Roskilde Festival And Anti-Nationalist Sentiment In Denmark
, July 19th, 2016 13:24
At the monolithic Roskilde festival in Denmark, Lottie Brazier finds a far more than cursory exploration of contemporary non-Western music pointing — despite seemingly having no overt political agenda — to a rising tide of inclusivity and anti-nationalist sentiment in an increasingly conservative climate
Like two continental blocks of cultural spectacle, Roskilde and Glastonbury are both huge festivals that run very close together in timeframe. Their lineups too are spookily similar, but the way in which they are organised does appear to have marked differences. An interesting and rather important one is that Glastonbury had chosen to put, overwhelmingly, a large number of its “non-Western” acts on one stage - the West Holts Stage. I say “non-Western” only because of Glastonbury’s own bracketing of certain artists. If you put all of the musicians that aren’t from a Western country on one stage, then it looks like you’re treating your acts booked in from the West as being the goalpost of normality. The international artists, collectively and regardless of whether they are from Asia or Africa, start to look like a deviance from that norm.
Glastonbury might have tailored their stages to what they perceived to be audience tastes. Maybe they presumed that people ‘open-minded’ enough to go and see the experimental Afropop of Mbongwana Star would also take to the Ukrainian folk quartet DakhaBrakha. The intent here of Glastonbury’s organisers is unclear. So I was interested to see how the supermassive Danish festival Roskilde handled their artists (as I will so clumsily put it), who wouldn’t be well known by Western audiences. Roskilde’s mission statement this year was one of ‘political equality’. Though ultimately I didn’t see much in the way of political statements being made at the festival, its organisers did a good job of making sure that their lineup gives a platform to artists regardless of their nationality and, unlike Glastonbury, spread them out a bit amongst the stages. I planned to use the festival to learn as much as possible about what was happening away from my home turf in England and beyond Europe as a white, Western Brit.
Within a few hours of having landed and been driven half asleep through the endlessly flat but vividly green Danish countryside, I was at the Gloria Stage to see the Thailand-based Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band. This group of Thai musicians weren’t psychedelic rock in the Western, ‘60s garage rock influenced sense like West Coast American or British psych. I compare, because of my own ignorance over what’s being produced in Thailand right now. But the band does use Western pedals like Boss phasers and delay, which admittedly gives them the psychedelic sound typical to psychedelic bands as Westerners would know them. The group haven’t been exposed that much to Western psychedelic music so perhaps the fact that they are comparable is mere coincidence. Dance, I learn, is one of the most important performance arts in Thailand and the band base their entire sound around something to serve this very purpose. I engaged in a bit of this here before moving on to take on the largest stage of the festival - the Orange Stage.
I have dreadfully confused feelings about Blur and Damon Albarn as an artist. I do intuitively like some Blur songs as they’re catchy but don’t really like the package they come in, with the music video to Parklife set in the industrial Greenwich Peninsula particularly rubbing me up the wrong way. I wasn’t warm to the prospect of seeing Albarn accompany the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians either, which looked on first glance like a bit of a hand up on his part. Though unlike The Magic Whip, his album with Blur that serves as a kind of abstract travelogue of China as framed by Western artists, this performance did not give Albarn a central artistic role. He did not guide the Orchestra; he only occasionally accompanied them with acoustic guitar and familiar renditions of some of his own material. The Orchestra is comprised of Syrian musicians, singers and conductor Issam Rafea, all of whom are touring across the world, despite having been made to leave their war-inflicted home country. They are accompanied by guest appearances from Julia Holter, Malikah 961, Noura Mint Seymali and Bassekou Kouyaté. The appearance from Malikah 961, Beirut-based hip hop artist, is stunning. She accompanies Noura Mint Seymali’s own powerful vocals on a piece with the Orchestra (Albarn is nowhere to be seen). Malikah’s flow is frightening, blunt and exciting. Even though I couldn’t understand the content of her words, her delivery held me still in place, with her storming off stage to leave us all in shock. The anger here feels humbling; I could not imagine how this performance must feel to her, the sheer need to perform like this. Malikah 961 is big already in the Arabic world, but is promising to start a following over here in the West as well. If one removes one’s cynic hat for a second, this whole performance looks less like a hand up from Albarn and more of an allegiance of friendship between performance artists. But was this what the audience were expecting? Actually, what were they expecting? Reactions were most ecstatic to the Orchestra’s full rendition of Gorillaz’s ‘White Flag’ and the cover of The Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ with Albarn. So it seems pretty safe to believe that the majority of people were there for some Britpop. Ultimately these songs are more familiar to a Western audience, and so, inevitably to be expected. There is a lot of genuine good will in the air at the performance finale though as everyone engages in a chant of ‘Syria!’.
