OFFest, Skopje, Macedonia, June 1-6, 2013
June 1-6, 2013
Now in its 12th year, the younger sister of the Skopje Jazz Festival has been presenting a more contemporary or 21st century type of world music, where the music is a result of an accelerating fusion, a combination of local traditions with ideas and technologies from afar. It is even more than that, its umbrella has become a destination or a gathering point for a variety of forward-thinking musicians across the entire spectrum of musicfrom pop musician David Byrne to desert blues rockers like Tamikrest or Terakaft; from Portuguese film composer Rodrigo Leao to indie rockers Spiritualized; and from trip hop artists Massive Attack to the Corsican a cappella group, A Filleta.
There is no point in separating the Skopje Jazz festival and OFFest, as they are done by the same creative team. Both festivals give a unique view of how musicians work today, and one thing is for sure: not many are purists. Many of the today's musics are hybrids that have grown durable enough to feel like traditions of their own and Offest tastefully presents global musical movements as they occur and evolve. Just like previous years, for a period of a single week it seemed that the world was fused for several days at Skopje. OFFest featured 9 acts from 4 continents. At a time when the charts and the various media are dominated by fast-food music and glossy pop hits, this festival has once again affirmed the creativity and diversity of the global music scene.
Day One: Anoushka Shankar
East is East and West is West, but sometimes these two do meet. The merging of the Orient and the Occident is a direct product of the technology of recordings and jet-age travel. Depending on whom one talks to, the results are usually labeled as "World Music," "Fourth World Music," "Earth Music" or a number of other similar terms. One of the most successful merging of cultures musically has been sitar player Anoushka Shankar's record Traveller (Deutcsche Grammophon, 2011), where she traced the roots of Flamenco music back to Rajasthani gypsies or where classical Indian raga meets flamenco music.
While these two traditions are historically linked together, as Indian music and flamenco share common roots, still they are geographically two distinct cultures. In order to bring instruments and musical traditions together, it is natural, whether in a studio or a live setting, to look for common ground with a present danger of watering down musical traditions. Both of these traditions are very technically demanding and when blending two cultures, in order for the music to work they should rely on mutual understanding, empathy and enthusiasm.
All those elements and more came together in the program that opened this year's Offest. This event at the Universal Hall in Skopje turned into a contagious, boundary-breaking music. Just a wave from the charismatic Shankar to set the tone, and the group of five diverse and prodigiously talented musicians consisting of flamenco guitarist Daniel "El Melon" Jimenez, Shehnai & tanpura player Sanjeev Shankar, percussionists Pirashanna Thevarajah and Bernhard "Taalis" Schimpelsberger, and flamenco vocalist Sandra Carrasco, dug into their first offerings with tracks such as "Bhairavi," "Inside Me," "Ishq," "Si No Puedo Verla."
In the beginning, Shankar let the music speak for itself, but later on she began introducing the compositions and their backgrounds, or chatted joyously with the audience. In fact, all evening Shankar and her band seemed in warm, high spirits. She appeared to enjoy every moment of the performance, and displayed more than a few flashes of the brilliance along the way that have made her one of today's best representatives of her respective instrument and her genre.
This blending of musics was done in a very proficient and sympathetic way where a casual listener could wallow in the superb musicianship without being overly troubled by who did what, and where in the world these sounds came from. In lesser hands, this music would seem like gimmicky overkill. Yet, Anoushka Shankar remains the most acute and subtle musical colorist of the day. As is obvious, the essence of this project is sharing, and this is something these musicians do exceptionally well. While Shankar was at the center of the stage, both musically and metaphorically, the resulting music was an equal contribution of all members. The compositions could be compared to clouds taking shape and always changing. It would start slowly, with the sitarist introducing the scale and gradually bringing in the melody and then they would turn into more dynamic creations, with fiery dialogues between the sitar and the percussionists or the guitar.
