The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue

Ethno Port 2019

Zohra Kherabi of Lemma. Photo: Maciej Kaczyński.

Poznań, Poland
Ethno Port Festival
June 13–16, 2019

Unlike the soft fusions of many other global music festivals, Ethno Port adopts a hardcore folkloric approach, presenting unfiltered forms in the Polish city of Poznań. If styles are to be blended, their amalgamation usually has a harder surface of creative confrontation, or perhaps a subtle creeping together of twinned, introspective forms. The festival’s bookings of international artists are mostly less obvious choices, and these acts are set beside a core crop of indigenous Polish folk bands.

Ethno Port started in 2008, and has been hosted by the Zamek Cultural Centre since 2013. This is located within the old Imperial Castle, built by the Germans in 1910, and refurbished in the Third Reich style during World War II. It was announced as an intended residence of Adolf Hitler, but he never actually made the journey, although it remained as a symbolic stamping of Nazi territory.

Since becoming a cultural institution in 1962, Zamek has been devoted to a complete embracing of the globe’s diverse traditions. Ethno Port inhabits three main stages: a medium-sized concert hall, an informal courtyard, and the frontal car park, which is laid with grass turf for the festival’s duration, playing host to nearly free shows on three of the four evenings. A nominal two złoty charge circumvents the Polish tax regulations. In a country (amongst several others) where right wing momentum is increasing, there seemed to be increased security at these open air gigs, compared to 2018. At the beginning of this year, Paweł Adamowicz, the liberal mayor of Gdansk, was stabbed repeatedly whilst on stage during a charity concert. He died in hospital the next day.

Singer Sofiane Saidi played in front of the castle with his Parisian backing band Mazalda, harking back to the classic 1980s sound of Algerian raï music, and prompting waves of dancing around the lawn. Twin keyboards, and a regular dose of electronic wind instrument intensified the retro-electro groove. The Nooran Sisters, from India, nearly didn’t make it to Poznań, due to visa delay problems, but when these singers did appear, their outdoor set was extensive, doing battle with a thunderstorm, but ultimately suffering from a bombastic numbing sensation, as one large band escalation followed another, with little dynamic sensitivity. The audience had to be careful not to miss the indoor Grand Hall set from the Garifuna Collective, which couldn’t really be delayed any further, given that the Noorans were apparently set on another hour of song. Way too long!

From Belize, the Garifuna Collective were previewing their new album, immediately establishing a dancing mania in a space cleared of frontal seating. The spread included traditional garaón drums, bass, guitars, ensemble vocals, and a prominent percussion instrument made of multiple turtle-shells. All of these elements clicked into a transcendent groove, lending their set a celebratory energy that culminated in a vigorous masked ritual dance.

Kapela Brodów have been playing together for nearly three decades, digging deeply for neglected old folk tunes. Using fiddle, bagpipes, bowed bass, harmonium, and hammered dulcimer, their stately early music demeanor made the songs sound like they might have done centuries ago, pervaded by a mournful mist. As the fiddling grew in prominence, polkas and mazurkas brightened the mood and the pace, with a few dancing couples rising up to spin. What looked like a toy church organ (though constructed in fine detail) was played in a duet with singer Justyna Piernik, and then there was another dance number, just with fiddle and bass.

The Polish duo of Mehehe made their mark, also in the courtyard. Basia Songin and Helena Matuszewska wore matching long scarlet dresses. Their tendencies were multi-instrumental, starting with double frame drums, then moving on to subtly scraped fiddles and throat-strafing, trebly vocal emissions. When folk gets strange, we can ponder on the whimsical legacy of Tír na nÓg, Popol Vuh, and the Incredible String Band. Even though a significant element was storytelling (in Polish, of course), it was still possible for the English-speaker to be enfolded in the magical weaving of Mehehe phonetics—their wily phrasing of unknown words. A gently grinding accordion, a shaken seed-pod, whistling wind noises, strings that sounded faintly Indonesian, and a discreet electro pulse: these are the understated details that made Mehehe bewitching.

It seemed like there’s a strong love for Irish folk music in Poznań, as the Lankum quartet from Dublin were very warmly received. They opened their afternoon courtyard session with a group vocal, plumped up by guitar and drone; instruments amassed textures as the fiddle was steadily introduced, then harmonium and uilleann pipes. “The Rocky Road To Dublin” continued the thrum, with further four-part vocal harmonies, increasing speed for an instrumental stretch, topped by a spirited fiddle solo. The a capella Dublin sea shanty “Fall Down Billy O’Shea” was another striking stand-out. Lankum favor a quirky presentation, with introductory digressions, mordant thoughts, and much dry mirth.

The final evening’s outdoor turf show involved the Greek lyra and bagpipes of Evritiki Zygia, specialists in Thracian folk. The palette held surprises, as extremely percussive prog rock keyboards opened up for some subtle kaval wooden flute soloing. Frame drum, bass davul drum, and a rebab-style axe had a Polish folk dancing line instantly established, parading in front of the stage. A churchy, bass-y organ built up to a manic dervish release, with solo embellishments stuttering into the night.

One of the best sets arrived right at the close of the final night, in the moodily-lit courtyard. The mostly female group Lemma were fronted by singer Souad Asla, presenting a repertoire of Algerian Berber music, with close affinity to the Gnaoua sounds of Morocco. Most of the members sing and play percussion, including bendir frame-drum and metal-clacking qraqeb. Their colorful, shiny robes lent a Sun Ra image, as they clapped in unison and gathered in a semi-circle, chanting, with a lone electric guitar adding a strand of gristle. The stylistic approach was kinked away from that of most similar practitioners, making this a singular musical experience, as a group trance grew, spreading from band to audience. Swirling dance quickened the campfire flame-licks, and the collective spirits were nudged ever higher.


Martin Longley

Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for The Guardian, Jazzwise and Songlines.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues