“Isn’t this the best festival known to humankind?”, asked Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus during her show at Le Guess Who?, the Dutch festival which took place from November 9th – 12th in Utrecht.
Of course it was a rhetorical question! Le Guess Who? has come and gone, turning this picturesque and charming town into a privileged stage for music and artistic experimentation, with an incredibly diverse and bold interdisciplinary program that only a few other festivals can match. Exhibiting a unique vision and ambition, a truly adventurous spirit and a friendly atmosphere, Le Guess Who?’s eleventh edition played host to artists drawn from all corners of the musical spectrum indulging people with all kinds of musical tastes. After dreaming of being part of it for so long, this was our first foray into the world of sounds and delightful experiences that Le Guess Who? offers. An abundance of jazz from visionaries like Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra Arkestra, Shabaka & The Ancestors and Peter Brötzmann, ancient Bulgarian folk songs from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, a 12-hour binge of drone music, hypnotic Gnawa grooves from Maâlem Houssam Guinia & Band, Taarab music from Lebanese legend Abdel Karim Shaar, Siberian throat singing from Yat-Kha, ethereal ambience from Julianna Barwick or William Basinski, experimental and abrasive hip hop from Dälek, and many many more. Such an impressive line-up is also magnified by the festival being co-curated by singular artists who in turn invited their own favourite artists to play. Jerusalem In My Heart, Shabazz Palaces, Grouper, Perfume Genius, Han Bennink and James Holden made this year’s sterling cast of guest curators.
A venue-hopping festival, Le Guess Who? takes place in a range of venues across town including churches, theatres, clubs and cafes. But the heart of the festival was Tivoli Vredenburg, a giant multi-purpose complex centrally located, where a large part of the program took place. Boasting five music halls, each a unique venue in its own right, and several other spaces, linked via escalators and stairs, Tivoli had even more to offer inside its glass structure, from food, record and merch stalls, to exhibitions including this year Le Gig Poster and the stunning Black Power Tarot Exhibition by King Khan and Michael Eaton, featuring prominent African Americans, from musicians to comedians and activists. And for those who like a good ale, the festival had its very own Le Guess Who? session IPA on offer.
With a dizzying amount of artists performing simultaneously in over a dozen locations, and despite our desire to see nearly everything, missing performances was inevitable. Conflicting scheduling aside, we let fate steer us to unknown territories and all we caught was an incredible and enriching musical odyssey. We stumbled upon so many of our favourite artists and bands and made discoveries that turned into favourites.
Thursday opened gloriously with ‘Eann’, a composition by Martijn Comes performed by Malgosia Fiebig on the carillon of the iconic Gothic cathedral Domkerk, which can be heard throughout the city.
One of the performances we eagerly anticipated was French band Oiseaux-Tempête as part of Jerusalem In My Heart’s curation. We were buzzing with excitement, thrilled to finally see them perform after their recent album, AL-‘AN! became one of our favourite release this year. The duo of Frédéric D. Oberland and Stéphane Pigneul, accompanied by Sylvain Joasson on drums, Mondkopf on synths, delivered a dense and intense performance combining music with the live projections of As Human Pattern, brushed with the poetry of G. W. Sok, former singer of The Ex, who joined in with spoken words for a few songs. The band led the audience through a sea of potent and poignant emotions, going from apocalyptic to enlightened, from tumult to beauty, navigating through genres like post-rock free jazz, electronica, drone and Arabic music, with an improvisational flow that ventured as far as the short 45-minute set allowed.
The gig took place at De Helling, a cosy and friendly staffed music venue on the outskirts of town. Later on the same stage we caught Liars who put on a viscerally thrilling performance. In line with the artwork of their recent album, TFCF, Andrew Angus, now the only remaining original member, arrived on stage in bridal dress and veil, accompanied by his two new touring members, brothers Blaze and Reid Bateh. Tearing through a loud, wild and relentless set spanning their career, Angus is more energetic than ever, singing and shouting, jerking his body back and forth, inducing the crowd to dance frantically.
We were mesmerized by the powerful and emotional performance of Abdel Karim Shaar at Jacobikerk, another beautiful landmark church in Utrecht. His daughter opened the proceedings, performing a few songs in different languages, including Dutch, before introducing ‘the master of Tarab music’. Playing traditional Arabic Tarab music, Shaar and his exceptional orchestra left us with a feeling of celebration.
You never know exactly what you are going to get with Keiji Haino. The Japanese avant-garde guitarist and improvising singer, curated by Grouper, put on a blistering show. Loud and somewhat brutal, the beginning of his performance felt like a release of tension and aggression, making way for serener moments. Noisy and chaotic in some places, with heavy industrial beats, and peaceful in others. Whether he was screaming and manipulating his rhythm box or dome looking air synth, whether we felt disturbed or reassured, his show was a memorable one.
From noise to folk wonder, close by at the LE:EN, we were charmed by The Cambridge-born, Glasgow-based multi-instrumentalist and improviser Richard Youngs. In a beautiful setting, with the audience sitting on the floor, Youngs kicked things off by asking the audience to give him a tone. Talkative and engaging, he easily triggered a collective harmonic humming which carried on, leaving late arrivals to the show surprised with the participation. Explaining he hadn’t brought instruments, partly due to his 45-minute set, Youngs performance was purely acapella and it felt immensely rich and playful.