All of the individual elements of the band seemed skillfully combined in order to create something that is at the same time traditional and adventurously novel. After a brief intermission, the ensemble turned to pieces in which the group showed its improvisational prowess further on tunes such as "Lola's Lullaby," "Boy Meets Girl/Monsoon/Granaina," "Kanya," "Buleria," "Traveller" and "Jog (Chasing Shadows!)."
It was obvious that two worlds came together that night at the Universal Hall in Skopje, with many climaxes that delighted the people in attendance. It was one of those performances where one was not aware of time passing by while being sucked into the moment of brilliance. It was utterly brilliant with the musicians putting absolutely everything into compositions written to the highest levels of melodic and rhythmic ingenuity.
Day Two: Bioscopia and Taksim Trio
For the second evening the festival moved from the Universal Hall to the smaller MOB and it hosted two stylistically opposed bands. The band Bioscopia, consisting of composer Goran Trajkovski and Baklava's singer Elena Hristiova, and supported by a small group of musicians on strings, guitar and bass/ sampler. Naturally, because of the project's nature, it evoked comparisons with stylistically similar and better known group Dead can Dance.
Trajkovski, the lead singer of the now disbanded but still popular band Anastasia, has been doing a string of one-off musical projects ever since, but mostly has been active as a composer of theatre music. As a project, Bioscopia features Macedonian folk songs of different backgrounds, but because of the mournful moods prevailing, all of them sound like laments that were given a different cinematic glow.
Trajkovski's taste for electronic music of varying kinds here dealt with fragments, which were looped for the purpose of creating a tapestry of sounds and beats, and with the help of the players it created a hypnotic and darkish aesthetic on which Hristova's vocals floated. Both on the record and live, this project better suits Hristova's vocals than her own band Baklava. Evocative by nature, the prevailing tranquil and foreboding moods often sounded like a dark forest or a windswept plane.
But the songs' moods and tempos didn't seem to change and the overall feeling was monotonous, repetitive, flat and barrenafter awhile what had began as interesting and variously approached sound sculptures, just seemed like a one long song that went on and on without even noticing that a new song had even started. The same project had a different dynamic and impact when it was first premiered live during the closing ceremony for MOT (The Youth Open Theatre) at MKC in 2012.
Taksim Trio consists of truly some of the greatest Turkish musicians whose reputation looms large far from their native country. The music was in total contrast to the first concert of the night. With just clarinet, baglam and canoun, these three virtuosos were a constant source of wonderment. Taksim is the Turkish word for improvisation and improvising they did. All of them were scarily virtuosic with one flashy solo after another, and the sparkling interplay between them was almost telepathic.
The band has no leader in a classical sense and that is where its beauty liesthese are three equally accomplished musicians and writers with their own contrasting and equally complimentary voices where everybody contributes to the realization of the whole. It was really a treat to see musicians so self assured of their abilities and with no hesitation to show that their reputation was no vanity.
The musicians had no problem with connecting with the audience in attendance either musically or verbally. In the crowded hall there were people either from the Turkish embassy or the Turkish minority from the neighborhood, and the musicians were addressing the people in Turkish. Taksim is also the name of the square in Istanbul, Turkey, which is also the centre of the current major riots that have been happening there, and by the middle of the concert they had brought a transparent message of "Please support us."
This concert not only was a premiere of the band but it was also a premiere to the long awaited second album Taksim Trio 2 (Dokuz Sekiz Müzik, 2013). The simultaneously feverish and sublime interactions of the performers clearly cemented their reputation as a hot live band. Taksim Trio was mercilessly excellent all throughout. Definitely another highlight.
Day Three: Brina
Brina is a fine Slovenian group named after its leader, singer Brina Vogelnik with as many as three albums behind it and a different approach towards Slovenian traditional music. Far from being a traditional singer or approaching the music in a strictly traditional way, Vogelnik has carved new paths by adapting or completely rewriting lyrics or melodies to fit her own style, mixing pop and jazz. Apart from that, she has also introduced her own songs into the repertoire that blended perfectly with existing folk material. Armed with elegant and distinct movements on stage and her gentle and characteristic singing, she delivered a simple but nice set of songs. Between the tunes she would introduce them and kindly address the audience. The band did a beautiful job of performing these pop songs with catchy melodies that convey distinct folkish charm.
