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Live Report: Le Guess Who? 2021

Dutch event stands up to contemporary pressures…

It takes a lot for a festival to adapt in a covid world, but it takes even more to adapt to a changing COVID situation every day.

That’s what the Le Guess Who? (LGW) organisers were faced with at the announcement of the Netherlands partial lockdown. On Thursday, the festival kicked off, albeit with a midnight curfew (instead of the usual 3 AM finish time from previous years). Then on Friday, a partial Netherlands lockdown was announced.

So on Saturday, the entire schedule was squeezed into 1PM-6PM, before the curfew started at 7PM. Then on Sunday, after further clarification, their schedule changed again to 3PM-9PM – but all standing venues became sitting. The diamond of music festivals, Le Guess Who? 2021 stood up against the pressure.

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The heart of LGW Festival is inviting as many voices as possible from around the world for a uniquely boundary-crossing music and art. Here, ‘unique’ isn’t some tired placeholder. It’s the kind of music that, when your colleague asks you ‘So who’s playing?’, you don’t know where to begin. Because how do you explain your first experience of the festival as walking into a room to a circular stage, with an Israeli punk guitarist surrounded by Native American drummers? How do you sum up experimental electronica and Tuvan throat singing reverberating from the walls of a cathedral?

What gives Le Guess Who? its special edge is its curator-led programme. Each year, it chooses several top performers to be curators for the festival. So, alongside giving their own performance and collaborations the curators are asked to select a number of artists they’re familiar with or that they’d like to bring to the festival.

As 2019 curator Shabaka Hutchings said about one of his curated selections, “I’d really like to see this guy play, because I’ve never seen him play in any part of the world that I’ve been in. I don’t know what the gig’s going to be like, but for me, this is a part of it. It’s actually the audience discovering, with me, who this performer is right now.”

This year, the chosen curators were John Dwyer (OSEES), Lucrecia Dalt, Midori Takada, Matana Roberts and Phil Elverum (the Microphones/Mount Eerie).

We had curator Phil Elverum who curated acts across a wide spectrum, from Nairobi underground metal band Duma to Estonian folklore singer Mari Kalkun, who plays traditional Estonian plucked string instrument known as a kannel and sings in the region’s ancient isochronous regilaul style.

But he also gave one of the first live performances of ‘The Microphones’ in years, playing his new EP – a 44-minute repeated melody reflecting on embarrassment and humdrum in the brutally candid style that has ensnared fans of Phil Elverum for years.

Part of the COVID gap was felt when Midori Takada could not make her live performance due to restrictions. Instead, she lit up Jacobikerk with a daily remote performance of her minimalist compositions.

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Covid’s heavy shadow lingered. The clashes were cruel, the cuts to artists were heartbreaking, and it was bewildering to come blinking out of house electronica, once scheduled for midnight now mid-afternoon.

Yet in the face of limitations, the sounds of Le Guess Who? spoke, sang, played and sampled a new language – reminding us to fight for a world without racial boundaries or environmental prejudices.

In the heart of chaos, the undeterred artistic integrity and values of performers was not dulled but sharpened. They demanded with dagger-edge keenness more attention to the key issues facing humanity long before the global pandemic.

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As Angel Bat Dawide reminded us: “f*ck covid, f*ck Trump… racism is still here. It hasn’t gone away.”

What particularly stuck out at LGW this year were the issues of civil rights and environmental destruction.

When it comes to environmental destruction, language barriers pose no barrier in translating an international issue.

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We had “continuous piano” of Ukranian Lubomyr Melnyk, who depicts ‘The End Of The World’ in a free flowing improvisational form that demonstrates why he earned title of fastest piano player in the world as well as the fluid euphony that delves into cacophony – two things we can certainly understandable in a deeply difficult environmental climate – Kazakh-British violinist Galya Bisengalieva performed in a curtain a cold, pensive tale of the shrinking of the Aral sea.

Dutch Maarten Vos and French Maotik present Erratic Weather, depicting climate change chaos by using realtime online weather databases to process a visual sonic composition.

And it wasn’t just music. Other art pieces, such as The Botanical Revolution showed at the Centraal Museum, focused on the links of art and gardening as a fertile source of inspiration for artists, and depicted the small acts of rebellion to the idea of what a garden means in this new world.

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Just as urgently came the message of civil rights.

Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble, curated by Matana Roberts, brings together past and future with archival civil rights recordings and a sampler, bringing life to Black narratives with artistic importance.

Irreversible Entanglements, also curated by Matana, was born after the murder of Akai Gurley by a police officer in 2015. Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the explosive reamplification of civil rights since, the poetic collective voices this fury through free jazz.

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One of the most intense shows voicing this message was Angel Bat Dawid. She describes her performances as a ‘service’ – and what a service we received. We started with her blistering exorcism of racism in each attendees’ hearts at the start, which slowly ascended into the heavenly voices of her accompanying singers. Although musically difficult to follow, there is a fury in her performance that should be witnessed by everyone.

Collaborating later that night with Angel Bat Dawid were Sons of Kemet. They were pulled in last minute to cover acts that were unable to clear the COVID checks in time, but as regulars (with frontman Shabaka Hutchings as a previous curator), they showed up in blistering style of black power, slamming the festival into an explosive finale.

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What we’re left with, stumbling out of Tivoli doors for the last time at a soberingly early 9PM, is that Le Guess Who? showed us, not our separations, but our similarities. In a time when we’ve globally reached nearly two years of isolation and instability, we face many other common difficulties – and with it, a universal understanding of what needs to happen now. This year, Le Guess Who? Festival was an event cultivated in change, demanding change.

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Words: Dannee McGuire
Photography: Rogier Boogaard, Melanie Marsman, Ben Houdijk, Tim van Veen

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Source: https://www.clashmusic.com/live/live-report-le-guess-who-2021

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