OFFest, Skopje, Macedonia, June 1-6, 2013
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.