In Review: Organik Festival (Hualien, Taiwan)

Entering into its fifth year, Organik festival has become a fixture of Taiwan’s underground music scene, attracting visitors from all corners the world. Hailed as South East Asia’s best electronic music festival I couldn’t help but arrive with high hopes, always a precarious move, but thankfully I wasn’t disappointed.

Whereas for the majority of festivals the venue plays a mere ancillary role, Organik, held in the local township Huting (Hualien) is one of those rare festivals where the location was as relevant to the experience as the music or the people.

Situated within an inlet where the jungle mountains meet the sea, the stunning views were in their own right worth the train, taxi (and flight for overseas travellers) it took to get there. With lush, leafy mountains encompassing you from all sides, save for the immense dark-sanded beach and the clearest of blue seas, it was both a literal and figurative escape from the real world and its responsibilities. Entering under a canopy of palm trees and low hanging branches, manoeuvring the haphazardly placed piles of wood or climbing three story tree house, it felt like a ready-made, off-the grid playground for adults.

With less than 1000 in attendance another reason Organik stands out from other festivals due its intimacy. Being the only one if its kind in Taiwan it attracted an array of people: music lovers, party lovers, nature lovers and those whose curiosity was piqued by how much it’s actually talked about. Less than two weeks after I arrived in Taiwan, way back when in November, I already found myself regaled with stories from Organik.

Arriving at the entrance I was met by smiling faces that appeared almost abashed at having to perform a routine bag-search, a welcome deviation from the usual invasive procedures at such events. This intimacy was deliberately fostered by the organisers: staff didn’t wear a uniform and interacted with attendees as if they friends; there were little or no rules and people were given free rein to camp where they pleased. This was a welcome relief from the rigidity of Taipei’s trademark paternalism, where rules are adhered to with a solemn reverence and people spontaneously form orderly queues.

This relaxed, languished approach set the tone for the duration of the festival and cultivated an automatic sense of familiarity, more than compensating for the lack of big headliners or charging crowds. Overall, the atmosphere resembled a house party as opposed to a ticketed event, the kind of party thrown by the popular, rich kid in school (and for once, everyone was invited). All your needs were taken care of, everyone knew everyone, and for those new to Taiwan the feeling didn’t last long.

Also contributing to the sense of intimacy was the small scale of the festival site. With everything virtually within five minutes of each other walk people simply meandered from place to place, so leaving your tent didn’t feel like the mission as it tends to at bigger festivals.

There were two dance-floors in total: the first which hosted the main acts was on the beach, a netted enclosure with golden sand and ample space to dance, or just sit and chill out; the second was a mere minutes walk away, an indoor, low-ceilinged wooden cabin that hosted local DJ’s played more chilled out music. The beauty of this was there was no fear of missing your favourite act, and for those indifferent to the line-up they could simply use their ears as their guide.

At some point in the early evening it began to rain, nothing catastrophic but neither could it be shrugged off. Shoes were abandoned, bikinis were layered with translucent, plastic ponchos and while most held their posts bravely outside, there was a sudden influx to the indoor dance-floor. Only hours previously I had changed not once but twice in pursuit of the perfect outfit but after ten minutes of rain I had morphed into a bare-footed, vagrant, jungle creature, any preoccupations with image dissipated by the rain.

Once darkness fell the magical quality of the setting came to life. Sitting around the bonfire, the crackling of the flames mingling with the thud of the music, I took a moment to just look and soak it all in. Clearly a lot of love and care had gone into the decorations, their bewitching effect evoking a sense of otherworldliness. Guiding the way from the beach to the stages were a trickle of fairly lights, tracing the perimeter of the soft sloping hill like icing on a cake. Against the pitch-black backdrop of the night ambient lights emanated from different pockets of the hill, their hazy glow dispersed by foliage and thick billows of smoke. In my moment as a detached spectator it was clear to me that I was part of something special.

Organised by Smoke-machine, the pioneering underground organisation of Taiwan, the heavily German line-up was crafted with utmost care and attention, an imperative given that the festival was a single, uninterrupted thirty-hour flow.

