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Three Songs No Flash

In Search Of Hyggelig: Copenhagen's Trailerpark Festival & Christiania
Chris Roberts , August 4th, 2011 13:04

Chris Roberts attends a mostly-rave festival in Copenhagen in search of "hyggelig" and finds people spinning in the sky, drunk acrobats, Peaches singing ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’, a hippie paradise and daredevil cyclists.

AS the Danish writer/philosopher and godfather of existentialism Soren Kierkegaard wrote in Diary Of A Seducer (1843), "I cannot conceal from myself, can scarcely master, the anxiety which grips me at this moment." I seem to be at a modestly-scaled rave festival in Copenhagen where the "acts" are mostly DJs with names like DJ Noize and DJ Lab and TP Crew and "things really get going around 3, maybe 4 a.m." To find out which DJ is which I have to look at a poster taped to the wall of the portaloos beside a concrete sk8ter-boi park, and even when I know which is which, I don't. The average age of the audience is twelve (possibly I exaggerate a fraction, through grumpiness) and they are very much up for it.

I'm in a corner trying to look like I work here and studying a map of the town centre to see how I get back to the hotel without crossing the depressingly skanky red light district. The concierge's recommended thirty-minute route to Trailerpark sent this naive idiot tourist through the heart of it, alone, defenceless, and, gentle reader, it was terrifying. So many profoundly unhappy women in one's face asking if one wants "good time"; so few of them intent on discussing ‘Either/Or' or ‘Fear And Trembling' or now-forgotten early-90s Copenhagen band The Poets. Downing a strong coffee to regroup when at a safe distance proved to be a mistake. Downing a strong coffee here is like mainlining amphetamines, and one's nerves are thus rattled till they jangle. The coffee here begrudges the fact that it has to have liquid in it, is electrified, and would raise the Titanic. It would have the Titanic beating its chest and claiming it was a spaceship heading for Jupiter and unknown galaxies beyond. Friday is fretful. I just thought I'd have my nice little occasional free trip from The Quietus and then I'd write a nice little thing where I meander off on my own a lot like a peripatetic freak and make irrelevant, ill-informed observations and everyone would be happy, but this is almost like working. This is not Thumbelina. This is not The Princess And The Pea. This might be The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

By Saturday I am a little more acclimatised to Copenhagen and beginning to get a sense of perspective. The Danes are very friendly. Trailerpark is a small four-day festival, been going a few years, attended by 2,000-3,000 people a night, and centred around all things clubby – graffiti, art co-ops, skater and surfer wear. A few bands infiltrate, mostly on Sunday, which is far and away the most enjoyable day and night, not least because the weather shifts from English grey to Barbados bright. You or I have actually heard of some of these bands, which is a relief. I won't even pretend to judge the many, many, Danish DJs, although I do know genre expert Mary Anne Hobbs rates the UK's Blawan, who headlines Saturday (at 3 a.m.) Americans Yacht played Thursday, and Darkness Falls were on the poster somewhere.

There's a main stage with a backdrop of pulsing semi-circles which are moved by a man putting his arms through holes in a box at the back of the hall. "It's like a Wii!" he says, and lets me have a go. The Rebel stage is a skateboard bowl: it actually is one, I'm not whining. And the Outdoor stage is a small canopy over a bar. On arrival I'm given a site tour by the helpful Kristoffer Rom: he also serves as drummer for Danish quintet Oh No Ono, who were once Grammy-nominated for best packaging and sleeve art. As well as the three stages there is a fire engine selling energy drink Burn, a polythene aeroplane which people sit on and rip up and sometimes try to set light to, and a few trailers. In one reside the Mobile Missionaries, who every few hours perform a show. They're a faux-hillbilly troupe of acrobats whose best trick is they pretend to be regular drunk, stoned, punters, swinging vodka bottles, slurring their announcements, barely able to walk. Thus when they hurl themselves across the air, triple axel, and are caught by an equally fake-trashed colleague, you're genuinely impressed. I think they might be the irreverent and iconoclastic New Wave of acrobat troupes.

More interesting as Saturday is, it still features nobody who's a household name outside their household, although veteran Italian Alexander Robotnick, who went on long after my bedtime, is much-praised the next day. I spend most of my free time, having now grasped the potential of the map, exploring the city.

