Le Guess Who? Festival 2019 has stormed through Utrecht, leaving attendees and the city recovering from what has to be the festival’s finest editions yet.
Boundary-crossing music and culture is the pulse of LGW?. It’s rare to find a festival where attendees come from all across the world even when barely knowing a name on the lineup.
Part of Le Guess Who?’s annual success is its decision to allow their top-billed names the chance to curate the festival lineup.
For the 2019 edition, six curators were chosen (an upgrade from the three at previous editions). These performers and artists helped to shape the programme in diverse directions, from Mali’s trailblazing Fatoumata Diawara, to Norwegian singer-songwriter Jenny Hval. Each esteemed artist performs and in turn chooses a handful of artists they’re inspired by – or who they simply want to see live.
All eyes were on the acts curated by The Bug (now a frequent collaborator at Le Guess Who?) – from the weighty Godflesh and Earth, to his own appearances in King Midas Sound and collaborations with the astonishing Moor Mother and Hatis Noit – it was hard to find a performance he wasn’t behind.
At Le Guess Who?, fringe and relatively unknown artists in Europe suddenly level up. Artists like Holly Herndon (chosen to perform by three separate curators) and Girl Band find themselves upgrading from small venues to arenas of over two thousand people.
So much so, that it was nearly disconcerting to have Bjork perform an unannounced DJ set on the Friday night – jammed crowds flooded the stairs as rumours swept the venue. It provided a great opportunity for Le Guess Who? to assess how well the festival can hold up to bigger acts. Probably continuing to keep them as mystery acts is the best step forward.
But bigger isn’t always better at LGW, shown by the euphoria to new project Hidden Musics. It’s aimed at presenting global music traditions that normally don’t reach our shores, often from more remote parts of the world with a very rich, often centuries-old, history.
Ustad Saami’s performance might possibly be the pinnacle of this project. In Jacobikerk, a 13th century church in the heart of Utrecht, attendees experienced the last living khayál master, a precursor of the ancient, Islamic devotional music of qawwali. Ustad Saami’s music uses an unprecedented 49-note microtonal scale (the Western scale, just for context, is only 7 notes). It was a complete honour to witness his performance.
Also up there with LGW’s most powerful shows was Ayalew Mesfin & Debo Band. Mesfin’s music rebelled vigorously against Ethiopia’s dictatorial oppression of the 70s; distribution of his music led to several months in jail for the artist with a prohibition to play music for 13 years. It was his first European live performance. The venue was lined with older Ethiopians from across Europe, clearly spellbound by his presence.
The excitement was so much this year that LGW’s main venue, Tivoli, was at times overwhelmed by demand. The most popular shows, such as The Raincoats, saw attendees needing to arrive more than 10 or even 15 minutes early just to cram into the back of the rooms.
Capacity might be a challenge at the festival, but if you only stay the busy Tivoli venue then you’re missing out on the wider story. Le Guess Who? spills out across the city in a series of satellite events and venues.
For instance, the Centraal museum had festival-only exhibits, including one from James Merry (the mastermind behind Bjork’s ethereal face masks – oh, we had so many clues that she’d turn up!).
On Friday, Lombok Festival welcomed attendees to express the Ulu Mosque along with a host of performances by Eritrean, Kurdish and Syrian artists.
On Saturday, Le Mini Who? presented a compelling dip into up-and-coming artists from Holland and further afield. Tiny microbreweries and cafes are home to hidden treasures, one minute shoegaze and post-metal screamo, the next minute a tapestry of traditional instruments intermeshed with sounds of 1970s Kabul.
One of the most intimate performances was an album listening session of performance poet Moor Mother‘s new album, in a tiny independent print workshop Kapitaal (collaborating with the famous Kickstarter). In this tiny room, our ears were treated to a wild improv with Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale and trumpet composer Jaimie Branch. How are these artists not household names? Ultimately, this is the beauty of Le Guess Who? – the intimate moments, the revelations, the discovery that true art in the 21st century is not forgotten.
If there’s one foreign festival you visit in 2020, make it Le Guess Who?. But on one condition. Be prepared to be confused, challenged, surprised, energised, maybe even brought to tears. In short, go with an open mind; expect nothing and everything.