Speaking to one half of the Smokemachine duo, Gregory (aka diskconnected), I asked him what was involved in organising such an event. In his answer he spoke only of the music. Spending over half a year assiduously selecting the line up, each act is chosen with the belief they can bring Organik’s vision to life.

Hearing him talk reminded me of a parent sending their just turned eighteen-year-old child into the adult world: once the line-up and running order is chosen, from the music side of things, Smoke Machine takes a step back and hopes the DJ’s will deliver.

And did they indeed.

All of the acts showed a keen awareness of their position within the line-up and what it required of them, delivering accordingly.

Sidney and Suleiman opened the festival, their soft beats providing a gentle landing for everyone lugging their camping equipment down the hill. Headlining the festival were Dorisburg and Efedemin. While Dorisburg’s set was short and sweet, it left people wanting for more in the good kind of way and his high-energy set got the ball rolling for the night. Guiding the transition from daylight to darkness, Smoke Machine’s diskonnected started off steadily before stepping it up a gear to pave the way for Efdemin.

With the night in full swing Efedemin didn’t hold back, playing techno tracks such as DJ HMC – Marauder and other classics that sated techno lovers such as myself and got everyone moving. Dr. Rubenstein, one of the festival favourites, brought the night to a peak. Using the inky darkness of the night as her muse, she laid down acid upon acid track, her diverse set catching people’s attention as was evident by the heaving dance floor.

Come the early hours of the morning Chris SSG was up by which stage most people had danced themselves to exhaustion. Aware of his timing he led us into a soothing, ambient set, his tinkling melodies healing our tired limbs. His set coming to a close people started drifting towards the mountainside to watch the sunrise, as is responding to some natural instinct. Although clamouring its jagged edges took some effort the breath-taking views were worth it. Most people sat in silence, taking a moment to reflect and cherish the peace.

Unfortunately, this came at the price of missing Sa Pa’s set. According to reports he didn’t disappoint, and the track everyone talked about afterwards was Sam Kidel’s ‘Disruptike Muzak Clip’, a track with shimmering, quivering undertones that after a hedonistic night of partying restores your equilibrium. Listening to it at home I sorely regret not being there.

At this point it was after 8am and my body gave in so I went for a nap which, lasting longer than expected, meant I woke up just in time to hear the last track of Edward’s live set. Bringing the festival to a close was Nd_Baumecker, tasked with defining the final moments of the festival, the feeling that would linger as people made their journey home. His set was near perfect, playing a mix of both modern and classic tracks, and one or twice I actually felt a rush of pure, un-induced happiness. At times his drops were like a physical force, a gravitational pull that brought everyone in sync as if performing a choreographed movement. With his official set over Nd_Baumecker let loose and played a track by Janet feat. Missy Elliot, before launching himself into the crowd to savour those last, delicious moments of euphoria before the party had to eventually end.

Anyone lucky enough to have attended Organik will tell you that it is far more than just a music festival. Although it is still in its early years, Smokemachine has managed to capture the essence that marks a festival in people’s minds : creating a sense of belongingness. The satisfaction of a yearning, so deeply rooted in human nature, to feel a part of something. Because isn’t that ultimately what draws us to a festival and ensures we come back year after year? Maybe even more so, dare I say it, than the music.

A Review: Jeff Mills – Man from the Future

There was much speculation and mystery surrounding “Jeff Mills: A man from the Future” performance in Taipei, beginning with the location ambiguously listed as “Taipei Nasa Space Center.” As an artist, Mr. Mill harnesses his obsession with space and his skill as a musician to fuse two entities that have awed and mystified humanity in some shape or form since the beginning of time. Advances in technology have allowed us to explore both previously unknown realms, but just as there are depths of space that will forever remain out of reach, the creation of music is infinite and man’s journey of discovery and creation is never complete.