As if the spectacular line-up wasn’t enough, Le Guess Who? also unveiled one secret surprise act every night. Shown on the program as a question mark, it wasn’t until the clock struck the scheduled time that audiences were treated to unexpected performances from Amadou and Mariam, Princess Nokia and Gruff Rhys. Friday’s surprise sent our happiness levels though the roof. At Tivoli’s Ronda, four mysterious men took to the stage just as it turned midnight, with the singer wearing a cow mask and suit, and the other three dressed in blue and white checkered suits, and wearing plague-doctor masks. After some delay due to technical difficulties, the initial feel of impatience in the audience turned into exhilaration as The Residents started playing, and included their rendition of James Brown’s classic ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’. With some bonkers visuals intermissions projected on a giant balloon, such as a bizarre clown and a weird sounding Mother Teresa describing wacky dreams, their show was absolutely striking. 48 years into their career, they are as unconventional and utterly brilliant as they’ve ever been.
The following day, we were blown away by Mario Batkovic, the Switzerland based Bosnian accordionist and composer whose latest album came out on the Invada label earlier this year. Equipped only with his accordion, he wowed the crowd gathered at Ronda, playing and exploring his instrument in an adventurous and challenging way. Pulsating and mesmerising, experimental and unconventional, the audience appreciated his performance immensely, and Batkovic seemed genuinely touched by their affection.
Ronda was also the stage for our next highlight, Maâlem Houssam Guinia & Band. Curated by James Holden, Houssam is the son and sucessor of Morocco’s legendary Gnawa master, Mahmoud Guinia. An infectiously ecstatic and joyous performance, with Houssam playing the guembri, a three-stringed bass lute, and his band joining in call-and-response singing, playing the krakeb, a large metalic castanet-looking instrument, and dancing whilst spinning the long tassels on their hats. Like skilled acrobats high kicking and flying, they danced frantically, bending down and leaping into the air. It was pure joy and it transported us to a colourful and entrancing world of rhythmic sound and high spirits.
It’s not surprising to find an infusion of Gnawa tradition on the latest album from James Holden, as the musician and producer worked and recorded with the aforementioned Mahmoud Guinia. Opening with two incendiary songs from his new record, and accompanied for the first time with a live band, The Animal Spirits, Holden had me dancing the show away. With vivid psychedelic visuals projected behind Holden who sat crossed legged in the middle, the energy in the room never faded away.
We finished the day with Aquaserge, a French band we’ve been raving on about for the past year. Just back from touring in Brazil, they put on a late show at EKKO. With the venue bursting at the seams, they’ve brought their amazing album Laisse Ça Être to life with a healthy dose of improvisation, displaying their extraordinary musicianship.
Le Guess Who? is a unique festival in that it manages to be tightly organised yet remains friendly and welcoming. This open and inclusive spirit reached its peak on Sunday as we descended on Tivoli’s immense Grote Zaal for a celebration of Alice Coltrane’s music. Devotional recordings from her final decades composed in the Ashram she had founded in California, the Sai Anantam Ashram, were brought to public light for the first time earlier this year by Luaka Bop. These recordings had a European premiere at Le Guess Who? performed by the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers, with guest Shabaka Hutchings joining them on a number, as well as Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus later on a few more. Acting as the Ahsram, with blue carpet and pillows for the audience opposite the stage, the room was filled with a true spirit of community, positivity and sharing. As pianist and musical director Surya Botofasina put it, good things are better when they are shared, and his call for participation was received with huge sing-alongs. The ecstatic and powerful chants and uplifting grooves captivated us entirely.
After his stint with the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers, prodigious multi-reed player Shabaka Hutchings, who is no stranger to Le Guess Who?, took to the stage at Ronda with his South-African band, The Ancestors, with similar spiritual heights and politically charged. Drawing from their 2016 release, Wisdom of Elders, with a powerful and poetic delivery, vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu returned to a refrain throughout the set, “We need new people, we need new hymns, we need new songs, we need to feminize our politics”. A transcendental, tight and terrific show with utterly brilliant performances from extraordinary musicians.
Performing as a trio, Tune-Yards treated us to a mix of brand new songs from their upcoming album I can feel you creep into my private life and hits from previous records including ‘Water Fountain’ and ‘Bizness’. Their entire set had a contagious and vibrant energy throughout with new material sounding edgier and more dance-driven.
We rounded off our weekend of delights with an ensemble who shone brightly, in all possible senses, Sun Ra Arkestra, with its members draped in their sparkling Afrofuturistic attires. As if the crowd wasn’t enthused enough, the Arkestra’s horn section joined the audience up close for a while in a marching band style, spreading their interstellar magic through the crowd. With 93-year old Marshall Allen leading on alto sax, the Arkestra’s performance, centered around their epic 1973 album Space is the Place, took us to another scintillating planet.
So here’s something to put in your diaries straight away – the 12th edition of Le Guess Who? will take place between 8th and 11th November 2018. Early Bird 4-Day Festival Passes are available until Thursday 30th November.