The scale of Roskilde isn’t that obvious until you see how rapidly the crowd builds up around the Orange Stage; small groups of drunk, raincoated bystanders turn into a thick black arch that for the first evening acts unintentionally as a human wall between two sides of the festival space. By Thursday, perhaps via telepathic communication or pheromones, the human mass of Roskilde is learning to assemble and reassemble itself. Paths are starting to form through the crowd, and I find Gaye Su Akyol at the Avalon Stage with relative ease. Gaye Su Akyol is part of an underground Turkish music scene, and she is one of the most dominating front people here at Roskilde. She introduces us all to a traditional piece which she informs us is thousands of years old. She and her band perform a kind of updated version of this piece, which would have existed long before Turkey. Although her band takes to Western instrumentation like guitars and bass, the time signatures only flirt with the typical 4/4 of rock. The band almost seem amused at our love of this time signature, abruptly swerving away from it at whim. Gaye Su Akyol wasn’t reliant on the guitar to carry her vocal melody; sometimes her guitarist would stop and allow for a vocal solo. At Roskilde the audience have caught Gaye Su Akyol just after the bombings in Istanbul, which killed 12 people on a bus on the 7th June. “I am sorry for the world’s current political conflicts” - she sounds just as simultaneously confused and devastated as the rest of us. Gaye Su Akyol’s performance begins to feel like a safe space, a kind of cartoonish pantomime of capes and sequins and masks, far removed from political horror. She also jokes in between songs that the album title Living With Camels is such because of Westerners thinking that Turkish people live with camels. She likes this image in a way though, of living with camels, and tells us something about her dream of leaving Earth and going into space with the camels. I’m not really sure what this is about, perhaps there is some language barrier here; but it’s an interesting prospect, all the same.
By now, I was getting the impression that there was too much time in between artists where stages were deserted. Although this gave people time to cross between tents, it meant that people were less tempted to hang around to take a chance on an act that wasn’t familiar. So this would include most acts here hailing from outside of Europe and America. I found myself traipsing around for hours in the miraculously intact grass, considering a second lunch in between sets to fill the void of activity. On this day I finally learn that a Danish pastry is known amongst the Danish as a cinnamon roll; my brain took a while to assess this revelation as I ordered one. Though all of this walking did eventually pay off, when I managed to find the secret stage run by Danish venue Mayhem with promoters Escho. I tried to make sense of its lineup, which consisted of names which at first appear unfamiliar but include a lot of monikers and nicknames of artists that are already established in one scene or another. Marching Church for instance. I stopped by for drone artist Jaleh Negari, who I find out is also the drummer in Pinkunoizu, present at Roskilde to test out a new solo project. The hum of her soft synth drone was a satisfying alternative to the festival’s gleeful chaos, which otherwise extended everywhere. The audience were there to lounge and drink coffee; other trees and fenced corners at Roskilde seemed to be occupied by men unwilling to queue for the privacy of a portacabin toilet.
As Friday afternoon encroached upon me, the flow of alcohol becomes exchanged for one of coffee, no longer as interested in sampling the Tuborg as I was keeping my eyes open. I checked my phone’s walking app and saw that I was clocking in a dangerous number of miles every day. My knees were shuffling about in their sockets in a way that just felt medically wrong. So I hung around, or should I say dropped into a heap by the Avalon Stage for Tal National, where the acts were announced repeatedly, almost cuckoo-clock like, by the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “if music be the food of love, play on”. Tal National are a popular band in Niger, their home country. Like with the rapper Malikah 961 who I had seen the previous evening, Westerners are only just catching up to their music. The band are influenced by Western indie rock in so far as they use the guitar band setup, sort of like Gaye Su Akyol in this influence, though their time signatures would confuse dancers used to the heart beat stomp of that genre. With incredible synchronicity the band swayed to its own frantic pulse. Tal National’s guitarist played rhythmical scales at a dextrous speed while skipping about in his corner of the stage; the self-discipline involved here is spectacular and acrobatic. Tal National clashed with Neil Young, though, and disappointingly few people showed up to see this.
