Ibiza – A symphony of dance music

When you think of Ibiza, what are the visual images generated in your head?

Are they glorious sunsets and heat-soaked villas with sandy beaches…or a bunch of rowdy types ‘on tour’ or on extended stag / hen weekends?

Happily, from first-hand experience, the natural pigeon holing that occurs thanks to reality TV programmes and social media is pretty wide of the mark.

Sure, there are those that go to the White Island to completely lose themselves and their minds, but equally there are those who travel for more soothing mental reasons. There is room for both and more besides in Ibiza.

With the visual images addressed, what are the musical images that come to mind? Because no trip to Ibiza can be complete without dance music – and yet, as with the visuals, there is much more here than at first appears.
During our holiday last month, I reflected on the way Ibiza’s music is structured, like acts in a play or even movements in a symphony.

There is a slow introduction. The day dawns, people rise slowly and amble to the pool, the breakfast bar, the beach – and their soundtrack is chillout music.

Where we stayed, at the excellent Axelbeach hotel across from San Antonio (view from the balcony above!), blissful poolside vibes slowed the pulse rate and calmed the fevered brow from the previous night. Then, gradually, as the day took hold, so too did the beats – and deep house music became the order of the day. Moody basslines and rich chords were the soundtrack as we flitted in and out of sunkissed reveries. At this point I particularly enjoyed the music of Mark Alow, reflecting the intense heat of the midday sun.

The effortless soundtrack grew ever so slightly faster as the day went on, like an extended warm-up DJ set preparing for the night ahead. As the sun dipped in the sky it was time to head across the bay to San Antonio, and the much-revered sunset strip.

This is one of the most established parts of Ibiza holiday life, though it treads a fine line between keeping the carefree atmosphere of those late 1980s beach parties, where the likes of Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker discovered the island’s potential, and the commercialism that has inevitably struck more recently.

Café Mambo, 25 years old this year, sits squarely between the two. Service is efficient, mostly friendly but occasionally too dismissive. Clearly our looks are important at this point, which was never the issue with Ibiza before I would have thought! Yet as we settle the magic of the area takes hold, and everyone anticipates the sunset moment itself.

Through the week we were to discover that the Golden Buddha bar just round the corner offers a much more authentic and unfiltered sunset experience, but this was good for now. We were at Cafe Mambo for a night promoting Pacha, and Radio Slave was in the wings with his brand of minimal, stretched out techno.

From the moment the dull red orb of the sun disappeared below the sea line, as we took a breath he sprang into action, delivering a dramatic change in mood and tempo, the onset of darkness bringing with it fresh energy. That he did this with such deceptively simple music was really impressive, his remix of Sasha’s Cut Me Down the calling card as the night opened up again. This would – in symphonic terms – be the start of the big finale.

A couple of nights later we found ourselves in Amnesia, where the finale was effectively split into two. Craig Richards and Seth Troxler were the opening DJs for a night with Cocoon, part of the season celebrating 20 years of the club on the island. A club and record label run by Sven Väth, Cocoon has always been about good times and an almost complete lack of pretence, and although prices at Amnesia are not exactly welcoming, everything else was.

It occurred to me at this point just how similar the roles of DJ and conductor are. Richards and Troxler were back to back, each choosing a tune or two in a relay style, the turntables their orchestra as the music unfolded. The dancefloor, initially empty, began to fill as their hypnotic beats took hold, the ‘less is more’ approach complemented by colourful dancers and two great big jellyfish, suspended above the dancefloor.

All this was happening on the terrace. In the main room, the beats were faster, the night more advanced, and those who had come to throw themselves around were having a ball. Back at the terrace, all that was about to arrive with Riccardo Villalobos, the Chilean DJ celebrated – like Radio Slave – for minimal yet timeless interpretations of house and techno.

With Villalobos though there is a much more primal instinct at play, which you can see as much from his image as you can hear it in his music. His set is not really about individual tracks, more about the pulsing rhythms as a whole, the DJ himself a ball of nervous energy behind the decks as he flits about impatiently, tweaking levels and ushering new depths of tremor-inducing drums.

It is incredibly effective, and even the relative lack of a melody does not prove a massive problem. The tunes can be found elsewhere of course, with the likes of Defected, Pacha and Soul Heaven serving up incredibly popular seasons of more soulful house in San Antonio itself.

Musically sated, we return to the hotel – and the cycle / symphony begins all over again. Ibiza really is one of a kind, and this trip was a fascinating insight to me of just how much dance and classical music have in common. Their functions can cross over, their structures are similar, yet the inspiration is equally lasting. Classical music might often try to claim the intellectual high ground, but the music can strive for cleverness and lose its immediacy. Dance music is clever in a different way, speaking to its lovers directly as it aims squarely for the feet and heart.

What I’m saying here is that different strokes for different folks is what music is all about. Long may it stay that way!

Here are two playlists from our ten days in Ibiza – ‘poolside’ and ‘club’:

Not surprisingly the ‘club’ one is shorter as a lot of the tracks we heard are not yet available – but hopefully it still catches the essence of our nights!

While we were there the sad news came through that Philippe Zdar, of French duo Cassius (below), had died in a tragic accident. Given his contribution to dance music in the last 20 years it was great to hear some of their tunes woven into DJ sets, especially at Café Mambo – and so this playlist starts with Cassius’ best-known tune as a small tribute. I was fortunate to interview Philippe once and found him a really engaging and mischievous subject. Both those qualities came across in his music and he will be greatly missed.

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