2. Aesthetic Spectacularity
Les Filles De Illighadad
The festival began the day before, Friday, July]7, 2017, in the beautiful and big Uranus Garden, with Massicot, an all-girl Swiss quartet with a no-wave early-Boredoms vibe and ska-level energy. I immediately gravitated to the front of the stage and danced like my soul depended on it. (Little did I know, I had a lot of dancing to do over the next three days.) The singer Mara Krastina played a tiny, red electric bass with three strings; the way she plays is charming and devastating. Their rhythms seem inspired by MC Escher staircases, like tying This Heat, Wire, and The Ex together with a film noir soundtrack. The overall effect is so focused and immediate that I thought about a four-star restaurant making exceptionally good chicken nuggets.
The Hamburg-based electronics and drums duo Circuit Diagram appeared next, joined by the Turkish/ German saz virtuoso Derya Yildirim. Unfortunately this set was marred by some sound difficulties as Yildirim’s saz was appearing and disappearing from the mix. Even more unfortunately, they sounded fucking amazing when all three were audible: super-psychedelic wah-wah saz, with all the wild overtones that instrument can produce, in combination with funky rolling drum patterns and thick synth beeps and loops that constantly evolved. Yildirim was visibly disappointed, rightly so, but the music they hinted at was so soaringly gorgeous it filled my mind with imaginings of magical potentials. They also set the tone for a lot of the bands that appeared later in the festival - combining traditional instruments or forms with the freshest of perspectives and the grooviest of results.
When I started looking into the bands that were about to play at this festival, I started in the order of the program. After I got to Les Filles de Illighadad, I stopped. I was absolutely blown away by a video I found of the quartet of three Nigerian women and one man. The singing and the percussion were so unusual for me I was stunned. I didn’t need or want to know anything else about the bands I would see. Live, I didn’t even need to be close to the stage; Les Filles de Illighadad induced a trance-like acceptance of all things via voice and rhythm. I felt cleansed listening to them; anything vile or bitter can’t exist in the same space as their music. They played for forty-five minutes and I wondered about what their performances were like in their native Niger, because it seemed to me like the kind of thing I would want to hear for four hours straight, going deeper and deeper into the undulating rhythms and the sharp yet blended tonalities of their ensemble singing.
It may sound like I’m having revelations left and right, because I am, but the biggest revelation of the entire festival for me was the discovery of manele, an entire genre of Romanian music that combines midi-controlled instruments with beats and singing. A short history, as I understand it, is that traditional Arabic, Turkish, Serbian and other folk songs from the region–the kind of stuff that would be sung at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations–underwent a radical change when electronics, and specifically midi-based electronics, were introduced in the 1980s. Instead of needing a large ensemble for all the sounds, you could condense the band and still get the good gigs. The music adapted to a combination of raw folk song and free-wheeling digital harmonics. My first exposure to this music was Shamanelism, a band made up of midi-controlled clarinet, midi-controlled electric violin, drums, bass guitar, two keyboard synths, and a coterie of flutes. Even if your feet hurt, as mine did, you had to dance to the music to be able to hear it. I had never heard anything like it - part pop schmaltz, part folk music, part experimental electronica, plus grandiloquent MCing, so badass.
The festivities wrapped up at the Uranus Garden and we walked over to the Ark for the late-night sets. I spent the first couple hours hanging out with friends and talking so didn’t experience much of the DJ sets by Seltene Erden and Doug Shipton, but I made my way to the front of the stage for Italy’s BABAU, a young duo focused on making a combo of synths and traditional instruments seem like a seamless, timeless, cosmic mindfuck. They were also joined by a drummer for this set and it was groovy, droney, spacey, and––because of the old wooden flute with a tweaked sonority––incredibly earthy and fire-laden. The music implied tales of inexplicable activities told around a fire, fitting for a band named after the Boogeyman. It made me think that in fifteen or twenty years this kind of music could be dominant: real history, real traditional instruments, real emotion, real abstraction, a real conjuring of possibility out of the ether, and appropriately spooky for such an activity. And you can dance to it!
Istanbul’s iNSANLAR was next, a band featuring small hand percussion, deep bass, baglama and vocals. The psychedelic side of the baglama was again in effect, this time with a huge, rumbling bass sound that only subwoofers can provide. By this time the pattern of combining traditional instruments and modern styles of multiple genres into one cohesive ensemble was undeniable, and while the pattern was proving consistent, the results were so radically distinctive and authentic to each band’s sound that I firmly realized I was standing in the future. iNSANLAR was high energy, with soul-piercingly tragic, broken vocals and the deftest percussive touch, all emphasized by an undercurrent of throbbing dance music that somehow highlighted the soulfulness of the acoustic instruments. On paper, this kind of thing shouldn’t work, but the radicality pushes so hard against the edge of reason and expectation that aesthetic spectacularity reigns.