As one of the few festivals organised in a pandemic, Le Guess Who? ended up as a winner in these troubled times. Organisationally efficient, with a varied programme, and it positively disenchanted how a festival can be understood today.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska / Photos: Jakub Knera

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As soon as she steps onto the low stage, Madiha Abu Laila immediately starts singing. Her loud voice spreads through the Jacobikerk, a Protestant church whose origins date back to the 13th century. She is joined by other female vocalists, while the rhythm is dictated by the mazhar frame drum. This is where Mazaher took their name from – they are playing in Europe for the first time in 15 years. Madiha tries to get the audience to dance with her, but the men and women in the front rows are shy.

Maybe it’s because we don’t quite know what’s going on? On the second day of the Le Guess Who? festival, in the evening, the Dutch government introduces restrictions that will apply from the next day. Above all, however, we are witnessing zār, a ritual that combines polyrhythmic drumming and chanting. During such ceremonies, women in Egypt gather to reconcile the spirits and purge themselves of illnesses and ailments. Should I listen or dance? I’m not sure. One of the musicians provokes spontaneous applause when he begins to dance, rattling a belt made of shells. Polyphonic vocals thicken under the vault, the lyrics of subsequent songs are repeated like a mantra. Another musician reaches for the tambura, a kind of six-string lyre; as soon as he plays the rhythm, all shyness evaporates – it took a while, but finally everyone is dancing on the floor. It is impossible to sit still any longer. The Egyptian tradition, handed down from generation to generation, gains a new context at the Utrecht festival. Played and listened to as if there was no tomorrow, or maybe to chase away the pandemic uncertainty and the next wave of infections.

The story draws me in; during the last song, I dance wearing just a T-shirt, probably for the first time since the outbreak of Covid-19. I need a story at a concert. A musical story that will absorb me with its dramatic tension. Mazaher are my Le Guess Who? highlight – I am immersed in the raw nature of the show, its authenticity, but also in the physical dimension of the dance itself, which is a little bit like salvation at this point.

From the church I quickly walk to another one, six blocks away. In Janskerk, which was built even earlier, in 1040, I hear a story told by two young girls. The Spanish duo Tarta Relena do not immediately reach for the microphones, the acoustics of the church allowing their polyphonic vocalisations to carry even better. Marta Torrelli’s contralto and Helena Ros’s soprano resonate, complemented by ornaments in the form of synth passages or subtle beats. It is an expedition through time and space. They sing in Greek, Catalan, Spanish, Latin or Judeo-Spanish, Ladino. The mantric “Las Alamedas”, which explodes in the finale, is a 1926 poem by Federico García Lorca; “Nunc aperuit nobis” is based on the words of Hildegard of Bingen, while “Safo” is derived from the 7th century Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos. Tarta Relena sound like oracles from the past, but their gesticulation and loud voices give the lyrics a contemporary feel. The vocals are alternately lyrical and emotional, restrained and impulsive. A wonderful concert.

Loss and mourning – these are the key themes of Arooj Aftab’s story told on her album “Vulture Prince”. In Utrecht, she plays at the Grote Saal, a huge, amphitheatrical space on the ground floor of the TivoliVredenburg (more about the venue in a moment). She is accompanied by Maeve Gilchrist on harp and Petros Klampanis on double bass – they sound minimalist but lyrical. Their point of departure is Aftab’s album material about the loss and passing of her brother, but the Pakistani singer is also inspired by the work of Sufi poets. The lyrics are heavy, but the music is light, a feeling further strengthened by the subtle sound of the instruments. Aftab’s loud voice carries melancholy and sadness, but at the same time the music has its own pulse, drama, and a somewhat timeless quality.

Mari Kalkun’s concert is rooted in the story of a place. “I’m from Estonia, southern Estonia,” she emphasizes halfway through. A visit to the black hall of Theater Kikker, located right on one of the narrow canals, lined with pubs densely packed with people, is a trip outside the agglomeration, to the countryside, close to nature. Inside, everything is quiet and dark. The artist plays the piano or kannel, the Estonian variety of the Baltic zither. Her light folk songs lead us through the meanders of the North. An intriguing moment in her narrative is the “Mõtsavele mäng” (Estonian for: “The Game of the Forest Brothers”), that’s when her story gains a remarkable intimacy. The piece tells of the importance of the forest in the history of her homeland: it served as a hiding place during the war, but also during the recent pandemic. The lyrical story, sung to the accompaniment of just one instrument, sounds truly magical.