The concert took place at Frosina cinema at the Youth Cultural Centre, where earlier the Soundbreaker was screened, a documentary about the Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen done as a collaboration between OFFest and Makedoks, a documentaries film festival. The inclusion of the documentary was a great addition to the overall festival vibe. The same evening, DJ Quantic had a very dynamic DJ set at a downtown club Menada, drawing large crowds and local DJs. It was so good and colorful, and it lasted until dawn.
Day Four: Aziz Samahoui with the University of Gnawa, Ondatropica
Each night started with a group from different country or a different continent, or both, and this evening introduced two geographically separated but emotionally and historically linked musics, the Moroccan gnawa and the Colombian cumbia.
While on previous evenings the program introduced artists with music that was dance music both for the mind and the emotionsbut still music for listeningthe fourth night promised to be a groovy dance night for the body. The music of the Moroccan Aziz Samahoui and the University of Gnawa, as the name of the band suggests, is based on the gnawa music, which historically was made by descendants of slaves brought north from what is now Mali. These slaves held on to rituals that praised saints and spirits through the songs and dances with characteristically ecstatic rhythms and trance possessions they brought back with them far from their homes. Backed by an adventurous and very able band with musicians from Senegal, Samahoui broadened the gnawa music by introducing all kinds of elements into its dazzling mix.
There were no quiet introductory intros or throwaway first songs with this band. From the very start it stormed the concert hall with funky bass lines buoyed and driven by ecstatic and galvanizing grooves, while Maleem Aziz Samahoui played gimbri or a lute and sang. Actually, Samahoui was for several years part of the Joe Zawinul Syndicate where he played these same instruments. The musicians or "the students" from University of Gnawa, were utterly brilliant and steady as a rock band. All of the songs sounded differentthere were different dynamics, as not all of them were firecrackers but carefully arranged songs. The pace would have been relentless if it wasn't so joyous. Most of them were driven by the riffs on the gimbri by the leader and accelerated by the kinetic power of the polyrhythms and the infectious and catchy, almost popish, melodies.
And the audience was on its feet, driven by the band's energy and charisma. Driven by the reception of his music Samahoui was clearly enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm was contagious. As the performance showed, he was also part shaman, leading the audience in a joyous invocation, a shared celebration of living. That the band appeared to be having as much fun as the audience only made it better. A very memorable concert.
The electricity coursing from the Aziz Sahoudini's performance continued when Ondatropica hit the stage with propulsive and swinging beats. Ondatropica is a project conceived by Mario Galeano and producer Will Holland, better known as Quantic, and its aim is reinterpretation of Colombia's tropical musical heritage. For that purpose they assembled a group where neither the age was limited nor the plethora of styles to choose from. The band's music mixes such styles with ease from cumbia dance music, porro, merecumbé to salsa or Afro Caribbean rhythms mixed with ska, funk and hip hop .
Dressed in turquoise garments Ondatropica looked like they had come from outer space. Moments after trooping onstage, the band revved up and kept an infectious, syncopated grooves going for the rest of the evening. Feeding off the crowd's energy, Quantic and his band upped the ante and fed it right back to the dance floor and the fun was contagious. The band swelled to as many as eight members on stage at once, including percussion, timbales, trumpet, saxophone, bass, accordion, two singers. Needless to say, the band was rhythmic and very brassy, yet nuanced and soulful.
Day Five: Tori Ensemble and Kimmo Pohjonen
Tori Ensemble is a second group from Korea that had performed at the festival beside Noreum Machi in 2011, but the sounds and dynamics of these two groups were poles apart. The Ensemble consisted of Heo Yoon- Jung (geomun-go), Kang Min Su (vocal, percussions), Min Young-Chi (daegum, janggu), Lee Suk-Joo (piri), all traditional musicians who began experimenting by combining Korea's rich pool of musical styles in order to create something contemporary while remaining in their own musical language. That is what the word "Tori" means, various ways that a single musical tradition can be interpreted in different regions of Korea.
