“There’s no intellectual property to be found in ancient melodies,” shouts Vik Sohonie to the early festival festival goers. It’s six forty five on a cold Thursday afternoon, moments before the music kicks off at the TivoliVredenburg venue in Utrecht. Vik Sohonie is the founder of the Grammy-nominated label Ostinato Records, focusing on music from Africa’s past, and he’s here tonight to open the fifteenth edition of Le Guess Who? Festival.
To be exact, he’s about to introduce the first act Noori and his Dorpa Band; their music is in dialogue with Sudanese music from decades past, started when young Noori forged a guitar neck in Port Sudan with the vintage tambour gifted from his father. Since then, their music has been used to uplift the ever-resilient Beja community, whose history is rife with oppression from the Sudanese government.
This strange blend of modern and traditional, ancient culture and globalisation, is the backdrop to these vital questions on what role the music industry has to play today.
“The future of it lives entirely in your hands,” Sohonie continues, his voice echoing around the walls of the Grote Zaal (Great Hall). The consumer decides where the business goes. You decide who goes big. “The melodies you hear tonight might have been first heard thousands of years ago around the fire.”
If any festival attendee is in question if they’re supporting the IP business or the music business – “At Utrecht you’re supporting the music business and the band that is about to be on.”
It’s a poignant reminder. These conversations are rooted in very deep and real fears facing the music business that in recent times have been tightened to the wire. Last month, curator Animal Collective pulled out of their European tour and festival performance citing inflation and currency devaluation: “We were looking at an economic reality that simply does not work”.
This is a devastating assessment of an industry that does not survive on streaming but through other forms of revenue such as tours, releases and merch. Between fellow music aficionados, it’s a conversation that carries out among music journalists and professionals, to snapshots of conversation in the street, to drunken debates in bars. “The music industry is dead,” proclaimed so often that its blade is dull.
Not only this, but we are living through the boiling pressure of the times: we are living in anger and exhaustion and anger again, that without due care could boil over and fade to apathy, or more hopefully, can remain simmering and active. And at Le Guess Who?, it’s where these emotions are expressed.
We are scathing in the language of The Bug, whose performance of his landmark LP ‘Fire’ last year unleashes the societal pressures of poverty and societal division as witnessed in his Grenfell Tower dedication ‘The Missing’.
We are angry in the turbulent urgency of Dreamcrusher, shattering the boundaries of stage and spectacle to remind us of the peace and connection found at the core of chaos.
We are pensive in the spaces of chamaeleon where Palestinian writer Farah Chamma verbally outlines the spaces and dialogue in the wider themes of identity and belonging.
At Le Guess Who?, you can viscerally see the change and loss faced by the artists who have made it here. Slauson Malone performs his album ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak)’, a German word meaning ‘coping with the past’. His experimental outbursts, audience interruption and sudden paroxysms refers to the excruciating manner of how we deal with trauma from a nation’s history, notably in Black political thought.
In Injury Reserve, we bear witness to the loss of group member Stepa J. Groggs two years ago; the now duo take to the stage with Groggs voice still heard in the songs of their latest album that was mostly completed before he passed away. At one point, both performers quietly leave stage as Groggs’ voice reverberates around the hall to the song’s completion; the loss is unreservedly tangible.
With OKI, we see some of the last players of the indigenous Japanese Ainu five-stringed harp the tonkori, where the family act together celebrate their common cultural identity in the face of centuries of historic discrimination.
The Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar, known fondly as “the four thousand year-old rock and roll band”, bring ancient music from their small village of Jajouka. The collective is in fact of one of two factions that split decades ago following their decision to represent their timeless ensemble by touring their music around the world.
Through the schism and hardship we bear witness to, act after act from aggression to despair, performer and audience alike are brought together to a common goal.
We have Dos Monos and their brand of explosive experimental Japanese hip-hop, who once described their destination musically and spiritually to ‘restoring culture in society’ – to transform ourselves into something less subservient, more subversive.
We have Kaito Winse who was raised in the village of Lankoue, Burkina Faso, and who commandeers a host of traditional instruments such as the tama drum, the Fulani flute and mouth bow to eternalise his ancestral musical tradition.
Then you have someone like GOAT. Their status of psychedelic rock crusaders is near mystical, as they claim their cult originated from a commune in far north Sweden. It would take a thesis to investigate their role in music, as they don colourful masks and costumes to illustrate their trancelike flavour of alternative and experimental fusion that they have referred to as ‘World Music’. But one thought comes to mind – that in all the diversity of culture, we should not embrace disparity, but recognise and highlight our wonder, our appreciation and our similarities – our appetite for knowing and understanding more and better.
The gratitude is sincerely deeper than last year’s sheer exhilaration of the return to live music after the long year of 2020. Injury Reserve pause at the end of their show to thank their audience and highlight how important it is, not only to play as performers, but to be brought together with many of their respected peers to collaborate and meet face to face – which sometimes is only possible because of festivals like this.
By supporting festivals like Le Guess Who?, buying merch, and supporting the artists in a way that goes beyond streaming a few songs, we are cultivating and investing into a space that feeds others and ourselves – we are community finding. We are continuing the hope. We are building change.
Perhaps the best parting word in fact comes from Greta Thurnburg, whose article I read leaving the Tivoli venue on the first day: “Hope is not something you talk about, it’s something you do”. The world we knew is continuing to fall apart – but through it all, and despite it all, the music is still here. We’re still here.