In the Roskilde Festival guide book, I find some paragraph about a so-called Art Zone. I spend some time trying to find this. Frustrated at not being able to find this area, I go as far as to ask people inanely “Where is the art?” which I realise sounds ridiculous but by this stage I’m happy to cut shamelessly to the chase. I did manage to find the art in the end, which continued the thread of ‘political equality’ that the festival put to its attendees in a mostly chummy, non-confrontational manner. The centrepiece of this statement being the Circle of Flags; which was simply a ring of flags, each of which representing a different skin tone. The piece is by Hesselholdt & Mejlvang and runs in tandem to their exhibition Native, Exotic, Normal. I wondered at this point whether Roskilde’s ‘political equality’ theme was a challenge to Danish nationalism; like in many parts of Europe now, Denmark faces anti-immigration sentiment which overlaps with racism and white supremacy. It has one of the strictest immigration laws in Europe. As an outsider, Denmark doesn’t appear to be that racially diverse; even I stuck out a bit being short and dark haired. I’d only been there for a few days but Denmark looked predominantly Caucasian, aside for litter pickers who I was told are from Greenland, people who apparently form an underclass there. Even though the theme of Roskilde this year was political equality, the festival was not explicitly anti-racist or anti-nationalist. Aside from a piece of anti-Merkel art on an otherwise non-descript wall by a food tent, I didn’t see much that was confrontational. It’s no Rock Against Racism. The festival did seem though, for the most part, to reflect a different side to Denmark which is welcoming and encouraging of racial diversity. It would be wrong to say that Denmark has a far right, racist majority, as it wouldn’t be right to say the same about the UK. As a visitor and a hopelessly monolingual Brit to boot, it wasn’t easy to pick up on the social and cultural nuances from Roskilde Festival alone.
I tried to get a bigger picture of this from ‘folk poet’, the majestically named Rasmus Graff, who performed his work at the same stage as Jaleh Negari on the Mayhem/Escho stage. I found the idea of combining of the Danish DIY music scene with underground poets and bloggers appealing and wanted to see how this played out. The poetry Graff presented was entirely in Danish - he is, after all, a ‘folk poet’. Graff was a fairly gentle stage presence who seemed almost amused at his audience; a stark contrast to the breathless, angsty and enjambment-heavy readings I’ve seen from many British poets. Again the language barrier appeared, but I found out that his latest work, Folkets Prosa, is experimental fiction which plays games with the Danish language and these games make sense from within its grammar. Like other Danish poets such as Pär Thörn, Graff also works with music and sound art. Though as I found it hard to pick up on the gist of his poetry, I didn’t stay around to find out if Graff incorporated music into his Roskilde performance.
The semi-final act for me was Saturday’s appearance from New Order (I later pay a visit to LCD Soundsystem to catch their reunion show). Whether or not New Order on this day would match up to any iconic show in their history wasn’t important to me (please! I probably didn’t exist then). I was going to see New Order! The set started kind of semi-chronologically, with tracks like ‘Your Silent Face’ from Power, Corruption & Lies inching us towards the bombast that would later follow. Accompanying these early tracks was some footage from the documentary B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin 1979 – 1989, shown on large panels either side of the band. With Brexit hovering over one’s shoulder like an angel of socio-political doom, it felt unnerving to see this footage of Berlin pre-1989. This is a pretty tenuous point of comparison, but as someone who grew up with the EU existing pre one’s own birth it is unsettling to see these structures become dismantled, for when you are young they seem so essential, as if the world hadn’t ever existed without them. The panels that flanked New Order with murky ‘70s cinematic light morphed into crisp blocks of colour that sometimes crossed oceans or sped through monochromatic arcade games. New tracks from Complete Music turned the Arena Stage into a pastel-shaded disco; they were unashamedly, brilliantly cheesy and live they sounded absolutely vast. The band thanked Europe, “...and that includes the UK!”. In response some scattered Brits with myself included let out a post-gig scream. It was a bittersweet finale, a melancholic reminder of what I would have to return to. But it also served as a kind of warning to Denmark that also struggles with the growing presence of nationalist ideology.