“We thought we’d got rid of you people!”
So booms a grinning Belgian journalist as Clash arrives at the Tønder Festival, named after the charming Danish city where it’s taken place for the last 40 years. Which, appropriately enough, means that the first one happened shortly after Denmark followed Britain into the common market, the pre-EU; and they really did follow us. Well, this is awkward...
“It was one of the main reasons for Denmark applying in 1972, that England had also joined - the UK was extremely important for Danish industry,” a Danish music-biz pal explained, shortly after the bewildering Brexit decision. “So we feel pretty weird about what’s happened.”
It’s an interesting time to visit Denmark then, weeks after the British electorate gave it and Europe a mighty middle-finger. And that’s a subject that’ll rear its head regularly over the weekend.
But it crops up first in Hamburg, which we fly into the evening before. It’s easy to forget quite how geographically close such politically disparate bits of Europe are to each other. Refugee-friendly Germany shares a border with Denmark, which has a right-wing regime openly hostile to refugees, even confiscating their belongings. Nice.
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Harsher bits of Germany are rebelling against Merkel’s policies now too, but we head to Hamburg’s most liberal area, St Pauli, home to the world’s most punk-rock football club, St Pauli, and a generally lefty ethos. Indeed, in a supermarket Clash meets a bloke called Jakub rocking a Refugees Welcome t-shirt. “It got very big last year, but now we hear the other side quite strongly too, so you’ve got to do your little bit,” he says. “I feel like maybe people feel strongly in the UK too, but a different way.” He’s not wrong.
Across the road, Brexit crops up with a waitress in the hip-hop burger joint Gefundenes Fressen, run by the German rapper Samy Deluxe. “I have friends who wanted to study in the UK,” she says. “Now, they’re not sure.”
Which will probably please those elderly Leave voters: less Germans coming over. It’s sobering for the rest of us though, Brexit putting people off before it’s even been implemented. Scheisse. We leave Germany the next morning, via the autobahn, and there’s some discussion about potential border checks, which have apparently gotten stricter. “Now you can get stopped,” says our driver. “A lot of the other European countries are really annoyed at Germany, and their refugee policy.”
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I have friends who wanted to study in the UK... Now, they’re not sure.
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Don’t assume that Denmark is some UKIP dytopia, though. We’ve been invited to Tønder by the good people at Spot, who are putting on some local acts here and have dedicated whole stages to local immigrant communities at their own Spot festival: last year, for example, Clash got friendly with a displaced Palestinian nose-flute player. But then he’s probably classed as being uniquely skilled.
Back to the autobahn, and we’re feeling tense as that border approaches, passports clutched tightly in sweaty palms – but we sail serenely through, driving from Deutschland into Denmark easier than England into Wales (no toll). Honestly, all that tabloid bullshit about Britain’s strained borders: we’re like the Death Star by comparison.
The surprisingly carefree vibe continues as we roll into Tønder, which is about as perfect a festival location as you can imagine: a big field, but right next to the city centre, where there’s loads of off-site stuff happening. Musically it’s a folky affair really, but quirky too. During an exuberant young outfit called Sherzandum’s set, a guy called George wearing a Brighton football shirt runs around the tent with a massive Sherzandum banner – turns out they’d made it specially, but it didn’t fit. So it went mobile.
He’s in a folk/drum and bass crossover duo – sounds interesting - and is still delighted to meet Brits. “That was really funny,” he says, “when you voted to leave Europe, then you were knocked out of the Euros by Iceland, like, the next day.”
This becomes a running theme. The fine Danish country-rockers Jonah Blacksmith – who boast nice onstage lampshades and a frontman who looks like Seasick Steve circa 1972 – are more circumspect. “We’ve never played in the UK, and we’re not sure we’ll be allowed in now,” says keyboard player Jon Kjeldsen, after their enjoyable afternoon jam session. “But you’re still welcome here!”
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Confusion reigns, and it’s an issue that clearly perturbs promising musicians. Over dinner that first evening we meet a gifted guitarist called Sigurd, from the duo Fromseier/Hockings, who do a traditional folk song about taking a cow to market: quite possibly a statement about the UK’s dark-ages trading prospects. “It’s rubbish!” blurts Sigurd, of Brexit. “I don’t understand how it happened.” And he shakes his head in bewilderment.
Clash does a fair bit of bewildered head-shaking too, trying to explain it all; scapegoating tabloids, selfish pensioners. But we can all be guilty of lazy stereotyping. Over lunch on day two Clash meets a Brit called Mary-Jane who might look your classic Leave voter if you met her in, say, Surrey: turns out she lives in Germany, is furious about that result and – blimey - has actually taken in a refugee. Perceptions: blown.
Time for a Brexit-break with some good old-fashioned North American outfits (no Trump-talk either - the first two are Canadian). The Dead South, playing a lovely old speakeasy called La Gayola, are authentic bluegrass throwbacks who incorporate choreographed beer-opening into their set. “This song,” says their big-hatted frontman, “is about having too many drinks and letting your dog drive home.”
Fortunate Ones, from Newfoundland, make more sedate, still thoroughly enjoyable folk-pop, but surprisingly disturbing are North Carolina’s Avett Brothers, who’ve had big US hits but seem weirdly hyper here, hopping around on the spot as if all yearning to urinate. They’re probably just high on… Jesus.
Crazy-legged brothers aside it’s all thoroughly agreeable, and by the fest-end Tønder has calmed our tender souls. Clearly we’re all on the same page here: nobody wants us to go, and everybody hates Farage. As we cruise back to Deutschland next morning, a German label guy called Jorg nicely rubbishes that ‘sovereignty’ argument. “People are too proud of their country and currency,” he concludes. “I'd take the Turkish dinar, the German Mark: I don’t care.”
Music and money – it’s a universal language.
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Words: Si Hawkins