Rudolstadt is unique, and one of the greatest folk and world festivals around - a festival where the common view of musicians playing there is "the best festival we have ever played at" (Bears of Legend, Canada) or "The best festival in the world” (Sketch, Scotland).
It had been a whole 17 years since my last visit to Rudolstadt - moving abroad and starting a family meant that a visit just didn't happen. I am glad to say that, on arrival, it felt just like yesterday. The essence and the vibes of the festival have remained just the same in all those years - yes the festival has grown up; it has become bigger and it has become more professional, yet the charm and attraction is just as it has been in 2000.
So what's so special about Rudolstadt? Well of course there is the music - an amazing selection of 130 bands from more than 30 countries, a mix of the superstars in folk and world music, dance and ceilidh bands, as well as many low profile yet high quality buskers. Yet what makes Rudolstadt special and unique is its soul and its audiences. The setting of this beautiful old town in Thuringia in the centre of Germany is already stunning, the town nestles at the foot of wooded hills, next to the river Saale, with a castle high on the hill above the town.
During the festival, literally the whole town is alive with music, with charming venues everywhere - go into the park on the riverside and you will find the two main stages, a dance tent and a children’s festival area. Walk through the lovely cobbled streets of the old town and you'll find plenty of formal and informal stages throughout the town - and where there aren't stages, you'll be sure to find buskers about. Brave the heat and take the steep climb up to the castle, and you'll yet again be in music heaven, with two main stages full of great music in the castle yard and on the castle terraces. You may have passed on your way a church where yet more music will have drifted out of the open door. And if you wanted to cool down, just jump into the river (a popular pass time on a hot weekend like this year) or into the open air swimming pool (with or without swimming costume!).
And wherever you go, everywhere happy people - who are as ready to dance as they are to sit still and listen. 25,000 visitors come to the festival each of the three main days - but you'll be hard pressed to find any trouble, arguments, open drunkenness or even fights. In fact, it is reported that the local police enjoy the festival weekend, as they are said to have less to do during the festival than at any other time of the year! The only (and quite frequent) argument you may find is where the “sit-on-the-floor-ers” and the “want-to-stand/dance-in-front-of the-stage’rs” disagree whether to sit or stand at concerts, but these are done in a friendly, nearly playful manner, and just seem to be part of the good humored routine of Rudolstadt.
The festival is also extremely well organised, with excellent festival infrastructure - rarely is there a long queue for the showers, toilets tend to be clean with plenty of toilet paper. There’s also plenty of good quality and varied food available at the stalls, as well as of course the various eateries in town. And, to the credit of the festival goers, after the festival the campsite is left behind back in its pristine meadow conditions - no rubbish left anywhere.
With this atmosphere and wonderful festival community, it hardly really matters who is playing. Although the selection of bands was this year again impressive – some you may know and love, others you will have never heard of before.
I was delighted that the country focus this year was on Scotland, with an excellent bunch of Scottish bands and projects performing. The Highlands band Sketch, combining trad Scottish music with dance beats, was amazing and my personal highlight of the festival - they played a total of 7.5 hours in 5 concerts and were quickly becoming the soundtrack of this year’s festival - and no matter if they played at midnight or at lunchtime in the height of day in some 35 degree C heat, the crowds were dancing and cheering away.
Strangely, at two of their gigs, they were directly competing with another Scottish band mixing trad music with dancefloor beats, Niteworks. In one instance, on the last night, they were playing in hearing distance on the concert stage and in the dance tent, with the beats competing with each other. Perhaps the only bit of programming which was just odd.
Breabach, with their two pipes and a more traditional line-up, proved that they are the up and coming trad band in Scotland, with an amazing full sound. Fred Morrison, one of Scotland's leading pipers and flautists, had his own set, and Pop star Amy MacDonald opened the festival on Thursday - however, this was the one gig, with some 18,000 in the audience, which was so crowded that it was not much fun to be there. There were also several Scottish projects, bringing together the creme of Scottish singers together: “Kist of Riches” celebrated the songs collected by the likes of Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson. And “A Man for A That” sounded like a bizarre concept - the concert united singers from 10 different countries, singing Robert Burns songs in their original language - and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend (see separate report).
Away from Scottish music, there was much more to discover. Some of my personal highlights included, on the opening night, Zagreb born Branko Galoic and his Skakavac Orkestar, with a heady and danceable Balkan folk rock with plenty of brass. Wonderful Canadian folk pop band Bears of Legend. The trio Lopez Petrakis Chemirani, three outstanding instrumentalists combining traditions from Crete, Spain and Iran. Icelandic folk/pop/jazz singer Helgi Jonsson and Danish singer Tino Dico with their band charmed their audience.
And one of the unique highlights of the festival: 79 year old Brazilian singer Dona Onete, who only very recently started a career as a singer of her own style "carimbo chamegado". She brought with her a lively young band featuring sax, guitar, bass, drums and percussion, and happily sat and sang, and at times carefully danced, in front of the crowds, while between her songs happily chatting and laughing away in Portuguese (even though hardly anybody in the audience would understand a word). What a character, and what a voice!
