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Three Songs No Flash

Slaughterhouse Fine: Meakusma Festival Reviewed
Claire Sawers , September 17th, 2019 14:41

Claire Sawers makes the trek to the Belgian border town of Eupen and finds strange discoveries await her

Elena Colombi live by Caroline Lessire

The location of the deceptively sleepy Belgian border town of Eupen makes it especially good for hosting a very genre-fluid, three-day festival of weirdness and dance music — Meakusma. It would be stating the screamingly obvious to point out that rigid boundaries (national ones or musical ones) can become restrictive, isolationist and an enemy to curiosity, exchange and exploration. Taking place at a juncture of various countries, Meakusma holds open-minded beliefs when it comes to its music genres, casually putting hurdy gurdies, church pipe organs, jungle DJs and techno artists on the same lineup.

Over the years, the verdant slopes of Eupen (pronounced ‘Oypen’ in English, or ‘Eu’ as in the German, ‘Neu!’) have been under French, Prussian and now Belgian rule, so they know a thing or two about shifting identities and labels. Sitting on the border between Germany and Belgium, with the Netherlands and Luxembourg a couple of hours’ drive north and south, Eupen’s first language is German, its second is French and there’s a town called Kelmis twenty minutes up the road that tried to establish itself as the world capital of the Esperanto-speaking community in 1907. It was named ‘Amikejo’, meaning ‘a place of friendship’, but the project failed. Or as George Clarke Musgrave wrote in The Belgian Prelude about the First World War, “The pretty towns defended near the frontier were soon flaming ruins, the quaint neutral territory of Moresnet [now Kelmis] rising as an oasis in a desert of destruction.”

Eupen rises now like a cultural oasis for those seeking strange sounds in a largely rural part of Belgium. It’s a small town where neither gluten free foods or trans folk are visible for example, and a local DJ plays an excellent but very non-avant garde set of Missy Elliott, Luniz and Christina Aguilera in the town centre bar for Saturday night drinkers.

Smoking a cigarette between performances, one festival-goer exhaled enthusiastically, “We drove nearly two hours from Luxembourg through nothing, and then suddenly, there was Eupen!” It’s a refreshing twist to find a crowd of 1000 converged in Alter Schlachthof, a former slaughterhouse, closed in the 90s for not meeting hygiene standards, now handing out earplugs for noise fans and people wanting to dance until 7am.

The big arts centre backs onto rolling fields of pumpkins, with bramble bushes fencing in bee hives and polytunnels where fat tomatoes grow. There are sound installations hidden in the fields behind the campsite; Abruit, by sound artists Lukas de Clerck and Dries Peeters looks like an orange wendy house wrapped in plastic. Down a grassy slope, suspended from thick tree limbs dangling over a thin stream, the musical hut swings a few feet above the water, with the artists hiding inside, making sombre parp sounds on instruments strung from the tree outside. Bendy plumbing pipes snake out from its sides, letting out odd whines and squeaks every so often.

Kiosk is a large walk-in chipboard structure, a hexagonal shape studded with speakers that pipe out field recordings made last year by Chris Watson. The former Cabaret Voltaire man and sound recorder extraordinaire caught rhythmic anthill scratches and whistling winds as he took students on a guided soundwalk around the peat bogs and forest of High Fens nature park.

Indoors in the Kühlraum (the abattoir’s freezer room, once upon a time), Belgian composer Phil Maggi summons less benevolent-sounding forces with his “Animalwrath” project, a heady ritual of bells, percussion and animal growls. New Yorker Eli Kezler plays in the same room the next night; a technically dazzling blur of drumming spasms and mixed up percussion textures, although paired sometimes with slightly too-smooth jazz backing tracks from a laptop.

Slovenian folk trio Širom wind back the clock a few hundred years with their warm, hypnotic loops of hurdy gurdy, violin and glockenspiel trance music and Brooklyn husband and wife duo, Vis Invis Electrique! use repetition in a very different, equally mesmerising way, making motorik grooves out of reverberant guitar squalls and surf rock synthesiser patterns.

Across a stone courtyard, Heuboden is a loft room flooded in red light, with Persian rugs and pot plants dotted around. The man who set up Düsseldorf’s idiosyncratic clubnight Salon des Amateurs, Tolouse Low Trax (Detlef Weinrich) warms that room up on Friday night with his bouncy, psychedelic DJ set, letting Hama’s ‘Torodi’ from Sahel Sounds waft through the weed smoke as people loosen up into their weekend. It’s a small gear shift down after Elena Colombi’s colourful rush of Balearic beats and acid house, where she grew the momentum over a three-hour set, but the mellow festival allows for lots of warm downs or more dancing, seeing as the densely programmed lineup often has ambient atmospheres and pulsing techno going on at the same time, in different rooms.

German producer Lorenz Lindner, aka Mix Mup, gets folk quickly up off the black foam cushions they are sitting on with his fun, bleeping and bright house set, and his MM/KM collaborator, Kassem Mosse plays the same room the next night as DJ Residue. It’s a slick and dark hour of eerie, thumping warehouse beats, played by Mosse on old CD decks from inside a barricade made from those plastic fences that sit around roadworks, decorated with the flashing neon ‘Open’ signs seen in corner shops around the world.

During the day, the late summer sun played a blinder when it poked out from behind clouds to beam down on the field just as Osaka producer 7FO played a loose limbed, dubby and upbeat set with Tapes, the London producer Jackson Bailey who now lives in Estonia, and was doubling up his Meakusma trip with his stag do. The booming bass of the outdoor sound rig drew a crowd of Belgian beer sippers and one blissed out older raver, dancing slowly in bright tie dye, in front of an anti-racist banner with the Dutch slogan, “Niemand is illegaal”. A couple of hours later, Tokyo/ New York singer Miho Hatori brought her New Optimism project to the same outdoor spot, using a gauzy, echoing avant-pop aesthetic to spread her good vibes philosophy.

Two of Eupen’s churches provided huge highlights over the weekend too. The Tashi Wada Group with Julia Holter and Carey Fogel was a shimmering, soothing exercise in psychoacoustics, building drama out of bagpipe drones and unseen sounds. The 18th century gothic Nikolauskirche was the perfect marble and gold mega-building to stage the concert in, with the three musicians interacting semi-telepathically from the front, side and pipe organ balcony. The following day Charlemagne Palestine began his pipe organ melodrama by dangling two whisky glasses over the wooden balcony, ceremonially chinking them together and taking a gulp from one, then layering up grandiose, utterly maximal, swelling, soul cleansing drones. At the end, he waved his arms towards the huge church organ behind him, directing the rapturous applause towards it and grinning, “The organ is still the greatest synthesiser ever made!”

Meakusma achieves a mini-Unsound meets Colour Out of Space hybrid; where krautrock meets KRAAK and strange discoveries can be enjoyed alongside big, dark dancefloor moments. It’s thanks no doubt in part to generous funding and serious support from the Belgian government, as praised by a few different DIY music bods in the top quality festival freesheet that’s handed out over the weekend, Meakusma Magazin which includes interviews by everyone from the organisers of Ghent based label and festival, KRAAK to Swedish-Finnish composer, Marja Ahti. The Meakusma tentacles link up oddities and bangers from around Europe, America and Japan, making for a very fun trip to the Slaughterhouse.