From an outsider's perspective, hosting a four-day techno festival in Saint-Étienne on a rainy November weekend might seem like a bold move. "Sainté," as the locals call it, is located a one-hour drive from Lyon, and the city has long held a reputation as the gritty, working-class counterpart to its richer and more polished neighbour. Where Lyon has produced a number of emerging electronic artists in recent years, Saint-Étienne's underground scenes have traditionally been anchored more in punk and hip-hop. The first edition of Positive Education Festival set out to channel the visceral energies of these sounds while keeping a strong foothold in techno—a daring MO that the organisers pulled off in style.
From Thursday through Saturday, the programme was split in two, with weightier nighttime showcases preceded by smaller (and cheaper) #OFF events at various spots around town. Before Thursday's main event, I made my way to Place Jean Jaurès for a back-to-back set from Lyon-based talents Sasha Mambo and The Pilotwings. When I got there, the vibe was a lot less rowdy than I'd imagined: the turnout was scarce and Mambo had just dropped a delicate piece by The Durutti Column. A few dozen punters cheered on as their set took a more adventurous turn, veering into hard-boiled electro.
I reached the night's main venue—a typical French performance hall called Le Palais Des Spectacles—in time to catch In Aeternam Vale perform his freaky, uptempo cover of Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi." The night's unexpected highlight were the visuals, in particular those deployed during Cabaret Voltaire's live A/V set, which saw Richard H. Kirk deliver gloomy and frantic beats to clips of police brutality and ISIS camp training. The festival's omnipresent VJ, Malo, also deserves a mention for his eerie streams of video collages that were projected across three vast screens above the stage. His talents were transferred to a completely different setting on Saturday afternoon, when he performed at local cinema Le Méliès. Booked alongside the likes of acclaimed synth-noodler Alessandro Cortini, Malo engaged in a headsy dual performance with French producer PEEV, much to the delight of a sleepy but content audience.
Friday afternoon was, for me, a festival highlight. Ursa Minor, an anarchist venue on the outskirts of the city with a small but well-equipped concert hall, hosted Brothers From Different Mothers signees Judaah and Basses Terres, who both gave exemplary performances. Judaah showcased a delightful selection of dancehall and ragga tunes, while Basses Terres delivered a powerful live set packed with sharp breakbeats and jagged synths. But it was Livity Sound affiliate Simo Cell who stole the show, blasting out typically crisp and percussion-heavy loops. His selections were dark and swinging, bringing the party to a wicked climax—and it was still only 9 PM. Later, Palais Des Spectacles hosted a large contingent of UK bass and techno stars—Hodge, Randomer, Pev & Kowton—but none of them matched up to Simo Cell.
By this point in the weekend, the festival's sprawling programme was becoming something of a running joke among attendees. Thanks to strong support from local collectives such as LYL Radio or Moï Moï (the label behind Baleapop festival), almost 70 acts performed in total, which meant there was something to see at most hours in the day. Because there was so much choice, the experience lent itself to stumbling across new or lesser-known acts. On Saturday night, for example, Not Waving and Nick Klein presented two of the most intriguing and immersive sets I saw all weekend, outshining Dasha Rush and techno royalty Surgeon in the next room.
The festival was a success in terms of turnout and atmosphere. But more importantly, it shone a light on the blossoming underground scenes in this part of France, revealing a deep-rooted sense of community and camaraderie. It's particularly inspiring to see this kind of event taking place in a city with no defined techno scene of its own, without having to compromise on its edgy curation. Positive Education should encourage promoters everywhere to follow their gut, no matter what.
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