Punkt 2012: Kristiansand, Norway, September 6-8, 2012
Before Malian guitarist Guimba Kouyaté took the main theater stage for the last performance of Punkt 2012, Fiona Talkington came onstage (complete with unexpected and artificially reddened trousers, thanks to some surgically precise lighting by the ever- mischievous Tord Knutsen) to do her usual (but never perfunctory) round of thanksto the festival volunteers; to, in this case, Brian Eno; to the sound and lighting engineers; and, perhaps most importantly, to the audience, which truly makes Punkt a special place that encourages people to return year after year, even from distant places like Canada, the United States, Germany, England, Italy and Estonia. A festival like this could only happen in a town like Kristiansand, and beyond the international attendees, there's local and regional supportmoral and financialthat's particularly significant for a festival as left-of-center as Punkt.
But, as ever, special thanks were due to Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, without whom Punkt would never have come to be, and could not continue to take place. The two Artistic Directors always receive a healthy round of applause, but what happened in Kilden was unprecedented: a spontaneous, instantaneous standing ovation that went on for a long, long time. Too bad Bang was in the Green Room and Honoré somewhere else, entering the hall just seconds after everyone had taken their seats; still, with much of the festival being filmed this year, there'll be some footage they can view afterwards, in order to see just how much their ongoing work is appreciated.
Eno first saw Kouyaté in a London club backing up the guitarist's mother, a more famous Malian singer. The guitarist played a brief solo spot which so captivated Eno that, when he was putting together the program for Punkt, as the story goes, he reached out to Kouyaté, asking him to perform. Humble as ever, the guitarist thought Eno meant he wanted his mother to appear, and when it became clear he wanted otherwise, he put together his first group, for its first-ever gig. While there might have been better, more seasoned acts to bring from the West African country, Kouyaté delivered a performance heavy on groove, entertainment, and some undeniably fine guitar fireworks. Playing a nylon-string electricfed through wah wah pedal and distortion at timesas well as the four-string Djele N'Goni and, for one tune, talking drum, Kouyaté's music was easy on the ears and eminently danceable; at one point, with much of the audience on its feet, even the generally reserved Eno could be seen clapping his hands and swaying to Kouyaté's propulsive rhythms.
And it was a show, though his balafonist/percussionist's call-and-response first with Kouyaté and then the audiencewas terrific the first time but a little worn the second go 'round. But these are things Kouyaté will, no doubt, hone over time, if the groupwhich also featured an electric bassist (the son, apparently, of well-known bassist Etienne M'Bappe, currently a member of guitarist John McLaughlin's Fourth Dimension), kit drummer and keyboardist/flautistgets the chance to stay together and put a few more gigs under its belt. Clearly Kouyaté has something special to offer, but he needs a little more time to find out how to best deliver it. In the meantime, he still managed to captivate the Punkt audienceand, if his show proved anything, it was that this year's festival stretched its stylistic purview further than ever before. If Bang and Honoré can carry some of that forward into Punkt 2013, then the festival's continued growth and evolution will be more than safely assured.
And so, another year, another Punkt. Three days after it began, there were a number of conclusions. Eno's curation may have been a mixed bag, but of his nine main theater shows, five were exceptional, two were plenty fine, and only two were, perhaps, less than successful. The live remixes were equally inconsistent, and could have used the touch of additional musicians thrown in to the mix. And if there were any fears that Punkt's move to the Kilden Performing Arts Centre would compromise its intimacy, they were allayed quickly in the larger but still somehow warm and comfy main hall, while the Alfaroom, despite being in need of some adjustments, still managed to work fine as well.
The importance of Kristiansand cannot be overstated in the success of any year's Punkt festival. Punkt has become a moveable feast that can be taken anywhere but, as good as its occasional road trips have been, there's something special about its annual home base edition. With roughly 80,000 people in the area, Kristiansand is not a big place, but it has the cultural awareness of a much larger citythe building of Kilden, and the municipality's Kultivaa funding program for the arts that would be unheard of in a large North American city, let alone a town that, across the ocean, might be lucky to have a cinema- -being two significant examples. That Punkt has managed to engage local sponsors to the extent it has only speaks to awareness, amongst the town's population, of the importance of the arts in the daily fabric of life; quite simply, the degree of support that this experimental festival garners speaks volumes about the town itself.
As the days begin to get shorter in Norway and the weather turns a little cooler, this picturesque town at the southernmost tip of Norway is a particularly beautiful place to hold a festival like Punkt. Where, exactly, the festival will go next year is anybody's guess; but despite the somewhat mixed nature of this year's edition, it cannot be considered anything but a success.
All Photos: John Kelman