Blesok no. 90, May-June, 2013
Sound Reviews

An Epic Journey with OFF-Fest

Tina Ivanova

Another OFF-Fest edition is over. Another epic journey through some old, to us known or unknown stories, told in the spirit of the contemporary music times. The festival, which started 12 years ago with an idea to present the so-called “world music” has not only fortified its concept, but it has also shown its strong mirror reflection. A lot of audience, maybe more than ever, excellent programme, relaxed atmosphere, lots of applause, happy faces and debates in the hallways, are the elements that distinguished this OFF-Fest, which took place from 1-6 June at various locations (Macedonian Opera and Ballet, Universal Hall, Frosina cinema).
Of course, there was also the feeling of fresh air, the same feeling that we have in the autumn when the Skopje Jazz Festival is on, or any other cultural event, the feeling that drags you from the cruel, banal and pragmatic political and social reality which occupies us and pressures us, without us even wanting it, in a second.
The festival started with the concert of the great Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar, also known as the daughter of the legendary Ravi Shankar. The applause and ovations of the Macedonian audience would not let her leave the stage. Shankar and her band made of real virtuosos thrilled the audience at the Universal Hall presenting the very interesting album “Traveller” – a piece that combines within itself the Indian classical music, the raga, with the Spanish flamenco, full with innovations and performing experiments born from the creative spirit of the musicians.

The OFF-Fest opening took place in a nice atmosphere. Without any particular glamour, red carpet or political VIPs. What was the most important was that the top artist Anoushka Shankar came to the Balkans for the first time, just as her father, the distinguished Indian musician Ravi Shankar did when he performed at the “Ohrid Summer” in 1977, placing Macedonia as first on his concert agenda for these areas.
The concert started with a performance of the traditional Indian raga which was announced by Anoushka herself, and she did the same thing later in the concert, telling about the path of the music to which she was being dedicated at the moment. That was the story of the Roma who had moved from India to Andalusia, actually about the flamenco which had come from the most populated country filled with for us exotic colours and fragrance, just as the music of Anoushka Shankar.

In the days when the anti-government protests are shaking Turkey, when thousands of people demonstrate on the Taksim square in Istanbul because of the announced tree cutting, in Skopje, on another stage, the artistic and music one, there was the performance of one of the most professional Turkish bands, which, by chance or not, is called “Taksim Trio”. The three masters of their instruments, Husnu Senlendirici on clarinet, Ismail Tuncbilek on bağlama and Aytac Dogan on qanon, all coming from the city where the east and he west kiss, fascinated the numerous audience in the Macedonian Opera and Ballet at the second evening of OFF-Fest, which was filled in even at the stairs in the hall.
From the moment that they appeared on the stage, “Taksim Trio” were applauded at, and their solo masterpieces were followed by constant ovations, and “bravo” exclamations. Obviously, this band that has been telling about the tradition in the modern times in their own unique way, through their music, is loved by the Macedonian audience. Even more with the Turkish population living in Macedonia, who were present at the concert in big numbers. The “Taksim Trio”, judging by the smiles on their faces, were happy to be in Skopje and that the audience had given them such love. In the end, quite expectedly, the musicians did not close their eyes before the fierce riots that shake their country; in that respect there was the speech of Senlendirici who spoke in Turkish and that also took out a flag with the already well known statement “Support us”.

Before the concert of the Turkish trio we witnessed another exceptional performance, the concert promotion of the “Bioskopia” project of the Macedonian creative duo – Elena Hristova (from “Balkava”) and Goran Trajkoski (ex-“Anastasia”), who performed with a six member acoustic band. As expected, it was a concert to remember, although the audience reactions were not very enthusiastic. However, the music created by Hristova and Trajkoski is not for the broad audience, it is not for general tastes, but it asks for specific sensibilities. The concert brought real magic, because the pieces that make “Bioskopia” album are such, they offer different moods, although most of the time they “hit” you with sorrow, melancholy, and even with despair. The archaic, lyrical, religious, ritual songs, this time through the creative eyes of Trajkoski, sound surreal, strong, but also gentle and trembling. And when it is combined with the gentle voice of Elena Hristova, who also inspires with its ornaments, a unique atmosphere is created.