Copenhagen isn't the Hans Christian Anderssen fairytale-land it's sometimes sold as. You won't see one little mermaid sliding down the street. Everyone I talk to there dismisses hippy-commune free-state Christiania and says it's tatty and overrated so I don't bother with it at first. (Then the next day I do, about which more later). What you will see on a normal walk is: a crowded, busy, humid place, not as clean as advertised (a sad nine-or-ten-year-old girl pushes a shopping trolley, rummaging through bins), where you have to make an effort to find the pretty old architecture. This I do, in search of "hyggelig" (an important Danish phrase which roughly translates as "a sense of well-being, warmth, cosiness"). Peel away from the main tracks and there are plenty of dinky-turreted, yellow-wash houses and winding canals. If you follow the harbour round to Nyhavn, you stumble upon the view that's on most postcards, and, though it's a poor man's Venice or a miniature Amsterdam, it's not disappointing. Every single street busker, one after another, whether on violin or accordion, is playing ‘La Vie En Rose', which is surely French, and for a moment I'm worried that Piaf has died again or something. It's a novelty to find a street pianist playing Bad Company's ‘Ready For Love'.

Then there are the Tivoli Gardens, a 170-year old funfair-pleasure-park whose rides spin shrieking visitors high, high up in the sky, then twirl them down again. As you traverse the city you're always catching glimpses of tiny silhouettes of people spinning around up in the sky far away. From my hotel window I see the same, only behind glass I can't hear them scream. Still they spin in the sky, day and night, these tiny silhouettes of people. They're there before I go to sleep; they're there when I wake up. It's like an arthouse movie.

Along with gleaming yellow buses and shop signs that say "Hell No, We're Closed", mostly what you'll notice in Copenhagen is beautiful women on bicycles. An endless stream of perfectly-cheekboned Scandinavian females glide by as you walk along the pavement, their hair streaming in the breeze. Perhaps their pedalling powers the national grid. Endlessly, they glide by. They never speak but they glide contentedly by forever. It's like an even better arthouse movie.

Sunday is a scorcher and suddenly Copenhagen tosses its sulk away and reveals its strong suits. Passing Soren Kierkegaard Plads, I cross the Knippelsbro Bridge to Christianshavn, scenic enough in its own right, with boats carrying opera-singing actors and sun bouncing off cobblestones and a sign saying Spider Museum (there's never enough time when you're bunking off) and soon, in search of Christiania, I realise I'm in it. By following some local alternative types at a wary distance I've crossed a Rubicon and avoided the usual entrance. Later I leave through that, and yes, ok, you can understand why some consider it a rougher Camden Lock. But wander into Christiania half-accidentally, land up smack in the behind of it with few visitors and no postcard-sellers, and it may just be one of the last places in Europe with a lick of unworldly magic.

Christiania is an independently-run "free state", home to just over 1,000 people, a one-kilometre long waterfront hippie "city within a city". A group of the young and homeless colonized disused military barracks in 1971, and over the next decades it became a cause celebre. Its future "hangs in the balance" under the current government. Sure, the sunshine helps, but now I'm wandering through corkscrewing mud-lanes and tiny cottages with story-book gardens and highly eccentric personalities. It's Oz, or El Dorado, or maybe Trumpton. Individualised signs range from "Tantra!" and "100 Dancers This Way" to "Do Not Attempt To Walk On The Water". Oh, through this forest bit there's a big lake. Here's a home doubling as an art gallery. ‘Dear Prudence' wafting out. Here's another. And here's a naked woman smiling and saying hello as she passes. Here's a spider-web smacking me in the chops and depositing a few baby spiders on my head. What's through here? A mural of some...gods. And here? A cottage in the shape of a doughnut. And through the window of this hut round this twisty lane here is...a perfectly normal guy listening to Depeche Mode's ‘Personal Jesus' on his laptop. Meh.

I may be getting a contact high, but I don't want to leave Christiania. That is, I don't want to leave the morning and midday I'm having in Christiania. If it's possible to fluke into seeing somewhere in its absolute 100% optimum state and to feel its essence, its spirit (yeah, I said it), I just did. For a while there I wanted to become a bearded Danish hippy and smoke my own yoghurt and make art out of bits of boats and have three or four wives and carve unicorns out of bark. Already, as I hit the more populated alcoves, the souvenir stalls and cafes of the steadfastly-named Pusher Street, the moment is slipping away. But there was a moment. To quote our existentialist friend Soren K, "Look, heaven itself befriends you, it hides in the clouds, in the is as if it drew back the curtain for us."

