Things Learned At: Pop-Kultur In Berlin

This year, at Berlin's Kulturbrauerei, Pop-Kultur festival teaches us a few things about ethics, earthquakes and the Harlem shake.

Lady Leshurr is ace, and also preoccupied with personal hygiene.

The first night at Pop-Kultur allows you to nip from the Shirley Collins talk, across the courtyard for Lady Leshurr’s set, and then back to hear Collins sing. Joy, delight.

Lady Leshurr is all energy and sharpness, and completely engaging. She and her DJ give us chunks of ace ace ace music – her own teasing, booming, playful stuff, with chunks of borrowed and beautifully lifted tracks from Kendrick Lamar (“Sit Down! Be humble!) to Sister Nancy (“Bam! Bam!”) to Blackstreet (“I like the way you work it…”). The crowd, compliant and delighted, do four jumps to the left en masse and on demand, we try the mannequin challenge, we do the Harlem shake (“even though it’s quite old school”).

She also talks and sings a lot about dry lips and bad breath, dirty knickers and smelly feet. “Bare girls change their friends everyday but forget to change their panties” and “Your feet stink / Cheese Wotsits” and “Your lips look like crispy bacon / CRISPY! / Crispy bacon” and just “Brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth!”

Shirley Collins makes connections across space, time, people and ideas.

It is fair to say (and many have) that when Shirley Collins sings, she is almost absent. She is channelling the song, down the ages. And as she talks, she also connects people and places and histories. In conversation on the festival’s opening night, she describes travelling across the US in 1959 with Alan Lomax collecting songs; how Ralph Vaughan Williams collected a song about the 1750 earthquake in London from a housewife in Herefordshire in 1902, and here she is singing it to us now; she quotes John Clare’s poetry, and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and David Tibet of Current 93, who told her: “You’re my favourite singer. Well, you and Tiny Tim.”

The men on stage with her, who recently made a film about her life, talk too much, and occasionally interrupt. If you’re ever sitting next to Shirley Collins, whether she is singing or talking or pausing to think, you should mainly listen.

Homosexuality wasn’t legal in Scotland until 1981.

Nineteen-eighty-fucking-one! This startling shameful fact came up during Simon Price’s on-stage chat with David Laurie, author of DARE: How Bowie & Kraftwerk Inspired The Death of Rock’n’Roll and Invented Modern Pop Music. Other theories and observations: “Sparks invented Soft Cell, Yazoo, Blancmange and the Pet Shop Boys” and “80s capitalism encouraged some great US solo artists (Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson) and some rubbish UK bands (Kajagoogoo).”

It is a wonderful thing to see a big Australian man in a tight white wedding dress. With a veil.

Angus Andrew of Liars is doing gigs in a wedding dress and, a bit like performance art (see below), it’s difficult to appreciate how excellent it is until you’ve seen it. He stomps his feet, grabs and pulls on his dress, like a little girl having a tantrum. He does high-kicks, he flounces, he points and sermonises. It is strange and beautiful. Sometimes he’s like a preacher, enraged, fervent, singing, “I tried to find you so I could save you.” Sometimes he’s almost crooning, sometimes he squawks, then he sounds almost like Ian Curtis, inspiring goth-arms dancing in the crowd. Then it kicks off again and he’s almost Kathleen Hanna. He’s a chameleon, and it all feels authentic, and the songs are great.

You don’t get to be ethically spotless. Nobody does.

This year, among many and various pieces of public funding, Pop-Kultur received €500 from the Israeli embassy. This prompted the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement to ask artists and journalists to boycott Pop-Kultur, in solidarity with the people of Palestine. At The Quietus we thought carefully about not going to the festival, and discussed it at some length. Then we looked again at the lineup, and at the festival’s own statement about the boycott, and considered our options, and decided to go.

The lineup at Pop-Kultur is more diverse than any lineup we’ve seen in Europe. This is not an accident, it is a result of the curators and organisers and their desire for a rich, experimental, crosscultural festival; this is a place where more than half the artists are women and they don’t even mention it. Can you imagine that happening at any festival in the UK?

Gender equity and genuine diversity don’t mean it’s okay to take money from the Israeli government, though. We talked to the organisers and they didn’t agree with us on everything but they did want to talk about it, listen to our thoughts, answer our questions. It was illuminating, to say the least, to hear from a man who moved to Berlin before the wall came down and who lives in a country where – for obvious reasons – they are extremely sensitive to and aware of antisemitism. Of course he’s going to have a different outlook to me when it comes to talking about walls and about Israel. (I wish we were more vigilant about antisemitism here in the UK. And while I know that being appalled by the government of Israel has no ideological or logical overlap with being antisemitic, I also will not dismiss the experiences of those who have witnessed or suffered antisemitism lurking in the guise of anti-Israeli government protest.)

The money they took from the Israeli embassy paid for the flights of Riff Cohen, an Israeli-Tunisian-Algerian singer-songwriter. Pop-Kultur want dialogue, cultural exchange, openness. They didn’t try to hide the funding, or regret taking it; they stuck to their guns and respected those who disagreed. When a band cancelled, the stage remained empty, that slot on the schedule unfilled, and a statement projected on the back of the stage explaining what was happening. One band cancelled, then changed their minds and came the following day. In all, it was a complicated, messy and open way to deal with the issue and that seemed right. It seemed right that the festival continued, that people disagreed, that the problems and disagreements were out in the open and people were free to make their own decisions. I didn’t speak to anyone who doesn’t want a free, safe, equal Palestine. We just had different ideas about how to show our solidarity and how we might help. Meanwhile, the conflict and the abuses continue.

There is no shortage of women in the music industry.

Pop-Kultur is the least cock-heavy festival you have ever seen (unless you went to Lilith Fair in the 90s, but that looked shit). It took me 24 hours or so to notice I’d seen a lot more women than men on stage, and to think about how GOOD that felt. Also talking and performing at the festival were Female Pressure, who run an online database of thousands of female, transgender and non-binary DJs, musicians, composers and producers working in electronic music around the world. So next time you go to a night with just blokes DJing, remember: it’s not because they couldn’t find any women, it’s because they didn’t want us there.

You can make something (wonderful) from (almost) nothing.

Several times during the festival, Haley Fohr of Circuit Des Yeux lay inside a big black box in the festival courtyard, with a microphone and reverse and delay pedals, singing, gutteral, yowling, gasping. Like most great performance art, it sounds a bit daft until you’re there witnessing it, and then it’s amazing. She was like Diamanda Galas mixed with Billie Whitelaw in Beckett’s Not I. She lowered herself down into the abyss and reported back.

And on the first day of the festival, you could attend a workshop with Jochen Arbeit of Einstürzende Neubauten learning how to make music out of nothing – or out of whispers, sighs, taps, twangs and ideas.

Lady Leshurr pic by Janto Djassi. Liars pic by Roland Owsnitzki

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