This obscure vastness has awed musicians and scientists alike. Both devotees spend their entire lives broadening mankind’s understanding of space and music, anticipating and moulding our future in the process. Exploring this co-relation, Jeff Mills adopts space and time travel as his muse in his retro-futuristic inspired performances.

As I ascended the staircase of the ATT 4 FUN building it felt as though I were entering a lair, the rolling sound of the industrial techno settling around me and driving away the outside world. With over an hour to go until Mills was due to play only a smattering of people occupied the space, allowing me to get a good look at the setting. The location was a large room, with tall, high ceilings, and although darkly lit the disguise was evident: cream, patterned wall paper, lingering security guards, and a VIP balcony area above our heads all hinted at the true nature of the room as a exclusive club venue.

The crowd was a healthy mix of local Taiwanese and foreigners, a regular occurrence at techno events given that EDM dominates the mainstream clubs in Taiwan. Nearly everyone in attendance was dressed impeccably, their outfits (predominately black, of course) carefully chosen and exuding a cool fierceness. Certainly no one was there by accident.

Finally Mills emerged on stage and wordlessly, with a single swift gesture whipped back a black cover revealing his machinery, as though he were a magician about to begin his sorcery. Armed with his Roland TR-909, four vinyl players and a synth, Mills squats amongst his machines and the performance began.

Conscious of the futuristic theme (ironic given that the event also announced Mill’s imminent retirement) and I made an active effort to tune into Mill’s vision throughout the performance.

The show seemed to begin in an apocalyptical present, its chaos and urgency evoked through swarming red lights and a jarring piano melody hovering above the beat, the visuals depicting a gaping, flickering chasm.

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A nimble, shadowed silhouette on stage, Mills commandeered his equipment to transport us through time and space, the swelling movement of his melodies and acid baselines bringing his vision of time-travel to life. The discordant use of his drum machine contributed to this frantic energy, as it wrapped itself around the multiple layers of tracks producing a single cacophonous sound.

I situated myself near the front of the stage and those surrounding me danced feverishly, utterly submitting themselves to Mills who offered a temporary break from reality. And while this release is subconsciously, if not consciously, the force that drives ravers to dance for hours on end, the urge for release appears more overt for Taiwanese partiers. They dance with a frenziness, slightly forced at times, as if trying to shed a metaphysical burden so that, rejuvenated, they may once again be able to face the stresses of Taiwanese working world.

Paying homage to Detroit classics “The Bells” brought the crowd to attention, but at times the alternate dimension that Mills strove to create flickered and threatened to slip away. When I ventured to the back of the room people appeared somewhat listless. While this can in part be blamed on the venue, its luxury ill-suited to Mill’s concept only further exacerbated as it wasn’t filled to full capacity, Mills and his audience didn’t always appear to be on the same wavelength. Perhaps aware of this Mills occasionally played his drum-pad, as if checking in with his audience, although it wasn’t until the show finale that he revealed his true potential.

For the remaining half hour the evening took a deliberate shift as our perilous journey through time and space had come to end. Having reached our final destination we were greeted by, “the man from the future”, a solitary figure bathed in golden light on a stage plunged in darkness. Abandoning his tracks and moving seamlessly to a performance using solely his drum-machine, synth and touch-pad, Mills showed us why he has earned the reputation as a master of techno. With his trademark, unwavering concentration (apart from the odd flicker towards the audience to gauge their reaction), Mill’s fingers moved deftly and deliberately as he simultaneously manipulated both his machinery and audience.

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This instinctively produced, organic sound, as though he were playing an ad lib solo on a drum or guitar, brought a warmth and authenticity to his performance which techno sets often lack. This invigorated just about every person in the room, and as a collective mass we thrashed about for the remainder of “The Wizard’s” set.

While the night ended on a high, the general consensus afterwards was that although Mills played a great set people weren’t blown away. Nonetheless, with an open mind, some imagination and a close ear, listener’s who submit themselves to Mill’s retrofuturistic concept can be taken on a journey, and for a short time at least, experience first-hand the fusion Mills envisions between space, the future and electronic music.