In the early 90s, the Tribu des Pingouins gets into the organisation of raves and festival in the South of France. This bunch of fifteen or so youngsters, barely out of high school, passionate about house and techno, imagine a festival full of colour and hedonism, attracting a bit more people every year. But, in the end, fate and the elements would strike and wipe out the event. Three members of the collective remember these unforgettable nights, year by year.
August 5th 1993
“This first edition of Borealis took place in the New York Club in Pezenas”, relates William Recollin (William Recollin founded and ran Pinguins Records, one of the first electro-orientated record shop in France).
His activism also took place behind the decks, under the alias DJ Willy, and through the record labels he created – Pinguins Music, Extraball – while also producing his own music. He now works in computers… “We had organised the festival with an indoor dance floor and chill out space and an outdoor stage, dedicated to hardcore techno, on the parking lot. That is where Liza N’Eliaz played. At the time, she was big name on the hardcore scene. I had seen her play at the Nostromo rave in Paris and, with the Pingouins, we had already booked her for our very fist event, the Neurorave, in Montpellier. On the Borealis night, Liza N’Eliaz offered a powerful, very well-made mix. She had a unique way of mixing, bringing in the tracks slowly. It was hardcore, but with very slow and clever transitions. She was telling a story over the course of her set. The live act by Juan Trip and the DJ set at sunrise by Jack de Marseille were also great moments of this first Borealis that entertained more than 2 000 people.”
August 13th 1994
“I used to live in London at the time”, recalls Bruno Catala (Londoner by adoption, who for a while lived at Steve Hillage’s (System 7), Bruno Catala released a few 12” under the Jack of Swords and Mothra monickers on Andrew Weatherall’s Sabres Of Paradise and Sabrettes labels. He now teaches meditation…) “For New Year’s eve 1993, I had seen Orbital play live in a rave organised by the Megadog collective. It was a great live performance, a bit on the trancey, narcotic side. We decided to book them for the first edition of Borealis in the Roman arena in Nîmes.”
The Pingouins will always maintain that connection with the UK scene and later would book The Orb, System 7 and Chemical Brothers. “In the meantime, Orbital were booked for the 94 Woodstock festival, a tribute celebrating the 25 years of the famous hippy event.” The date for the party in the New York countryside was the day before Borealis. In order to perform at both shows, the Hartnoll Brothers end up travelling by Concorde to Paris, then in a private jet to Nîmes. A rather ironic situation for these two “crusts” used to the cold and mud of British raves. “We even had to get the airport opened especially for them and fetch them directly on the tarmac.” What follows is as surreal. Completely jet-lagged and rather high on beer, the duo disappears until the very last minutes before the show. Then, in the middle of their live act, one of the brothers asks for a plastic bottle in order to relieve himself on stage, hidden by a blast of smoke machine.
August 12th 1995
“For this second edition of Borealis in the Roman arena of Nîmes, we had set up a central, circular stage. It was a sort of a giant metal spider that had needed a full week to install”, describes Clément Vaché (After the Pingouins adventure, where he played records under the name DJ Citru, Clément Vaché was a disc jokey in Paris – in the Da Groove and Da Phonics shops – and founded the Aswefall band. He now is the musical curator of the Colette boutique…)
“Our event contrasted highly with the usual corridas that took place in the antique Roman arena.” That night, Underworld played their fist gig in France, “a mind-blowing show”, and Jeff Mills, “a master of the decks”, closed the event. But Pingouin Clément retains a found memory of the show by The Orb: “It was magical and masterful! They played in the middle of the event, a very ambient live, against the flow of the usual purely knees-up sound. For the Borealis events, we always wanted to introduce that particular field of electronic music. Programming such a live act at that time of the night was very risky, but the show was extraordinary. Especially on that stage, with the members of the band in the centre of it all, like musical gurus.”
The public agrees: 11 000 people fill up the arena to the brim while 2 000 ticketless persons squat outside. Some, desperate, even climb the immense pointed metal gates to gatecrash into the show.