The concert of the interesting Slovenian band “Brina” took place in a chamber, quiet, warm and peaceful atmosphere, in “Frosina” cinema on the third festival evening. The sounds of the accordion, the violin, drums, guitar, bass and the impressive voice of Brina Vogelnik, whose name is also given to the band, took us through the multi-coloured landscapes of the Slovenian cultural heritage, which the artists see in a really unusual and very inspirational way. In Skopje, “Brina” promoted their latest, third album called “Undressed Skin”, which was positively accepted by the audience.
The fourth evening of “OFF-Fest” was reserved for dancing. The Macedonian Opera and Ballet hall was too small to host everybody that wanted to party, dance and sing by being present at the performances of two exceptional bands that came from afar “University of Gnawa” with the main singer Aziz Sahmaoui from Senegal/Morocco, and the octet “Ondatropica” from Columbia. As expected, as it often happened at the “Skopje Jazz Festival”, the bands and the performers that come from the African continent are very attractive for us because of the different culture that they have, showing via their music all of their exotic charm and diversity of sound colours.

From the moment the leader Aziz Sahmaoui appeared on stage, and his call to the audience to sing with him and the fantastic five member band, it was clear how the concert would go on. They put up a real show and made the audience move their hips. Their music is likable, interesting for the broad taste, cheerful and it has love messages, as Aziz himself said. Especially impressionable in the mix of electric and traditional sounds was the theme sung by Alune Wade, who was not only an exceptional bass player whose instrument really thundered, but also an excellent singer of traditional African music. The love ballads sung by Aziz as a contrast to the fierce rhythm were also interesting, giving the concert a beautiful dynamics.
The Columbian band “Ondatropica” comes to the OFF-Fest for the first time. “Ondatropica” continued with what Aziz and his band had started before, they entertained and moved the audience. The turquoise colour of the costumes dispersed in the room as the orchestra music dispersed, with the percussion and wind instruments dissolved the possibly remaining indifference on the chairs. This was a good occasion for the audience to break the barriers of the dissatisfaction of the everyday life and forget about the banality. This was an evening that connected natural with sophisticated, and evening in which hip-hop and funk were together with the Columbian poro and gaita.
As a monster born in the depths of the Finnish lakes, the “crazy” Kimmo Pohjonen swam up on our stage with his accordion, set it on fire and off he went. It was wonderful, unique music and stage performance at the end of “OFF-Fest” which brought a lot of inspiration. The concert of the music visionary and revolutionary Kimmo Pohjonen in the Macedonian Opera and Ballet meant a wonderful festival ending.

The South Korean ensemble “Tori” performed first, as real “punk” sensation, of course, not in the literal meaning of the word. However, their unique view of the Asian sound horizons in the country where tradition is sacred, is an avant-garde. The four riders of the traditional Korean instruments led us through mountains, rivers and lakes, but we also walked together in the army boots. From a very slow, peaceful pace, “Tori” took their pieces to a trans genre furiosity, which took us by surprise. From the magical rituals of the shamans, to the spiritual music of the Buddhists, from for us atypical music forms and sound dialects, to the contemporary techniques presented on traditional instruments, was the road of “Tori” ensemble which we really see rarely on our stages.

With respect to the escape from the “prevailing” norms in music, punk also continued with Kimmo Pohjonen. This musician who comes from the cold Scandinavian country, a country of cultural progress, especially when it comes to contemporary music is in Skopje for the second time, since he set the Universal Hall on fire in 2002 during the Skopje Jazz Festival. This time he performed alone with his accordion connected to various sound auxiliary devices, and a camera on it for the visual sensations that were shown on the hallway of the Macedonian Opera and Ballet. Kimmo Pohjonen did not surprise us, because what he presented had already been experienced in a way. However, his concept charmed and thrilled – in simple, “geometric” figures he told many juicy stories. This performance will not be forgotten, and of course we are expecting him again, with a new “mad” avant-garde piece.
“OFF-Fest” has become a tradition as well. We hope that it will reach and surpass the figure of its relative. However, unlike the “Skopje Jazz Festival”, here we see broader sound areas, here we can wake up somewhere far – where we have not even dreamt of being.
This year, unlike some past festival editions, there was no good, old or new, rock-and-roll band, such as “Gang of Four”, but yet “OFF-Fest” managed to maintain its continuity called quality.

Translated by Bela Gligorova

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