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TravelThe world’s best music festival is on a tiny island in the...

The world’s best music festival is on a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean – here’s why it’s so good

‘What were the chances of this happening, out here in the middle of the ocean?’ asks Colleen (stage name of French musician Cécile Schott), midway through a set of minimalist synth music in a cavernous mid-century theatre smack-bang in the middle of the Atlantic. Colleen’s performing on the Azorean island of São Miguel at Tremor, one of the world’s most remote music festivals. Taking in our surroundings, it’s hard not to share Colleen’s wonder and disbelief. 

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The Azores, for those not in-the-know, are an archipelago very, very far from pretty much anything – roughly 1,400 kilometres west of Lisbon and 1,900km east of North America. On a map, the Azores are mere specks in a wash of blue; surrounded on all sides by a terrifying mass of Atlantic Ocean.

Tremor uses that isolation to its advantage. By virtue of its lack of contact with the hyper-commercialised, overblown fests of the continent, for over a decade Tremor has distilled and incubated what a music festival should be: platforming excellent music in a unique location, for the benefit of attendees and locals alike. But while there’s no doubt that it’s that sense of inaccessibility that gives Tremor plenty of its identity and charm, this festival is more than its unusual location. Tremor has a rep for being one of the world’s best musical celebrations. So, why is that, exactly? We went to the festival’s 2024 edition to find out.

Music venues reinvented

My Tremor 2024 starts as it would go on: with a cycle of mystery, anticipation, and eventually proper, thorough, ecstatic release. Having flown in from Lisbon and shacked up in a hotel in São Miguel’s biggest city Ponta Delgada, on the first afternoon I’m bundled onto a coach and told I’m being shipped off to one of the festival’s many secret gigs – those in its ‘Tremor na Estufa’ series.

Regulars at festivals in the UK, Europe and beyond have a right to be sceptical of the idea of ‘secret gigs’ – at the likes of Glastonbury and Reading, rumours of superstar surprises often spread like wildfire, only for the actual event to be underwhelming or a bit naff.  But secret gigs at Tremor couldn’t be further from that. Instead, they’re exactly as tantalising and rewarding as they should be. 

Mid-afternoon, all festival goers are informed by text the location of that day’s Tremor na Estufa gig. If, like me, you don’t drive, coaches haul punters around the island to gigs.

Landrose performing at Tremor Estufa, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Vera MarmeloLandrose performing at Tremor Estufa, Tremor 2024

And that first show of Tremor 2024 is exceptional. Spilling off the coach at a small village on the island’s north coast, I traipse down a perilously steep hill and along a thin peninsula, at the end of which a small, exposed chapel sits, ravaged by the wind and rain. Edging closer, I hear distant drumming eek out between those waves; venturing past the chapel, we come to a tiny green space with a makeshift stage and an exceptionally high-quality sound-system. Surrounded by sea on three sides, fiercely drumming and punching out ferocious rock to a communal, jovial crowd is Landrose, ie Belgian punk David Temprano. The wind batters, the sun sets, the performance is thrilling. It’s as perfect a start to a festival as you can get.

The wind batters, the sun sets, the performance is thrilling – it’s as perfect a start to a festival as you can get

Tremor’s venues are just one element of its exceptionality – but they’re critical to it. Colleen’s show takes place in the Teatro Micaelense, an imposing mid-century theatre in Ponta Delgada (the Azorean capital, the islands’ largest city, and where most of Tremor takes place). The Micaelense is grand and fascinating, but it’s also by far one of Tremor’s most conventional spaces – and one of several venues that you might consider somewhat typical. Clubs, churches, warehouses, concert halls, bars… plenty of Tremor takes place in venues purpose-built (or easily adapted) for musical performance.

Poison Ruin at Tremor 2024
Photograph: Pedreira MarquesPoison Ruin at Tremor 2024

Where Tremor really stands out is its more unconventional settings. Thanks to the Tremor na Estufa series, on the second afternoon I find myself in a community market, then a fishing village and a dockyard; on the third day, the gig takes place in a working quarry (try and name a more brutal, atmospheric setting for a sludgy punk gig). And it’s not just the secret gigs that make use of these unorthodox venues – many shows on the festival’s planned line-up take place in shops, galleries and gardens. 

