Punters’ tastes are broader than promoters are often willing to realise, and looking ahead I think there’s plenty of room in London for nights with a more varied music policy, not just booking four identikit DJs.

Anyway, to the music itself. There’s no turning up late with a lineup like this or you’ll miss out on some great early sets. Sassy J kicks things off, her eclectic, sun-dappled blends setting the perfect midday mood. Afterwards we move over to Josey Rebelle – the last time I saw her play out I felt her set suffered from a lack of variety, but there’s no such complaint this time as she gets the crowd moving with consummate ease. The North tent is rammed for Fatima Yamaha, whose set is a buoyant showcase of why you’d be foolish to write him off as a one-hit-wonder. Although that said, ‘What’s a Girl to Do’ is still a clear highlight, and goes down a storm with the crowd who chant the synth line back like a football crowd.

The South tent plays host to some of the highlights, and it’s largely a tale of dynamic duos. Slackk and Logos bring the square wave assault under the Boxed banner, which has maintained its momentum this year amidst a glut of instrumental grime. Mala and Coki are on top form as Digital Mystikz, making the most of the tent’s surprisingly weighty system. The last tune they draw for is Sir Spyro’s ‘Topper Top’, the release of which the bass community continues to wait for with fevered anticipation. Later on, Om Unit and Sam Binga ramp up the energy even further with their frantic breaks and a killer edit of Novelist/Mumdance collab ‘1 Sec’.

Perhaps the best set of the day belongs to Kamasi Washington, whose ascent over the past year has been thoroughly well deserved. He’s just flown in from playing the North Sea Jazz Festival, but the response his band gets from this non-specialist audience is testament to their ability to transcend genre borders. The twin drummer setup ensures that the set hardly lacks for intensity, especially when the two of them face off in a percussion battle. ‘Change of the Guard’ makes for a great opener, while bassist Miles Moseley has the spotlight later on for ‘Abraham’. Patrice Quinn takes the stage for ‘The Rhythm Changes’, her soaring vocal providing the perfect finale for this wonderful afternoon set.

With his magpie approach to dance music, Jamie xx makes perfect sense as the day’s headliner, interspersing a wide range of crowd-pleasing selections with his own tracks from last year’s In Colour. It’s a bit tame for me though, and there are more intense pleasures to be had elsewhere, as Omar-S powers through a stampede of soulful house heaters. Outside, the sun sets over Brockwell Park, capping a perfect day’s weather and ushering in the festival’s second phase.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the festival was the day/night format. Come sunfall, 10,000 festivalgoers fan out across South London for a series of afterparties from Vauxhall to Peckham, Brixton to Elephant & Castle. I chose to attend something a little different – the Young Turks party at Herne Hill’s Off The Cuff, an intimate bar venue just a stone’s throw from Brockwell Park. It’s an absolute gem of a space, the latest example in a rich history of British nightlife making use of railway arches. Converted from an old timber yard, it strikes an appealing balance between rustic and urban.

Heading out into the night, it had been hard to shake the feeling that, while I saw some excellent sets during the daytime, there was an extra gear the festival wasn’t quite able to switch into. Kamasi Washington’s sweltering second performance at Off The Cuff was exactly what I was looking for, made unique by the fact that he usually plays venues a helluva lot bigger than this. Having seen the band that same afternoon, what sort of set would they play stripped down to a three-piece?

“We’re just gonna create something, and it’s just gonna be for this time and place. Is that alright?” Yes, Kamasi. Absolutely. Guide us onwards. The resulting odyssey of improvisation causes me to lose all sense of time – the groove is absolutely irresistible, the whole crowd caught on every twist and turn. At times the heat grows close to unbearable, but this just seems to fuel the musicians onstage, like the metal in a crucible reaching liquid form. A special performance indeed.

By catering to those who love dance music in all its forms, Sunfall felt like an instant hit on an increasingly crowded summer calendar. No doubt it will be back next year, and I’d be confident of a repeat performance.

Images: Dan Medhurst and Joe Lunec

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