REVIEW: Sustain Saffron x Mixnights summer party at Propyard

On July 22, an inspiring lineup of non-binary and women DJs took to the decks at Bristol’s Propyard for an all-dayer in support of Saffron Music.

Words and images: Fran Pope, @senfa_copper

On a grey Saturday afternoon, with the drizzle blowing sideways, Bristol’s Propyard music and arts venue was host to a curious mix of young families (presumably there to see the major audiovisual installation Beyond Submergence in the adjacent art space) and those gearing up for the Saffron x Mixnights summer party.

When I arrived with a couple of friends, we spent a moment observing the mildly mismatched demographic before taking shelter under a tent roof. We grabbed a drink from the bar and eased ourselves into the mood as Em Williams, on the decks, catered to the earlybird dancers. (Unfortunately we missed DJ Caragh, who opened the day’s lineup from 1 p.m.). The general mood was much more cheerful than the weather: kids were jumping in puddles, the sun was making a half-hearted appearance now and then, and some excellently dressed members of the crowd in psychedelic leggings were doing a lot to brighten up our field of vision.

What’s more, the lineup promised several hours of great music. Having never seen any of the DJs play live before, I was curious to discover some new music, and – based on everything I knew about Saffron Music and its sister organisation, Mix Nights – confident that the standard would be high.

Saffron is an organisation that works to improve diversity in the music industry by improving representation of non-binary people, people of colour, and women. Founded in 2015 in Bristol by Laura Lewis-Paul, Saffron has expanded to London, Nottingham, and Birmingham where it provides training and hands-on experience in sound production and technician roles. The associated Mix Nights program (co-founded by Em Williams and Daisy Moon) includes events, online and in-person courses, and mentoring for emerging DJs, as well as radio residencies and showcase events, often in collaboration with other initiatives such as Noods Radio.

Left, Elena Colombi.

Stepping inside the building to shelter from the wet conditions (which Propyard is thankfully well set up for), we were met with a distinct museum-café-on-a-Saturday vibe: babies crawling on the floor, board books and segments of orange scattered over tables. Meanwhile, the beats outside were getting heavier and the tented area was filling up with people chatting, dancing, and drinking. Em Williams was followed up by Amaliah who spun a delicious mix of bouncy, colourful house, sliding into UKG territory and back out again. Carving out a space just big enough to dance in, I was happy to notice a variety of ages and genders among the dancers around me, which I always think is a positive sign for an event.

DJ and Mixnights co-founder Daisy Moon joined Amaliah on stage to give a brief introduction to Saffron, which was met with cheers from the crowd. On her instructions, we then moved inside en masse for a DJ set from Elena Colombi. By now the daytime vibe had given way to the nighttime one (even though it was still daylight) and the party was definitely on. There was more room to dance; people spread out, and more arrived. The huge chandelier of pastel-hued bobble lights presided like a twinkling jellyfish – benevolent, cool-as-ice – over the room.

In this underwater glow, Elena Colombi kicked off with a breakneck set of elegant, chiselled techno. Thundering and carefully honed, lit with bright pops, their selection drew you right in: dancing felt like an all-or-nothing commitment. I went for all, and more or less gave up on my knees as collatoral. A fabulous moment came when Elena did away with the beat altogether and filled the room with nothing but dazzling stabs – the energy on the floor ramped up as we expected a drop, which Elena swerved, instead playing with the build, the synth, the variation in pitch, and where, bodily, we could feel the music. The kick eventually wove back in, but the set stayed high-interest, full of textures and kinks.

A collaborative handover saw Elena followed on the decks by I. Jordan. Already a fan of their work, I was excited to see them play live, and we were treated to a club-bumping, high-octane, space-filling sequence that switched up bass-heavy umsh-umsh-umsh with garage and breakbeats. The hype was justified. Jumping, arm-waving bodies filled the floor. The atmosphere was buoyant and I danced until I physically couldn’t anymore.

Emerging into the dim, rainy light was a weird feeling: I’d had so much fun that my brain was convinced I’d had a whole night out. It should have been at least 2 a.m. – in fact it wasn’t even 9 o’clock. Saffron x Mixnights had been an absolute blast, and the night hadn’t even begun yet.

So yes, it was a day of slamming music and good vibes, and a ton of fun – but with a cause. As Daisy Moon had pointed out earlier, Saffron Music has been facing some serious challenges.

With post-Covid support coming to an end and the cost-of-living crisis beginning to bite, Saffron has seen sweeping cuts to its funding. An impressive response to its urgent fundraiser “Sustain Saffron” saw over £40,000 raised. This has enabled the organisation to continue its work while attempting to secure and diversify its other income streams. As emphasised by Laura Lewis-Paul and interim CEO Lizzy Ellis in an open letter to the organisation’s supporters, “this money has literally kept the wheels turning and our team salaries paid, allowing us to take a breath, reflect and take action.” Arts funding remains precarious, though, and a question mark remains as to future sustainability; a challenge faced by platforms and organisations across journalism and the arts, especially in the wake of the drastic redistribution of Arts Council funds in late 2022, which saw many lose 100% of their ACE funding.

And the impact of this constant challenge extends beyond just the financial: precarity and doubt take their toll on the humans whose hours of (often voluntary) work enable websites, events, publications, courses, workshops, content and outreach to exist. Energy and mental health are finite resources, and the constant need to hustle to survive can mean that this work simply becomes unsustainable. Among digital and print journalism platforms, Gal-dem – which published cutting-edge writing by people of colour of marginalised genders – was a regrettable loss earlier this year.

Thankfully, Saffron’s urgent fundraiser has brought it back from the edge, for now at least. However, as Lewis-Paul and Ellis go on to explain in their letter, the “volatility of funding” means they have had to “start developing our financial model to generate our own income streams” since funding itself comes with no guarantees.

Saturday’s event was proof that the spirit and the value of Saffron’s work, and the work of all those who have passed through its training courses to become DJs, producers and broadcasters, is alive and kicking. As Caragh Jones has said, “As a Saffron Records alumni, this feels very close to my heart – I wouldn’t be doing many of the things I do today if it wasn’t for this incredible organisation.” A fantastic lineup of DJs drew a large and enthusiastic crowd on a soggy Saturday afternoon, some of whom were there specifically to support Saffron, others just to hear some great music and have fun. The support is there, the dancers and DJs are there, the people are ready to turn up and show their love. All that remains is for the structures relied upon by Saffron and countless other organisations to be similarly supported by those, higher up, with the power to sustain this valuable work.

Find out more about Saffron (and you can still donate to their fundraiser!) via their website, or keep up to date with the latest news on Instagram.