ULTRA Music Festival 2017 was my second ULTRA experience, and this time I was lucky enough to attend as a purple wristband wearing “media-person”. My lovely sister asked me to represent 9Lives.co.za, who was invited by Samsung Electronics to cover the nineteenth edition of ULTRA Music Festival, and the fourth edition of ULTRA South Africa.
First you must know how I (not almost) became a DJ
I grew up with electronic music and as a teenager fell in love with it through bands like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Faithless. I still remember going to house-parties and doing interpretive dance moves on songs like Breathe and Firestarter.
As I grew older, our parties moved from our homes to local clubs like Mystic Boer in Stellenbosch, where we invented some very bad alien dance moves, jumping around, fists pumping on drum and bass and dubstep.
And it’s in these moments that the dream of one day being a DJ started to creep into my thoughts.
Since then this dream has stayed just that, a dream, and the closest I got to realizing it was by coming up with some weird DJ names and logo designs, and opening a few Soundcloud profiles. I also bought way too much DJ gear that I had to sell again on Gumtree.
So after loosing money and almost pressing play as a wedding DJ, I now am very happy (and relieved) to rather write about one of the best produced, and most explosive electronic dance festivals in the world.
I’ll try and do the production quality of ULTRA justice by showing a series of photographs, with a few thoughts on why, when it comes to an electronic music festival, I think these guys got it right.
How it all began
19 years ago, on March 13th 1999, Russell Faibisch and Alex Omes came together to throw the first Ultra Music Festival. They would make history, but in the first year the festival would also make a financial loss of between $10,000 to $20,000. That didn’t stop them though. The next year Faibisch and Omes were at it again and in 2000 they put on ULTRA with great success.
Since then ULTRA has gone from strength to strength and in 2016 it was voted the “World’s Best Festival” by DJ Mag’s 2016 survey. Over 14 million fans from over 150 countries across the world tuned into the live-stream of the festival.
Why it works so well
2017 was the first year ULTRA South Africa was held at the Cape Town Stadium and I think this was a smart move by the organisers. Keep the intensity high for one day, in a venue that has to be one of the most iconic in the world.
The moment I got off the MyCiTi bus at the stadium station I could feel the bass vibrating from the magnificent Cape Town Stadium, which rests in the shadow of Table Mountain, one of the 7 Wonders of Nature. I don’t think you can ask for a better venue.
As I passed the queue of excited party-goers waiting to enter the stadium I realised that an event like this, in the end, is about the community of those attending. The tens of thousands of fans, draped in colorful flags from all over the world, makes everything work.
Electronic festivals are sometimes criticized for being places where people loose all inhibition (and other important things), but I think it’s also a place where people gain a sense of freedom. Walking into a festival, this is the first thing that always strikes me: Normal people, doctors, lawyers and artists, loosing their shells and freely expressing themselves.
I have so much I can say about this steel, light-flashing, fire-spitting multi-million-dollar structure. I honestly think ULTRA wouldn’t be half of what it is today without this genius piece of art. Steve Lieberman, the man behind ULTRA stages since 2000 explains it best: “The visual element of what’s going on creates a very tangible, emotional connection to the music. When things happen when they’re supposed to happen—the video, the light, those big drops and moments in the music – it means everything to the audiences. That’s what gives you chills down your spine. That’s what makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
With every phat beat that drops, the stage explodes into bright colours, light, fire and smoke. And every now and then a monsoon of confetti or streamers explodes and rains down on the crowd. All these flashes and explosions are perfectly synced to the beat of the music, injecting energy into the thousands of people experiencing it.
“Before the invention of speakers that could project true bass frequencies, humans really only came across bass in hazardous situations – for example when thunder struck, or an earthquake shook. That is probably why it is by far the most adrenaline-inducing frequency that we have. It vibrates our bones. It causes minor molecular rearrangements, and this is what makes it so potent in dance music.” – Tony Andrew, Founder of the Funktion One System
I’ve never been a huge fan of popular EDM, maybe it’s just because I tend to rebel against anything “pop”, or maybe it’s because I think it might be a sell-out from the illegal underground rave scene of the late eighties and early nineties. But the moment that stage came alive and the music started moving through my veins, all the snobby critique I had was blown away.
Rhythm is a innate part of human biology and psychology, and EDM with its high melodic energy and low bass is the music that moves people most. Our bodies respond to music by releasing the neurotransmitter serotonin which fosters happiness and a sense of well-being. Our bodies also release dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for helping us feel motivated and alert. Music also has the power to release norepinephrine, which is responsible for vigilant concentration, and feelings of elation and euphoria.
Above a certain volume, music is absorbed not only through our ears but through the entire musculosceletal system, i.e. through our muscles and bones.
“In combination with the trance-inducing effects triggered by repeated loop patterns in rhythmic sync with dance moves, the result is a self-amplifying feeling of excitement, sometimes accompanied by pleasant sensations of thrills and shivers.” – Stefan M. Oertl
“Imagine taking your favorite song of all time and being able to manipulate it, slice it up, and put the words where you want. When your favorite part comes up, you can expand that part.” – Brandon Ross, Before we Were Kings
The DJ’s at ULTRA create moments for people to live in; holistic audiovisual moments. Not only do they have to spend hours in the studio perfecting their songs and sets, they also have to know how to make thousands of people dance. The thing I enjoy most about watching a good DJ is their ability to hold a crowd, to hold the tension in a stadium. For me that’s the true art in their performance.
They play, they dance, they sing, and they shout, all in an effort to entertain.
The Samsung Experience
This year Samsung Electronics also added to the ULTRA Experience through their Ultra Violet (UV) Art area. Here I got my face painted, my picture taken, and became a fighter jet pilot in a virtual reality game, while DJ Snake was blasting his tunes in the background.
All in all Ultra South Africa 2017 ticks all the boxes of entertainment. From the perfect venue, an explosive stage, world class DJ’s, good food and drinks, a sufficient cashless system and virtual reality entertainment, you’ll really have to hate electronic music not to be entertained and moved by the ULTRA Music Festival experience.