In 2015, Belfast’s first AVA Festival and Conference found its home under the towering yellow Harland & Wolff cranes – affectionately named Samson and Goliath – at the city’s T13 Titanic shipyard. With a crowd of a few thousand and performances from a pre-‘Glue’ Bicep, Glasgow’s Optimo and Hammer, the small but mighty event has established itself as a key player in the nightlife scene of the town.
Fast forward seven years, and after multiple location changes, a pandemic and some of the best boiler rooms the UK has ever seen, AVA has found a new home, still under the watchful eyes of Samson and Goliath, at Titanic Slipways. It’s where the Titanic and Olympic ships were built and launched, and 110 years later it provides the backdrop for 16,000 ravers to come together for a weekend of unparalleled atmosphere and a sense of togetherness. that Northern Ireland puts out for AVA every year.
On the first day of the festival, before the sets kick off – which are meant to be closed by the almighty boys of Belfast, Bicep – DJ Mag chats with Irish DJ, producer and label head, Holly Lester . An AVA regular, Lester stands in the sunshine, gesturing to Samson and Goliath above the imposing main stage, which is positioned directly in front of the “bow” of the Titanic Museum building. “It feels like a homecoming this year,” she says. “Cranes are in sight again…it’s all really familiar. Last year was huge, everyone was so excited to be back after the lockdowns. I thought I would miss that downtown rave feeling we have at venues like this, but people are always so rowdy and they come together. AVA works anywhere.
Lester is also part of Free The Night NI, a non-profit organization committed to creating a safe and culturally rich environment for nightlife in Northern Ireland, which highlights the need for a progressive nightlife economy. Although liquor licensing laws and curfews are beginning to change and ease, NI remains restricted and AVA is liberating and gives a sense of community – something deeply rooted in the country’s history . “I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the legacy of The Troubles,” she says, “and that culture, the delusional culture, has done so much for the two divided communities during this time. It’s not very well documented, but during this period delirium was a huge outing.
“There was so much devastation, and I want to start telling people about it because they don’t talk about it. I want people to understand the importance of culture here, and that’s what we try to do with Free The Night, and with events like this. People’s taste for liberation is still there now, you see it wherever there has been a civil war or a traumatic event…Georgia, Palestine and, more recently, Ukraine.