One show, notably, incorporates a hike. A 9am coach whisks us off to the highlands of São Miguel, and before we leave we’re instructed to download a 17-minute track. Once we reach a blustery, mossy hillscape, 50 or so hikers press play in unison before scrambling up between the peaks. The hike is designed so that once the song is over, you’ve gone from exposed volcanic mounds to dense Japanese red fir forest; take out your earphones and all you can hear is rustling leaves, delicate birdsong and an ominous, irregular drumbeat.

Tremor todo o terreno, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Marina CruzTremor todo o terreno, Tremor 2024

All of which would, in itself, make for an interesting experience – but the hike-gig hybrid doesn’t stop there. Eventually the route winds down to a vast lake encased by firs, with a solitary figure standing at the other end. When the hikers follow the edge of the lake and reach the figure, what follows is a full-fledged musical epic from Lavoisier, the Portuguese folk duo of Roberto Afonso and Patrícia Relvas. Relvas appears to somehow bounce her wails off the lake and trees, her own voice boomeranged back by nature; she’s joined by guitarist Afonso, who responds to her calls from across the water. Ever heard of a gig quite like that?

Tremor todo o terreno, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Marina CruzLavoisier at Tremor todo o terreno, Tremor 2024

No big names

Not only is Tremor full of those sorts of experiences – besting itself regularly, always when you don’t think the festival can get any better – but it does so entirely without headliners. Those who run the festival would no doubt deny that it has any standout names, with the Tremor 2024 gig poster purposefully not prioritising any names more than others.  

Case in point: talking to gig-goers about why they’ve come out to this festival in the middle of the ocean, nearly everyone has a different reason, a ‘headliner’ of their own. Some are here for Ugandan dance producer Faizal Mostrixx or Canadian electronic provocateur Marie Davidson, others for Brighton punks Lambrini Girls or US DJ/producer DJ Haram, Russian art popper Kate NV or Japanese-French folk-prog act PoiL Ueda.

Faizal Mostrixx at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Marina CruzFaizal Mostrixx at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024

Every name on the line-up is of pretty much equal stature, which might seem disorienting to any conventional European festivalgoer. But instead of leaving you clueless or disinterested, there’s something quite comforting in submitting to someone else’s taste, in entrusting your enjoyment to someone else’s curation. And that trust is rewarded – pretty much all my favourite performances at Tremor were from artists I’d never heard of.

Sam the Kid and rap showcase at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Ines SubtilSam the Kid and rap showcase at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024

One of those was a showcase of Azorean hip-hop, which popped up on a concrete dock in the small fishing village of Rabo de Peixe. Sure, some of rap’s linguistic playfulness and lyrical depth is lost with the language barrier, but the energy certainly isn’t. Led by Portuguese rap star Sam the Kid, São Miguel’s local youngsters took turns on stage in a feast of styles. Nearby, locals held their own community party with blaring cheesy Spanish- and Portuguese-language classics and plenty of dancing.

I feel part of a sort of triumphant, communal folk ceremony

The other highlight takes place on the festival’s final day, with a procession by Som Sim Zero – a project comprised of members of São Miguel’s Deaf Association, local musicians, the Rabo de Peixe Music School and art collective ondamarela. Wearing ornate headwear fashioned out of sticks and wielding drums and signs, the collective marches through the streets, growing in number on its way to the António Borges Botanical Garden. Gathering around a vast tree with sprawling roots, the sun sets and shrouds the scene in egg yolk orange; I feel part of a sort of triumphant, communal folk ceremony which increases in volume and power with horns, guitars, singers and even more drums. Eventually the entire crowd, myself included, is overcome by the urge to dance; the sense of joy is boundless.

Som Sim Zero at Jardim António Borges, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Vera MarmeloSom Sim Zero at Jardim António Borges, Tremor 2024
Som Sim Zero at Jardim António Borges, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Ines SubtilSom Sim Zero at Jardim António Borges, Tremor 2024

The Azores

All of Tremor’s acts fit a bill, much of them community-focused (and locally sourced) with progressive approaches to genre (and equally progressive politics). But they also suit the island of São Miguel itself, the rugged and dramatic Azorean capital and underdog of European island getaways.