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Le Guess Who? is all about manoeuvring between different spaces. The festival centre is TivoliVredenburg, an architectural giant with five concert rooms spread over seven floors. It can hold over 5,000 people and reminds me a bit of Reykjavik’s Harpa, only cosier, with potential to strike a conversation at one of the tables or bars. If you have time between concerts, that is. When the festival was founded 14 years ago, the venue didn’t exist yet. Concerts were only held in local clubs, small theatres and churches. Now, apart from Tivoli, there are quite a few other venues – all relatively close to each other, but geography verifies the possibilities of what I want to see in the programme. There are musicians from all over the world, the organizers do not try to present hyped-up bands, but meticulously build the programme. Some names can only be found at this festival, nowhere else. The intimacy and broad representation of different genres brings to mind All Tomorrow’s Parties at the time-honoured Pontins Holiday Camp, when everyone was gathered in one place and the bands stood at arm’s length. The next few days I either spend entirely at Tivoli or running around the city.

“Beautiful cover, there’s fruit on it – rotten just like Brazil”, says Kiko Dinucci halfway through his concert at Janskerk. The Brazilian plays material from Rastilho, one of the most beautiful albums of 2020. The warm samba guitar sound carries an undercurrent of nervousness and anger at the world that is universally appealing, and clear not just in Dinucci’s his native country. The guitarist is accompanied by Juçara Marçal: her vocals give the music depth and character. They also perform songs by Metá Metá, a band they co-founded, and by the Brazilian singer Itamar Assumpção. The opening “Exu Odara” is moving, “Olodé” thrills with the power of two voices, and “Vamos explodir” sounds very poignant in the finale. The intense vibrant guitar parts are a moment I will remember for a long time, one of the highlights of the festival.

Just like the explosion of music from Phil Elverum, one of the curators of Le Guess Who? A year ago, he released “Microphones in 2020”, referring to the history of his band from two decades ago. Lasting three quarters of an hour, the album is a stream of memories, a musical diary that makes sense primarily for the group’s most ardent fans. In concert, it is played in its entirety, and Elverum is accompanied by Jay Blackinton on acoustic and electric guitar. I find it much more convincing live: this musical mantra, honest reflection on the passing of time, told live and not via the Internet, really carries a strong message. At one point Elverum reaches for the bass guitar, cutting the air with the fingerboard in a majestic gesture, resonating with a black-metal feel. He repeats this twice – an extraordinary moment, which seems flat on the recording, but is overpowering live.

Let’s stick to guitars for a bit. The acoustic guitar is also played by Sessa, author of the no less beautiful “Grandeza” from 2020. He delivers his lyrical take on tropicalia in the Hertz hall accompanied by a two-person female choir and a drummer. The atmospheric, folk songs have an aura of their own, but are not too sugary. Sessa can build tension but also reaches for psychedelia, like in the crescendo-based finale of “Tanto”.

In fact, I don’t really see any typical guitar concerts that would follow the classic bass-guitar-percussion-vocal format. However, given the multitude of artists, the festival experience is entirely customizable. When I look at photo reports from subsequent days, I really hope I’m at a different event – but that’s the whole charm and value of LGW. I’m glad that the line-up is not dominated by bands from the English-speaking realm and that the division between the centre and peripheries is pretty much non-existent. Etran de L’Aïr, who play at the Pandora Hall, hail from Northern Niger, along the likes of Bombino and Mdou Moctar. Their trance rhythm and blues melodies are one thing, but that evening I really feel the minimalism of the Agadez trio. The reduced guitar sound and trance drums sometimes remind me of Lotto or Nissenenmondai. The repetition draws you in, encouraging to dance in front of the stage.

