Ben Houdijk

Le Guess Who? Festival 2018: Europe’s intoxicating celebration of the unconventional

Lonnie Holley – Le Guess Who? 2018 – © Ben Houdijk

Think ‘music festival’. Are you imagining sitting in a field on a summer afternoon, drinking cider, drifting away to your favourite easy-listening artists and bands?

Scrap that – because Le Guess Who? will change everything you thought a musical festival could be.

Le Guess Who? Festival is a November celebration of artists and performances scattered across venues and cafes in the city of Utrecht, Netherlands. Dubbed Europe’s most adventurous festival, the list of musicians on the bill would make even the most well-versed music aficionado scratch their heads in confusion. And there’s no headliners – because according to the founder, “we are not the ones to judge which artists are more popular”.

You’ll be forgiven for turning away now. It’s okay to prefer your Radio 1 DJs to some man experimenting with distorted radio waves and calling it ‘music’. But if this has whet your auditory appetite, read on. For those who treasure music as a place of delight and discovery, who have no better home on a Saturday night than their local venue listening to some unusual new band, who aren’t daunted by the unknown potential of genres like ‘math-rock’ or ‘musique concrète’, then Le Guess Who? is your music Mecca.

‘Just go with the flow’, the LGW veterans will advise. ‘Don’t plan too far ahead’. Still, you’ll likely to be desperately scouring Spotify for what on earth a collaboration with Ian William Craig & Daniel Lentz could be, or how ‘The Bug ft Miss Red’ might sound.

But there’s no better time to figure that out than when you arrive. Take the first few hours of Day 1. There was Art Ensemble of Chicago – the pioneers of free jazz, joined by Dudu’ Kouate’s talent to make music from everything he touches, from wooden children’s toys to drums floating on water on his playmat of African percussion. There was the raw charisma of Soweto Afro-psychedelic collective BCUC. There was Israeli-punk-guitarist-meets-Native-American-drumming in Yonatan Gat & The Eastern Medicine Singers, there was the orchestral ONCEIM & Éliane Radigue present ‘Occam Océan’ which filled the church with an hour of variations on just a handful of droning notes. And all in the time taken to drink one pint.


BCUC – Le Guess Who? 2018 – © Tim van Veen

After four days, you’ll understand why Le Guess Who? supports the idea of ‘curation’. Every year, a few key artists are selected to invite other performers to come to Le Guess Who? – this year the curators Moor Mother, Devendra Banhart, and Shabaka Hutchings. When you watch the bands chosen by these artists, you’ll start to discover the subtleties of their influences, what inspiration drives their own music, and even who they want to see live. As Shabaka Hutchings said of Kadri Gopalnath, who has spent the past twenty years altering his own saxophone to suit the classical Indian genre of Carnatic music: “I’ve never heard anything like it. […] I’d really like to see this guy play, because I’ve never seen him play in any part of the world that I’ve been in. I don’t know what the gig’s going to be like, but for me, this is a part of it. It’s actually the audience discovering, with me, who this saxophone player is right now.”

Speaking of Shabaka, if there’s any accolade for ‘best curator’ this year, he’s the winner. He drew a whole host of notable talents to Utrecht, including STUFF., BCUC, Bo Ningen, Kojey Radical and Paddy Steer. Not only that, but his own performances are the stuff of legend. This weekend, Hutchings performed two projects: The Comet is Coming on Sunday night, a pulsing throb of intergalatic electronica jazz; and on Saturday night, none other than Sons of Kemet. Where do we even start with this one? This show had to be the highlight of the festival. Normally, Sons of Kemet is saxophone, tuba and two drummers – but for the show, they upgraded to what they call the ‘XL’ version of the band, with two extra drummers. Yes – that’s a total of four drummers. With searing synergic improvisation and collaboration, it’s an afrobeat extravaganza, fulfilling Hutchings’ mission for “every single person in that room to feel this energy that brings us all together”.


Sons of Kemet – Le Guess Who? 2018 – © Ben Houdijk

Up there with Sons of Kemet is renowned sitar player Anoushka Shankar and percussionist Manu Delago performing with MO Strings (the 27-member string section of the Metropole Orkest). If this arrangement was played in schools across the continent, every student would be signing up for the school orchestra in a heartbeat – Shankar and Delago are musical visionaries.

The most touching performance goes to the finale of the festival – 76-year-old Southern soul maverick Swamp Dogg, who feels like the festival’s adopted grandfather. He serenades the crowd and edges on his fellow musicians into extended solo performances: ‘Go on!’ he bellows at them, taking a seat and chuckling merrily. ‘Give it some more!’ – and points at the drummer. At the end, he performs a 20 minute performance of ‘Got To Get A Message To You’ where he tries to get down to the crowd to greet everyone; unable to find a way, instead he hands his cane to his bassist, gets down on hands and knees, and slowly crawls along the front of the stage to shake hands with everyone, all the while singing the refrain without skipping a beat.

Swamp Dogg - Le Guess Who? 2018 - ©Jelmer de Haas

Swamp Dogg – Le Guess Who? 2018 – ©Jelmer de Haas


With the variety of experimental and all-embracing music showcased, it can be difficult to know where to start – and when to move on. The pressure of ‘FOMO’ is real here – are you spending too long in one room, trying to figure out if this screamo experimental performance artist is your thing, when maybe your perfect act is in the next room? What if you abandon this krautrock collective too early, before you figure out what it’s all about?

As you start to accustom yourself to the festival, less time is spent fretting about time-wasting. Instead, you start to explore yourself. Why exactly do you usually dislike this genre? And, more importantly, are you willing to explore it further anyway, to see if you might change your mind?

LGW is for those whose objective of a music festival is to learn something new. It’s for the listeners who are willing to sit and listen to instruments from the four corners of the world (and any of the other strange objects that artists here might call their ‘instruments’, from bird whistles to contorted shrieks). It’s for those who are comfortable sitting in shuffling awkwardness through the weird and wonderful until that fantastic ‘click’ moment where it all makes sense. And it’s for those who aren’t looking to go watch the artists already on their playlist, but formulating their new playlist for the year to come.