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

OFFest, Skopje, Macedonia, June 1-6, 2013
Nenad Georgievski By

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OFFest
Skopje, Macedonia
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 music—from 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 barren—after 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 lies—these 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.

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