Duma are a duo that transport me far beyond the orbit of guitar music. Their sound escapes categorization and is not easy to pigeonhole into a single genre: they play grindcore; the industrial, broken walls of noise in the darkness of the hall are a great basis for Martin Khanj’s squeaky growling. This is a very original concert in terms of sound, but also a bit theatrical in form. No less peculiar, but also withdrawn is the performance of Klein, who premières her new material. Behind the barriers, as if she were at a demonstration, she creates an electronic layer, interlaced with the sound of guitars and bass in clouds of smoke. The audiovisual narrative worked like a film, but not a very thrilling one. The artist reaches for the phone more than once herself, as if she was bored. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I just can’t get into it. I am similarly indifferent to Ana Roxanne, who is too static on the huge stage of the Stadsschouwburg theatre, and to Arushi Jain, who weaves her synthesizer passages around Indian ragas. On the other hand, I am really taken by Julián Mayorga and his cumbia-based dance party. It’s more club-like than the work of Eblis Alvarez’s bands, who has already made a name for themselves in this field. In the narrow hall of the ECCO club, the Colombian sings a samba about murderers or a song about chickens (“but not the real kind”, he says from the stage). Absurd is mixed with interesting melodies, Colombian tradition with a club vibe.

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Le Guess Who? is a meticulously planned event, but the new Covid restrictions add some improvisation to the logistics. At 7 pm on Friday the Dutch government announces a partial lockdown effective from… Saturday, 6pm. The organizers quickly react and rearrange the remaining two days to fit the requirements. On Sunday, concerts can be listened to until 9 pm, but only when seated. Unfortunately, some bands will not play, but this balancing act still commands respect. It’s great that the 14th edition of LGW will make it to the end.

There are a few concerts that are the result of improvisation and spontaneity. Like Irreversible Entanglements at the Ronda hall. The band, which formed for a street protest, has just released their third album. They sound powerful and coherent on stage, they don’t recreate songs, but retell their musical and social narrative. They rely on free music and mutual listening, dense grooves and frivolous brass passages, the symbiosis between Keir Neuringer and Aquiles Navarro. The latter, in particular, is brilliant on the trumpet, delivering amazing parts and building the colour of the band’s music. Luke Stewart leads the bass lines, Tcheser Holmes unleashes cascades on the drums, and in front of them stands Camae Ayewa, known from Moor Mother, who tells a story about today’s reality. She is like a preacher shouting subsequent slogans and sentences at the audience. The musical mosaic explodes, the quintet plays as if expressing their disagreement with the status quo. They are in top form.

The improvisation for saxophone and violin, delivered by Matana Roberts, curator of some of the programme, and Jessica Moss, does not necessarily go down well. It’s quite chaotic, with no clear direction; it feels more like testing the ground than developing a common concept. Alabaster DePlume, the festival’s resident, also starts with improvisation, as he plays three unexpected concerts on the last day to compensate for cuts in the line-up. In Stadsklooster, the third festival church, on the west side of the station, he weaves his seductive melodies on saxophone, interspersed with preachy lyrics. “Tell me, what are we trying to achieve?” he asks, partly himself, partly the audience. The whole thing is rather charming, and when he plays the saxophone, he does so as if he were smoking a pipe. He is accompanied by Chris Williams on trumpet, but the magical aura of this performance is created by Donna Thompson, whose voice – amplified by effects – grows and carries around the room. A unique, almost religious experience.

The last concert of the festival I want to see are Osees. I arrive late, and the queue to get in doesn’t move too quickly. The audience is limited, as due to restrictions there are only seats in the auditorium, which can take a maximum of 1,250 people. In the queue, I meet Loes and Fabian, residents of Utrecht who have been to the festival for the umpteenth time. They tell me about the city, about how the event has changed, we take turns buying rounds of beer. At one point, the security informs us that no more people will be allowed in. We are sorry, but nothing is lost – we go for a beer, to share our impressions of the last four days. Finally, after days of running non-stop, it’s time for a break and a mental summary. Efficient organization, a sense of security (only Covid passport holders can enter the event), and an eclectic programme that brings together a mix of original artists that are often overlooked in the music media. Above all, though, Le Guess Who? reminded me that a well-arranged music festival – a format I’ve managed to distance myself from over the past few years – can still be powerful. And tell a fascinating story – not only about music, but also about the world today.

As one of the few festivals organised in a pandemic, Le Guess Who? ends up a winner in these troubled times. Organisationally efficient, with a varied programme, and it positively disenchants how a festival can be understood today.

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