[by Ken Hunt, London] In July 1991, the first year that Tanz&FolkFest Rudolstadt was staged, just like the 2010 ‘edition’, it took place under blue skies in baking temperatures. The 1991 bill served up plenty of scope for serendipitous discoveries of the new kind and reacquainting oneself with familiar acts. Bernhard Hanneken’s festival programming for the 2010 festival did something similar in spades – only to surfeit degrees (let’s not talk of lampreys) – with 27 stages scattered over the town. Then add a pedestrian street dedicated to street music. The highlight of that section of the festival’s programming was 70-year-old Klaus der Geiger (‘Klaus the Fiddler’), a Cologne-based street musician and busking institution, a man who studied with the composer-musician Pauline Oliveros, turned his back on mainstream classical music, turned to street music and has stayed radical.
One of the lessons attending a fair few Tanz&FolkFest Rudolstadts has taught me is to welcome and embrace the unexpected. Even handling the English-language content for the festival programme cannot always be a preparation. One perfect illustration of embracing the unexpected happened the night before the festival. In Prague. On 1 July 2010.
Baráčnicka rychta is a restaurant that is modern-day Prague on a platter with a serving of bygone Prague added to the dish. (This is not a restaurant review but the tavern serves an exquisite Czech repertoire of dishes. In addition in 2010 it was a rare Prague outlet for the Svijany brewery’s beers.) Even with a street map it is hard to find. (And harder to leave.) One level down, overlooked by the dining area, it has a dance hall. Suddenly, mid meal, there was an eruption of electricity downstairs and the Czech rock band Natural kicked off its set. (Imagine being a once-Czechoslovakian and being wafted back to pre-disuniflication, imagine coming from Tottenham and listening to the Dave Clark Five rather than the sound of riots and buildings burning). For Czechs of a certain generation Natural meant something. They were opening for the Bulgarian rock group D2. Instead of being the ruination of the evening, it was a flash of serendipity to be warmly embraced and enjoyed. The following Saturday D2 would come back to haunt me in Rudolstadt…
Enough of the Czech Republic: let’s return to Germany. Notably, 2010 brought back three of the highlights of the 1991 festival with the Sardinian vocal temptress Elena Ledda, the Czech iconoclasts Jablkoň and Bavaria’s Wellküren. (Jablkoň in the Stadttheater (‘town theatre’) sounded ‘proper all grown-up’ compared to the exhilarating, caterwauling punk-folk scruffiness of their set beside the ramshackle, run-down Boulevard in July 1991.) As to the delights of the familiar, Arlo Guthrie on the Heidecksburg’s main castle stage was remarkable. He had the whole Thüringer Symphoniker Saalfeld-Rudolstadt visibly tensing and waiting for the conductor’s wand as Guthrie, in trademark fashion, prolonged his introductions. His internationalist introduction to his father, Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land was truly special. He explained how other nationalities have done find-and-replace-style searches with its geographical references. That’s about a fine a testimony to folksong’s internationalism as I know.
The Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath, with Abhijit Banerjee on tabla, gave one of ten finest Hindustani recitals in the Stadttheater (town theatre’) it has ever been my privilege and pleasure to witness in three or so decades. (My detailed review appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of the UK-based Indian arts magazine Pulse.) By comparison, her concert in the Stadtkirche (‘town church’) was excellent though marred by off-stage distractions. There were too many aural and visual distractions from creaking pews to a couple canoodling right at the front (bringing to mind past injunctions and laments fro Ravi Shankar). Thankfully, Kala Ramnath deep into her spontaneous composition missed the canoodling. Alas I didn’t.
The discoveries were many but three in particular stand out. One chance discovery was the jam-band E.G.s. With temperatures in the 30s, they played their delightful German-language rock and occasional reggae repertoire on the Theaterplatz stage to an audience largely sheltering from the sun under the proverbial linden trees. They were arresting. Their music throbbed with life. It was perfect festival music. The main three discoveries, however, began with the German songstress Tine Kindermann. She reconstructed her glorious 2008 schamlos schön (‘Shamelessly beautiful’) on the main stage in the marketplace (Am Markt). Her theremin-like musical saw playing was centre stage and it proved perfect for adding enough eeriness to counterbalance the sunshiny day. She puts the Grimm back into macabre. Ever pondered how sanitised bedtime Märchen (‘fairy stories’) are now? Two further discoveries completed Hunt’s prial of festival discoveries. Namely, the frankly astounding Bulgarian band Diva Reka (meaning ‘Wild River’) and Cedric Watson & Bijoux Creole, who closed the finale concert. Both appeared on the marketplace stage.
During a discussion entitled ‘Wine in New Wineskins?’ I mentioned Diva Reka. They were a recent project exploring possibilities for acoustic-ethno music while staying grounded in Bulgarian folk traditions. Apparently, usually they performed as an instrumental quartet. At the festival they had drafted in two members of Bulgaria’s Eva Quartet (who had been at the festival in 2000). They melded a variety of musical styles including some classical music, some rock but especially jazz. It was far removed from the Bisserov Sisters back in 1991. Who were, are and ever shall remain dear to my heart. (On the planet only Mitra Bisserova has ever persuaded me, a non-dancer with a bad knee (or two) and heart whispers, to dance to Bulgaria’s nasty knee-knottingest rhythms.) At the end of the talk – remember the beginning of the paragraph? – a Bulgarian National Radio journalist approached to garner some quotes about Diva Reka. We chatted about Diva Reka, the Bisserov Sisters back in July 1991 and then with a barely concealed smile I dropped in having seen D2 the other night in Prague. You could not make it up…
As always, sitting in England and reading the book-size festival programme, it’s astonishing how much I missed but also how much I saw. Quite frankly, there is no festival quite like Rudolstadt. Partisan hand on unpartisan heart.
More information at http://tff-rudolstadt.de/
The festival programme’s image above is by Jürgen B. Wolff and nobody is trying to steal his copyright from him because he is a very good egg.