FACT’s visits in 2015 and 2016 to Utrecht festival Le Guess Who? came after terrorist attacks in Paris and Trump’s election victory, respectively, and the festival’s ideals of community through music and collective experience shined through.
This year, the backdrop was the rise in the presence of far-right ideologies across the world. How well cultural exchange can fare against this is anybody’s guess. The festival is known for programming concoctions of punk, jazz and psychedelia alongside fringe electronics and global selections of folk and pop. It’s a city-wide affair, though much of it is concentrated within the colossal TivoliVredenburg, a mall of venues boasting concert halls, mezzanine bars and big gig environments. Variety, discovery and a hint of mystery flavor the air, led by an annual tradition of enlisting guest curators – this year featured Moor Mother, Devendra Banhart and Shabaka Hutchings as well as a project with RVNG Intl.
The line-up packs extra punch in the jazz department. A flurry of acts across the genre bridge generations, channeling the mastery of the old guard and instilling confidence in the fiery new class. Every direction, there’s a saxophone in sight: Roscoe Mitchell’s marathon excursions of circular breathing with the Art Ensemble of Chicago; Idris Rahman’s Ill Considered encore showmanship; the impossible softness of Maria Grand’s Greg Fox Quadrinity contributions; Keir Neuringer’s convulsions, using his knee to cover the bell as part of Irreversible Entanglements. All acts mesmerize in their own way, from Ill Considered’s party improv to virtuosic drummer Greg Fox defibrillating his album to life again, on stage and away from the throes of a flat recording. The quality on show more than justifies the trip here and sets the bar high for all else.
A few minutes east of TivoliVredenburg stands Janskerk, a Romanesque church built in the 11th Century that counts use as a barracks and library, as well as surviving a tornado among its near-millennium’s worth of anecdotes. It’s here that Le Guess Who?’s programming can really reach its potential, as the architecture lends itself to cultivating a respectful audience, phenomenal lighting and astonishing acoustics. The privilege of playing here is one of the greatest gifts the festival can surely offer to its artists and this isn’t lost on minimal mischief-maker Kate NV. Combining electronics with voice, mallets and objects such as glass, she navigates an avant and ’80s Japanese pop-influenced sound with clarity and playfulness well beyond the realms of, say, Visible Cloaks. Taking place away from the chaotic bustle of other venues, this would be one of few truly peaceful moments at the festival – along with other performances at Janskerk.
Listening to Vashti Bunyan is like exploring an archive, in that the act of listening to sounds so precious takes a careful, gentle touch. Her voice is brittle yet strong, rediscovering and feeling its way through old melodies and carrying a weight of experiences her accompanying guitarist is unburdened by. The singer-songwriter provides context and history for each piece. ‘Diamond Day’, she relates, materialized during a horse-and-carriage journey from London to the far reaches of Scotland. In her time spent doing a lot of nothing, she felt life should be simple and then the song came to her. Epiphanies are a common thread in her explanations, and it’s clear she sees herself as less of a writer and more of a vessel, relaying things passed to her in order to be passed to us; true to the essence of folk music, these songs belong to the people. Through bardic words of tale and verse she guides us back to the initial deliverance of song itself – otherworldly storytelling prowess that can’t necessarily be taught but should be cherished and celebrated. The standing ovation she receives at the end is rich with irrepressible emotion.
While Le Guess Who?’s focus tends to be on contemporary forms of music, it’s ultimately a festival of discovery and this concerns the past as much as it does the present. Vashti Bunyan’s songs from 1968 are far from the oldest to be performed in Janskerk, with Antwerp’s Graindelavoix ensemble presenting a four-hour piece from late Renaissance Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo. Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria is a collection of madrigals (secular vocal compositions) based on the Passion of Jesus dating back to 1611, known for its experimental characteristics at the time. The choir of nine performing this feat of endurance move along the middle strip of the church, stopping at lighted checkpoints to sing and switching between them as each movement passes. Wherever they stand, their voices resound naturally with the architecture to convey harmonies with a lucidity no electronic amplification could match. At 1am on a Saturday night, the church shields its visitors from flashing siren lights and unkind weather, and there’s a certain glory in seeing Janskerk finally used for the purpose it was built for.
