The spectacular Thai event continues to sharpen its focus on Southeast Asia's blossoming electronic music scene. Nyshka Chandran investigates.
Due to a change of location in 2018, Wonderfruit's main stages were closer together than when I last visited two years ago, which, at times, affected the sound quality. The new site was another spot within the fields of Pattaya's Siam Country Club, a massive space owned by the family of festival founder Pranitan "Pete" Phornprapha, whose father is ranked #33 on Forbes's rich list in Thailand. Dotting the vast grasslands were shady coconut plantations, tropical forests and sustainable art displays, such as a bamboo neon-light installation that illuminated according to global air quality and a 40-foot soundproof structure that gave visitors a rare moment of silent solitude. In hidden corners, chill-out zones like Rabbit Hole and Golden Triangle Ambient Area offered revellers a welcome lie down during all-nighters.
A wider variety of Southeast Asian-based DJs were invited to play in 2019, standing on par with international acts. Saturday saw the Bangkok-based artist DOTT serve up melodic house gems like Sweely's "Take One," while Ouissam, who runs the Hanoi club Savage, maintained energy with cuts of joyful disco. On Sunday, Singapore's RAH delivered a genre-defying mix that quickly had bodies moving from comfortable cushions to the dance floor. Later, the Bali-based DJ Archie mobilized house heads with soulful basslines (Peter Croce's "Revival").
In addition to the artists, regional diversity was reflected in the clientele. Where the crowd used to mainly consist of expats living in Thailand, that's since expanded to ravers from across Southeast Asia. Foreigners continue to outnumber locals, but I certainly noticed more Thais than during my last visit in 2017.
Another factor pointing to Wonderfruit's evolution was its musical diversity. What used to be a predominantly electronic festival with bursts of molam has transformed into a landscape of experimental beats. There were ethereal performances from the jazz cats Alfa Mist and Sarathy Korwar, plus high-intensity funk courtesy of the Dutch band Arp Frique & Family. Thai ensembles like Electric Piphat Band and Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band blended psychedelic rock with traditional instruments such as bamboo mouth organs.
In-demand DJs are often guilty of one-dimensional sets at festivals, but most performances at Wonderfruit were multifaceted. On Thursday, Craig Richards proved his mettle by mixing ska into sci-fi dub before finishing with ambient jungle. Powder, on Sunday, in a refreshing change from her usual repertoire of deep cuts, went for uplifting Chicago house, dropping Boo Williams' "Reckless Thoughts" and Maxime Johnny's "Weekend." At the Rainbow Disco Club takeover, John Gómez showed off Brazilian and Afro-house specialities. Four Tet's Sunday night session proved why he's such a festival favourite, moving between club weapons such as Boom!'s "Messed Up" and Tessela's "Hackney Parrot."
Live performances were also one of the major attractions this year. On Thursday, the French duo Camion Bazar put on a powerful show involving vinyl and drum machines. At a 360-degree dome stage called Polygon, synchronized light shows complemented electronic frequencies. There, on Friday, Photay played live kicks and snares, using drum pads, synths and a controller to unleash waves of meditative bass.
In Southeast Asia, erratic laws usually hinder licensing and permits for large-scale parties, so it's impressive that Wonderfruit continues to expand even as other festivals and venues face closures. With solid investment and sponsorship under its belt, Wonderfruit clearly isn't going anywhere. Plus, now that its musical direction is increasingly evolving, more of Asia's talents are sure to benefit.