Magnetic Fields 2018: Five key performances

  • A festival experience like no other.
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  • Magnetic Fields is unique. Taking over the resplendent Alsisar Mahal hotel in rural Rajasthan every December, the festival is considered India's best dance music event, and it's certainly the only rave I've ever been to in an actual palace. 4,000 ravers were free to roam the grounds, meandering from the sunbaked rooftop through manicured gardens and out to the desert dunes, where they were housed in tidy rows of white canvas tents with beds, toilets and washbasins. This was serious glamping. The audience was drawn from across the country, particularly the party-friendly cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as expats from places like Dubai and a decent number of Europeans, ranging from entrepreneurs to hippy backpackers. It was a livelier mix than you'd find at the average European festival, and it sparked plenty of interesting late-night conversations about what the hell we were all doing there, drinking and dancing until dawn in the middle of conservative rural India. Several cancellations in the lead-up to the festival showed how tricky it is to put on an event of this kind in such an isolated spot—most artists took a six-hour taxi ride from New Delhi to the site. But the organisers filled in the gaps with a selection of surprise sets and back-to-backs, including an inspired debut from Daphni and Shanti Celeste. The UK-leaning lineup, which also featured Oneman, Pangaea, Midland and DEBONAIR, was balanced by DJs and live acts from across India, including the slick space disco of Mumbai's Aqua Dominatrix and a troupe of Rajasthani folk musicians playing on the roof, compered by the palace's prince. With the least possible hyperbole: there's no other festival like Magnetic Fields. Here are five key performances from the weekend.
    SUCHI The Jameson Underground stage was reliably the warmest spot onsite—handy when temperatures plummeted under the clear night skies. Crammed into the low-ceilinged basement on Saturday night, I was introduced to DJs from the New Delhi-based online station Boxout.fm, which has become a vital engine of the city's underground scene since launching in April 2017. SUCHI, one of the station's regular hosts, is an Oslo-born, London-based DJ with roots in the Indian capital. Taking over from fellow host Daisho, who was playing disco, she drew for pumping '90s house, raggedy acid and a glorious Björk remix, resulting in one of the most relaxed and communal vibes of the whole festival. Palaces are fabulous and all, but it's good to be reminded of that old adage about a basement, a red light and a feeling.
    Daphni b2b Shanti Celeste Some of the weekend's best moments were total surprises. Along with Oneman and Pangaea's last-minute (and first-time) back-to-back, Daphni and Shanti Celeste stepped up on Saturday to form the perfect peak-time tag team. Ahead of an epic headline set on the closing night, Dan Snaith dug into the bassier corners of his collection to match Celeste's bass-driven energy. In a way, they were an obvious match: both able to take sharp left turns without dropping the pace, and their eclectic taste carried them across different eras, genres and continents with ease. Playing in the intimate BudxYard garden stage, flanked by the palace's neon-lit pool and ornamental trees, they threw two fingers up at royal protocol and smashed out the UK funky classic "Sirens" by Hard House Banton, a garage twist on Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" and plenty of rolling, euphoric house. The mood was contagious—at one point, their enthusiasm threatened to uproot the fancy trees as the crowd shook the branches like pom-poms (some reports claim Bicep were the ringleaders).
    Pangaea Alsisar Mahal's central courtyard hosted Red Bull North Stage, a huge, rather cold space made intimate by virtue of being tightly boxed in, with viewing spots on multiple levels. Pangaea's peak-time slot on Saturday night followed a solid warm-up from Oneman. It's curious to think how far the two DJs' paths have diverged over the years. Oneman, leaning on UK garage, bass and classics from the Dubstepforum era, was the bigger novelty for Indian ravers, who are typically more familiar with house and techno than UK rave styles. But Pangaea opted for a full-pelt techno assault that pushed all the right buttons, nudging into breakneck speeds via a palette of tough, steel-capped ragers. In theory, it should have been the most austere and unforgiving set of the weekend, but a thousand pumping fists can't be wrong.
    Lifafa Early on Sunday night, in the all-too-short moment between sundown and freezing darkness, Suryakant Sawhney, AKA Lifafa, closed the rooftop with his idiosyncratic blend of drowsy vocals, dreamy samples and disco grooves. Sawhney is known as the frontman of the New Delhi jazz and experimental outfit Peter Cat Recording Co., who also played two gigs at The Peacock Club, the festival's cabaret-style indoor stage. But on the moonlit rooftop he showed off his solo material, crooning along in Hindi to his ornately crafted laptop electronica. Cradling one elbow as he smoked a cigarette and rocked from side to side, he channeled the louche charisma of Serge Gainsbourg and delivered a set of heady disco dreams.
    Carista Carista looks set to blow up in 2019, and the De School resident's two performances over the weekend took her on contrasting journeys, showing her to be the kind of versatile yet single-minded selector who thrives in any scenario. Out in the sand dunes on Sunday night, the temperature dropped to nearly freezing under the camouflage netting and Entrapment-style lasers—there was a certain Burning Man vibe to this corner of the festival, but thankfully with far better tunes. Before handing over to DJ Seinfeld (who spotted a golden opportunity to play Darude's "Sandstorm" and get away with it), Carista went heavy and hard to keep our pulses raised, drawing for the kind of rump-shaking techno that gets bodies moving in the De School basement. It was a contrast to her earlier set in BudxYard, where the fragrant surroundings—manicured lawn, water feature, twinkly lights—lent themselves to more playful selections, including a burst of Little Dragon's electropop.
    Photo credit / Mohit Mukhi - Lead, SUCHI, Pangaea, Carista, Courtesy, Yoga Abhishek Shukla - Daphni b2b Shanti Celeste Avirat Sundra - Lifafa, Drag Queen, Rooftop Solita Deb - Dog Polina Schapova - Rooftop Crowd Aman Sridhar - Camera Phone Nishant Jhamb - Lying Down