Dance offerings are varied. Godfather of footwork RP Boo blows minds in his inimitable, ever-smiling style with an edit of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ while Philly noisemaker DJ Haram draws for limitless Rihanna remixes like never-ending handkerchiefs. She also joined Moor Mother to show off the bassy ebullience of 700 Bliss, the duo’s rap-noise-folk-club collaboration behind one of this year’s mightiest bangers, ‘Ring the Alarm’. Another torchbearer for breaking barriers between styles is LA’s Kelman Duran, known for twisting reggaeton and ambient together. He introduces a capellas to get lost in before applying the West Coast Customs treatment to the likes of ‘Bodak Yellow’ and ‘OG Bobby Johnson’. Snippets of dialogue on California living and politics ring out of the vacuum as his music distorts time. Duran succeeds where John Cage did not – he gets a party crowd slow-dancing to silence. The speakers in Utrecht’s clubs continue to be noticeably quieter than their UK counterparts, which perhaps unfortunately makes other qualities louder; at the canal club BASIS, Yves Tumor notes the overwhelming whiteness of the audience out loud.
The festival largely operates in the spheres of jazz and world music. Both of these industries concern artists of color, often inviting, exhibiting and exploiting black and brown musicians from across the globe in front of well-to-do white audiences. In uniting these acts for one long weekend, the festival is able to price tickets in a way that significantly reduces barriers to entry for these sectors specifically – which is fantastic. It’s important to platform many of these artists, yet the pertinent question remains: what does it mean to bring black and brown artists to these environments? The fortress of TivoliVredenburg is not impermeable to the implicit and explicit racism of white people (who are, of course, part of the target demographic), and it is the time of year where the blackface practices of Zwarte Piet begin to appear on the streets and in shop fronts. It is a similar story for many European festivals, from the UK and Netherlands to Germany and Poland: the curation and bookings can excel, visas permitting, but those marginalized must be championed in audiences too.
Le Guess Who? is attempting to address some of these issues through its recently-established satellite event, Lombok Festival: a free series of shows happening in a neighborhood just west of the city of Utrecht. Lombok and its streets take their names from Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, and its population consists largely of Moroccan and Turkish diaspora who run a busy network of businesses beneath the glow of the landmark neon-lit mosque. Tour guides from Utrecht refer to Lombok as “the first example of successful integration in the area” while the white middle class of the liberal city are caught between warning each other not to go to such a ‘dangerous’ place and moving in and gentrifying it. A trio perform Arab, Turkish and Western fusion folk inside of a mill to a nearly all-white crowd in the neighborhood – perhaps the afternoon timing means the locals are stuck between work and Friday prayer. Things liven up at dusk as the food stalls hit full swing and community spaces fill out with dozens of brown faces, greeting artists as friends and family while children perform folk dances in the streets. The oud and buzuk were played by international musicians in 2015, but this year Le Guess Who? chooses to celebrate talent of the same ilk on its own doorstep. Lombok Festival brings a few outsiders to the neighborhood and gives them a warm welcome – it’s important now for the main festival to welcome those living next door.
At Le Guess Who?, there is always more. Le Mini Who? – the day festival spin-off showcasing the Dutch underground band circuit at local digs – reaches its tenth year. A satellite series of film and art exhibitions and installations includes everything from a walking tour with Lonnie Holley to street poetry, discussions and documentaries, plus a sound commission from Lucrecia Dalt. Smart partnerships with the city’s galleries include BAK, where research agency Forensic Architecture reconstruct environments such as crime scenes to challenge unjust verdicts purported by powerful institutions. It all feeds into four days of sensory overload, fulfilling Le Guess Who?’s one enduring truth: there’s always something amazing just around the corner.
Tayyab Amin is a Leeds-based writer, promoter and DJ.