Reinvigorated, delighted that the coolest bit of Copenhagen is the bit which everyone used to think was cool but now thinks is uncool, I'm much more up for Sunday at Trailerpark, which is handy: today is Not All Obscure Danish DJs Day. Two bands familiar to fans of the Bella Union label in the UK entertain us through an afternoon so hot you have to take on water between taking on water. Our Broken Garden, neatly described by the BBC as "music for goths to have sex to", revive the heyday-4AD sound of yore, which was once described by myself in heyday-4AD times as something like "ethereal women in floaty-white dresses backed by men in black, making music that's grandiose enough to imagine you're fighting off Vikings, sword in hand, while guessing which one of the men in black they're dating".

Oddly, they're ideal for this blindingly none-more-bright day. Singer (and former Efterklang pianist) Anna Broensted is quite a presence, pure of voice, floaty-white of dress, prone to doing an interesting subconscious wiggle-gesture with her left hand when she's concentrating on a note, and dipping to the ground to swig from her can of local delicacy Carlsberg between songs. Like a more precious (a compliment) All About Eve (also a compliment), they sing lines like "rip out my heart if you have to / make my lips bleed if you have to" and thus are perversely apropos today in a way that cornball over-familiar Beach Boys ditties or ‘Club Tropicana' could never be. They also cover Pink Floyd's ‘Breathe' and Bruce Springsteen. Yet their chums Treefight For Sunlight win Cover Of The Year award, hurling themselves into Kate Bush's ‘Wuthering Heights', keening falsetto and all, with aplomb. Will they fall off halfway through? They don't. They nail it. They don't have the charisma of their label-mates but these likeable, democratically talented boys display wild versatility, sometimes a bit Prog (early Yes, mid-period Flaming Lips), sometimes careering into the Fleet Foxes harmonies pigeonhole, sometimes as impressive in their genre-shifts as 10CC.

Returning for the final fling after a siesta, one can catch Simonne Jones, an American cross between Amanda Palmer and Lady Gaga who's wearing the Blackpool illuminations and whose sound oscillates between Sleigh Bells and Barbara Dickson. The best is yet to come. The indomitable Peaches draws a demob-happy crowd to her midnight karaoke show, which involves her belting out "guilty pleasures" (her phrase, not mine) to a projected backdrop of a lounge pianist. Wearing a black body-stocking and a shawl made of numerous fake breasts she sings Tina Turner's ‘Private Dancer', Foreigner's ‘Cold As Ice', Bonnie Tyler's ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart' and Donna Summer's ‘Last Dance' with not inconsiderable vocal and physical gusto. By every aesthetic known to art, it seems wrong to say that this highly ironic yet non-ironic post-post-modern rehabilitation of ironic pre-modern anti-irony is the highlight of the festival. But the plain truth is, it is. Everyone enters into a communal spirit of love and peace and sings along, which is exactly what is supposed to happen at festivals, I've read.

After this, everyone is more than sufficiently charged up to catch local heroes and Trailerpark's traditional closing act Vinnie Who, a glammy-disco-funk outfit of the Scissor Sisters vein. By a quirk of fate, I've seen them before, in Oslo, and as then, they tear the roof off the sucker. We boogie like loons, me and my new peace-and-love best friends ever: it's hotter than July, because it's now August. As a finale I'm offered a monstrously dangerous lift "home" on the back of a new friend's bike, which I accept, because if a double-decker bus crashes into us, that would be kind of magical, especially as they only have single-decker buses here, plus it would get me out of having to write this up and on top of that would ensure that my new album was revered and pored-over and legendary forever and people would say I went out in a ridiculously romantic manner the way I would have wanted.

It feels like we're flying.

We live.

We're a long way from Friday's fidgeting and I'm a long way out of my comfort zone and loving it. So: the moral of this fairytale? If you find yourself at a festival that at first doesn't appear to be your bag, hang in long enough for a paradigm shift, because everything changes, and, at least here, "hyggelig" will arrive. And if the youth of Copenhagen tell you Christiania is crap, don't believe them, because you don't live here and will see it through fresh, un-jaded eyes. As Kierkegaard might and indeed once did add, possibly though not definitely after attending an early prototype of Trailerpark, "Thanks for your favour, it was a beautiful moment; a mood not strong enough to move me from my firm place on the railing, yet rich in inward emotion."

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