Dressed in traditional garments, the Ensemble played music that was on the verge of silence and sound effects. As such it demanded full attention to every note or sound. The repertoire, as announced, consisted of shamanistic rituals, heard through the delicate percussion and drumming, as well as royal court music and folk music. There was quiet beauty and simplicity in this music. Very minimalistic and calming.
The ending of the festival was reserved for a more unusual and dynamic accordionist, Kimmo Pohjonen. It is not a crime to admit that Pohjonen's concert (with his axe man Samuli Kosminen) at the Skopje jazz Festival 2002 was a revelation and one of the best received performances that is still talked about to this day, so in a way this was sort of a homecoming.
The accordion, as an instrument, doesn't have the appeal of the electric guitar or the prestige of the grand piano, but in the hands of someone like Kimmo Pohjonen, all of that has been changing for the better. Pohjonen is a master sound architect and one of the original sonic stylists of the 21st century who has carved out an impressive career through verve, talent and imagination. Half samurai in appearance, half rock starbecause of his Mohawk haircutPohjonen has the unquestionable ability to engage the audience in what he does. Extroverted and communicative by nature, he conversed with the audience in recalling his past performance from 11 years ago, and revealed that he still carries antiques with him wherever he travels that were bought in Skopje.
But nothing quite prepares one for the beast that his aural creations are. This is music of many layers and various resonances, all played and triggered by his interactive experimental music squeezebox that many people would recognize as an accordion. As a master improviser, he taps into a brash mixture of energy and humor that allows him to toy and fiddle with any sound and unexpectedly build from a scratch. Pohjonen was tirelessly inventive in building his creations which relied on equal doses of risk and imagination. By improvising on his accordion he would chuckle, cluck or screech, creating loops in real time, and then would overlay the sounds from the accordion that would expand into enormous orchestral grandeur or a gently ambient or folkish piece.
Before moving on to the next stage with one of the projects he is touring with, the Earth Machine Music, he introduced the project briefly and described how it is usually performedthere would be heavy machinery on stage, like a tractor on which he would put microphones and cameras, and the audience would witness the whole thing. While a tractor is almost impossible to bring on stage at MOB, the organizers should have brought a second-best solution and given the man a motocultivator to toy with on stage. This time the accordion was linked to the moving pictures on the enormous movie screen in the background, and the sounds triggered various machinery parts on the screen with perfect sync.
Regardless of his gear and pedals, not for a second did it sound mechanical or artificial, but quite lively and expressive. What really drives Pohjonen is both passion for music and unstoppable curiosity. No matter how unorthodox are the methods, he achieves what he sets out to do. The music did not really rely on gimmicks to make an impression, but on intriguing and unexpected buildups of sonic creations augmented by sound and lightning on part of Heikki Savolainen and Antti Kuivalainen, people that he introduced as part of his band. As was evident, showmanship, among other things, seems to come naturally to Kimmo Pohjonen. As a virtuoso accordionist, an expansive improviser and above all, an inveterate searcher, he really knows how to bring human scale and feeling to a spectacle like this.
With its reach, far and wide, Offest is a celebration of contemporary culture. Just like its elder sister The Skopje Jazz festival, it is a distinct creation that has a far reaching cultural impact that goes far beyond the mere entertainment category. Stylistically, with two performances per night it is an intriguingly arranged set of complementary or contrasting styles. But more than that, it is a place that introduces new and great acts shoulder to shoulder with well known and established acts.
Again, the old image of world music coming from pure local styles that stemmed out of the map places has given way to a more worldly, connected type of music, where the artists consciously decide what to put into the mix. At OFFest, cultures quickly mingle and the world grows smaller and even more tangled.
All Photos: Tatjana Rantasha