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Dutch fest Le Guess Who? embraced diversity and the unknown (review, pics)

During the closing night of Le Guess Who? Festival 2019 (Nov 7–10), two artists voiced an idea that had been simmering over the long weekend. Paris-based Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, one of six acts who helped curate the lineup, spoke about her pride for Africa and addressed the current global political climate, telling the crowd, “Our diversity must be our strength.” An hour earlier Dutch punk band The Ex—playing in a different room at the fest’s sprawling main performing arts complex, TivoliVredenburg—touched on a similar sentiment in “Soon All Cities,” a song about the homogenization of global culture. Against clattering guitars and thrumming drums, singer Arnold de Boer intoned, “Soon all cities will have the same restaurants / Soon all cities will have the same roundabouts / Soon all cities will have the same governments / Soon all cities will have the same accidents.”

Questions about globalization, borders and how those things affect musicians, music listeners and everyone else were sewn into the fabric of the 13th edition of Le Guess Who?. The festival doesn’t really have headliners per say: just a steady four-day sprawl of concerts hosted on 30 stages across Utrecht in the Netherlands. Diawara joined Patrick Higgins, Iris van Herpen & Salvador Breed, Moon Duo, The Bug and Jenny Hval in curating other acts within the lineup.Though there are half a dozen show spaces within the TivoliVredenburg building near the train station, other venues are spread throughout the city, so a bike rental helps for attendees looking to cut down on walking time. Anyone looking for a guide post could take the advice of the screens set up at the main venue which read, simply, “Embrace the Unknown.”

That could mean improvised collaborations, like the debut of AEAEA—a new glitchy laptop-and-guitar project from Patrick Higgins and Nicholas Jaar—or guitarist William Tyler and harpist Mary Lattimore blending acoustic melodies and folky motifs inside a nearly 1,000 year old church.

The unknown could also take the form of folk music another part of the world, or the juxtaposition of different traditions on the same stage. German-based Zimbabwean singer Stella Chiweshe filled a different reverberant church with the sound of her rich voice and mbira (thumb piano). Playing harp and violin, and backed by an acoustic guitarist, Le Bruja de Texcoco mixed Mexican folk music with a modern approach to stagecraft, at one point lighting a big joint on stage as she closed the set.

At the same time, other artists seemed eager to leave tradition behind with radical live stagings. Jenny Hval’s new album The Practice of Love received a theatrical presentation inside a seated theater that incorporated performance art, dance and live video elements. Band members broke out into games of cat’s cradle and huddled into an on stage tent to create shadow puppets. The performance worked best when it leaned on the music with more literal interpretations of the songs like “Six Red Cannas,” a meditation about nature and creating art, illustrated with a Jenny stand-in typing away at a laptop midstage.

In one of TivoliVredenburg’s smaller theaters, long-running experimentalists Negativland blasted messaging about the internet and automation, then filmed the crowd and remixed the video to project behind the band. Its set centered on the inescapably dystopian elements of our world. Downstairs in the same building, Holly Herndon gave a more optimistic take on technology, leading a performance of her PROTO show that utilizes an artificial intelligence named Spawn. Her band meshed human voices with digital sounds and manipulation to create cathartic swells of sound. Again, the audience stepped into the role of performer as a member of Holly’s band led the crowd in a sing-along, which she said would be fed back into the AI back in Germany.

If all that sounds a bit technical and conceptual, there was also plenty of funk, rock, jazz and dance music. At the fest’s opening night, Danish indie-rockers (and LGW alums) Efterklang played an extended, textured set in the festival’s main hall. (They’re coming to North America in 2020.) Later that night the Somalian Dur-Dur Band International, now based out of London, delivered vital grooves and an anarchic group dynamic for a lively dance party. Friday brought South Korean psych duo TENGGER, which played set of hypnotic New Agey synth songs joined by their small son dancing on stage and walking through the crowd with a bird call. Friday also saw the heady stripped down jams of Swedish rock vets Träd, Gräs och Stenar and Ethiopian singer Ayalew Mesfin, who helmed the US-based Debo Band through disco, funk and Afrobeat workouts. My Saturday night started with an always-entertaining set by Deerhoof, playing Friend Opportunity in full, and ended with a live synthesizer set by Blazing Suns (Salvador Breed, Boris Acket, Nick Verstand and Maarten Vos) in a dance-music club with speakers loud enough to rattle your fillings. In between, Japan’s Minyo Crusaders, equipped with a two-piece horn section and three percussionists, blended reggae, funk, cumbia and other dance music into a pan-global party vibe.

For the most part, even if a certain performance was full, you’d only have to wait in line for a short while before space would open as people left for another set. Demand for Japan’s Eiko Ishibashi, visiting as part of her second European earlier this year though she rarely if ever comes to the US, quickly outpaced the small room she was booked in, creating the relatively unusual experience of being turned away to find something else.

The fest prides itself on unique bookings, depending on where you were visiting from. Ayalew Mesfin, who was imprisoned briefly in the ‘70s in Ethiopia for his music, now lives in the United States, but hasn’t performed much in the last 40 years, besides a three show US tour in 2018. At this concert, billed as his European debut, no one was in better spirits than the spritely septuagenarian Mesfin, who could barely contain his excitement to share his music, dancing nonstop, running through the balcony and hyping up the crowd. For many acts, the journey to Le Guess Who? was a long one, and temporary home the festival creates—where borders and boundaries seem to melt away, diversity is cherished and an eager crowd is there to soak it all up—is a welcome destination.

Check out photos from Le Guess Who? 2019, including many of the artists mentioned above (plus Bjork [who did a DJ set], Deerhunter, Sudan Archives, Cate Le Bon, Aldous Harding, Moon Duo, Tropical Fuck Storm, Empath, Makaya McCraven, and The Raincoats) in the gallery above. The dates for Le Guess Who? 2020 are already announced — November 12–15 — and early bird tickets are on sale.

photo by Erik Luyten, Jelmer de Haas, Jorah Zaterdag, Melanie Marsman, Rogier Boogaard, and Tim van Veen, courtesy of Le Guess Who?

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