For years, the Azores have been a hard sell to continental European tourists; the islands’ temperamental weather and lack of picture-postcard beaches not proving popular with those looking for a conventional getaway of sun, sand, sea and so on. The rain, in particular, is a sticking point: pretty much every month of the year, you can expect daily drizzle in the Azores.

Lavoisier at Tremor todo Terreno, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Vera MarmeloLavoisier at Tremor todo Terreno, Tremor 2024

The isolation of the archipelago, while undoubtedly crucial to Tremor’s exceptionality, is also a bit of a hindrance. Despite having year-round direct connections to mainland Portugal, the Canaries, Paris and the USA’s east coast (namely Boston and New York), many of Ponta Delgada’s flights are seasonal; from the UK, I ended up flying via Lisbon and enduring two two-hour-plus flights. For somewhere so politically and historically tied to mainland Europe (they were colonised by Portugal back in the 1400s), the Azores aren’t the easiest to get to.

Embrace the shiftable weather and plan your visit carefully, however, and the Azores’ list of charms are lengthy. On São Miguel alone you’ve got natural landscapes ranging from fir-surrounded turquoise lakes and moss-covered hills to brutal clifftop coastlines and pineapple groves. Besides, the locals, far from shirking from the rain, boast about it – it is, after all, the reason São Miguel’s nature is so deeply, vividly green. 

Tremor na Estufa, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Vera MarmeloTremor na Estufa, Tremor 2024, Miradouro de Santo António

There are plenty of attractions around the islands too (whale- and shark-watching and diving are all a big deal), but São Miguel’s appeal isn’t totally nature-based. Ponta Delgada boasts museums, churches, history and good food (especially fish) galore – and driving out, botanical gardens, thermal spas and more are dotted throughout and between the islands’ towns, many of the buildings of which are distinctively fashioned out of blackened volcanic stone.

Tremor community, Azores community

Not only did Tremor 2024 show off the Azores, but it worked its way into the community fabric of São Miguel and Ponta Delgada. And that community element is what ultimately rounds this festival off as one of the planet’s greatest, trickling down to every venue, gig and audience member.

The deaf-friendly performance of Som Sim Zero was just the tip of a festival that included all at every turn – and was all the better for it. The crowds (which consisted mostly of young Portuguese and Spaniards) were all friendly in a way that seems so alien to British festival crowds. There was no overcrowding, no boisterousness, no drunkenness, no chin-stroking snootiness. Just safe spaces full of positivity, friendliness and freedom.

Lambrini Girls at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Marina CruzLambrini Girls at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024

Children also weren’t an uncommon sight at Tremor, on shoulders and at the edge of crowds, engaged with even the wackiest or most abrasive performances. Those kids made me slightly jealous that I hadn’t been exposed to this sort of stuff at such a young age, that it took me well over 20 years to explore these musical frontiers – and to go to a festival as encouraging of discovery as Tremor.

Then there are the prices. A full five-day festival ticket for Tremor 2024 cost just €70 (£60) – less than plenty of day festivals in London. Beers were just €2 (once you’d bought a reusable €1.50 cup). Festival t-shirts, if you wanted to get one of your own tees printed, were just €4 (a new t-shirt was also just €10). Tremor is clearly priced in a way that makes it undoubtedly a festival for the people – as far from possible from a corporate cash-in.

DJ Haram at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024
Photograph: Marina CruzDJ Haram at Portas do Mar, Tremor 2024

When Colleen mused about the chances of Tremor happening somewhere so remote, she wasn’t wrong, but that’s just one of the festival’s many remarkable qualities. From its curation and organisation to its settings and community, Tremor is extraordinary in every regard. Having seen it first hand, I still can’t quite understand how it all pulls together so exquisitely.

In short: get to Tremor 2025. Next year’s edition will take place from April 8-12 2025 and tickets are already on sale, costing €75 (£64). You can buy tickets here.

Ed Cunningham travelled as a guest at Tremor Azores. 

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