February 24th 1996
“The Nîmes arena were now simply too small for Borealis”, remembers William Recollin. “Moreover, with all the excesses and misbehaviour of the 1995 edition, the local council did not welcome us any more. As we did not have a plan for a summer festival, we decided to organise a winter event indoors.” It would be called Polaris, held at the Halle Tony Garner in Lyon.
The lineup was exiting with The Prodigy, Carl Cox, DJ Hell, Charlie Hall, Miss Djax, Mike Dearborn. But the event did not take place: “Under pressure from the local syndicate of clubs and discos, Raymond Barre, who was the mayor at the time, chose to impose a closing time of 1 AM to the party… We were forced to cancel.” Faced with this anti-techno repression, which was still quite common at the time, the resistance starts to organise. The Pingouins receive support from many artists and promoters. This impetus leads to the creation of the association Technopol, with Pingouin Josselin Hirsch, as first president.
In 1998, Technopol, now based in Paris, organises the first Techno Parade and today, the association still works for the defence and recognition of electronic cultures.
August 9th 1997
“Laurent Garnier’s masterful set was a particularly climactic moment of this first edition of Borealis in Montpellier”, relates Clément Vaché.
“He played at sunrise, from 6 AM to 8 AM. The other stages were closed and the entire audience came together in front of the main stage where Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers had played earlier that night. That morning was a fine communion between a DJ and the crowd. Especially when Laurent Garner played the “World 2 World” 12” by Underground Resistance. The entire crew was gathered on the stage to celebrate this magical moment.
We were very proud of this first edition and of the lineup that included Andrew Weatherall, Darren Emerson, Autechre, Planetary Assault Systems and Slam. Above all else, this edition of Borealis took place after 1996, a catastrophic year for us (cancellation of Polaris, no summer event) and we had taken a bet on a new site, immense, the Domaine de Grammont. This venue, a vast empty field with a gentle slope, had already been used for gigantic concerts like The Rolling Stones or Genesis, but never for an electronic event. The audience went with it, with people coming from all over France. There were 25 000 people that night, we even entertained the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang!”
August 8th 1998
“Beyond our shared love for electronic music, the main assets of the Pingouins was the diversity of our personalities and the great care with which we organised each event”, analyses Bruno Catala.
“Some of us would take care of programming artists, others of the technical aspects, the fringe festival, the decoration or the shows.” That year, the line-up was amazing, with Plastikman, Photek, Laurent Garnier, Grooverider, Sven Vath, François K, Jeff Mills, Kerry Chandler, Green Velvet… And in the fringe festival, a rare live by Stardust.
“In the Grammont field, a climactic image of the night was the huge boat on wheels, designed and run by the street theatre company Malabar, that moved across the crowd in a surreal scene. We also worked with the Les Nuits Blanches collective who offered dancers, acrobats on stilts… As for the decoration, we would go for grandiose installations, huge drapes, 10-foot tall polystyrene penguins… All this would cost us crazy amounts of money and the producer of Borealis, Bruno Asselin, would follow us in our megalomania. But, such efforts did bring a sense of magic and the wonderful to Borealis, and these powerful images remained engraved of the collective memory of the audience.”
August 7th 1999
“The 1999 edition of Borealis was going to be an apotheosis, it was an apocalypse!”, sums up Clément Vaché.
“After a decade, our group of friends had reached the end of a cycle. With the Borealis events, and the other rave parties that we organised in the South of France, we achieved an unbelievable artistic project. Cancelling the 1999 edition marked the end of an era and the end of our great adventure as the Pingouins.” 25 000 to 30 000 people were expected for that 1999 edition. But, the night before the event, a huge storm struck our city.
The Domaine de Grammont was completely flooded, impracticable, and the electrical installations were under the water. The festival was cancelled the next morning, with a heavy heart. “If we had gone on with the festival, it could have been a catastrophe, as more stormy weather was forecast…” As a meager consolation, the DJs decided to play anyway and were dispatched in the local clubs. Notably in the Rockstore with the amazing line-up: Roni Size, Kruder & Dorfmeister and Thievery Corporation. But, fate persisted against the event: more storms, power cuts in the clubs and Laurent Garnier whose records were misplaced by the airline he had flown with…