The final act, Toots and the Maytals got us all together to party for the last time of the Rudolstadt 2017 weekend. The band’s Toots Hibbert is a living legend of Reggae music - and coined the term "Reggae" in 1968 with his band "Do the Reggay" - and boy he still knows how to do a party.
What a festival, full of superb music, atmosphere and wonderful friendly people. There’s no way I will wait another 17 years for my next visit - I'll be back soon!
He’s just a soul whose intentions are good. Zagreb-born Branko Galoić’s ambition is to still mix up the disco scenes when he’s past 80. Currently he is 43... Branko G. grew up with Balkan folklore and Yugo-Rock. Like the characters in ‘We Gotta Get out of this Place’, he moved from Ivanić Grad to Amsterdam, from Berlin to Paris – all the while soaking up music like a sponge. His Skakavać Orkestar is a kind of travelling cabaret blending Balkan brass, chunky rhythms and wild lead guitar solos. In ‘Pjesma andela’ (Angel Song) he sings, “I played the gig but nobody was listening/For any musician that’s quite depressing…” No way that’s happening here.
Branko Galoić @ FROG
Breabach ranks among the finest of the wealth of new folk acts coming out of Scotland right now. A wiser man than yours truly once said they hit the stage like a highland army advancing out of the mountain mist, with two bagpipes putting out a sound high on energy and rhythm. They then take the audience into the glens with a wonderfully melodic combination of fiddle, flute and whistle. With jigs and piobaireachd or pibroch (strictly piping but more loosely extended melody-based compositions with variations), stomping waulking (cloth cleansing and fulling) songs and energetic hornpipes, och, here’s a band to get your highland juices flowing.
Breabach @ FROG
Born in 1979 in Hammerfest in the Norwegian part of Sápmi, Elin Kåven’s music taps the welling sap from old folk sagas, Sami legends and the natural world. Her great-grandfather was a well-known shaman. She transports us to her people’s arctic sphere of folklore, traditions and reindeer-herding culture. In her sensuous and vivid songs she portrays Sami mythology in ways that make her a modern-day advocate for ancient Sami culture.
Elin Kåven @ FROG
The celebrated Scottish folk singer, viola player, composer, teacher and performer, Mairi Campbell is presenting her solo theatre show Pulse – “a quest to heal ancient wounds”, an autobiographical account of a musician seeking pulse – the delivery of which uses voice, movement, word and animation. “A beguiling brew of folk and trip-hop. Campbell’s unearthly vocals are potent reminders of the rhythmic thrills of both traditional and modern dance music.” (The Musician)
Mairi Campbell @ FROG
The two Bavarian musicians forming the nucleus of Dreiviertelblut have created a special new kind of local folk from out there. Imagine traditional Alpine music put in a blender with Americana for a few dozen revolutions. Permeating their lyrics is a gloriously jaundiced, morbid and fatalistic view of the world. It all comes delivered in their native Lower Bavarian dialect. Music to smack you right between the eyes. Musicianship of a superb standard overflowing with attitude.
Dreiviertelblut @ FROG
Bound by a shared passion for the fantastical, this Québécois indie-folk septet, born anno 2012, makes music that’s a compellingly unholy alliance. Their deeply sensitive lyrics draw deep from the well of Northern American myths and stories, with music that’s a blend of folk, progressive rock and classical music. It is a perfect symbiosis of waltzes, Native American rhythms, progressive modulations, airy choral-rock vocals, poetic folklore and metaphorical tales.
Bears of Legend @ FROG
Music for dreamers, and losers in love. Helgi Jonssón is a 37-year-old composer and musician from Reykjavik. His main instrument is the trombone, he also picks on a guitar but on his latest EP he plays only a grand piano. His fragile songs and compositions reflect life’s varied emotions and impressions of the Icelandic landscape, inviting mind and soul to wander. Check out the Barsel Sessions videos on his website for a flavour of his English-language songs. Barsel means maternity or paternity leave in Danish.
Helgi Jonssón @ FROG
Two ensembles from the Italian port of Genoa embark on a journey in the direction of Galata, a neighbourhood opposite Istanbul – the once-Constantinople – in Turkey. It involves cruising around the taverns, the hookah-smoking dens, the kafe aman haunts where, in the old tales, makam met melodies of the magic circle of trallalero. There Ottoman traditions mingled with the polyphonic, accompanied singing style of Genoa’s shipyard workers. “An intriguing imaginary musical journey.” (Songlines) Trip the make-believe.
L’Orchestra Bailam @ FROG
A force of nature. A wellspring of passion. Ani DiFranco is a beacon of New Folk. She toasts artistic freedom, feminism, social engagement, the power of grassroots agitation and organising and activism. Although remaining outside the music business mainstream, since the start of her career she earned her spurs as a singer-songwriter to note and heed. It has made her a model for one socially engaged generation and a source of renewed hope and inspiration for old guard.
Ani DiFranco @ FROG
Dona Onete, born Ionete da Silveira Gama is known as the diva of the carimbo chamegado, a rhythm she created that combines traditional musics from Para in the north of Brazil laced with “a touch of spice”, as she puts it. Having spent a career as history professor and secretary of culture in her Amazonian hometown, where she sang to the boto, the river dolphins, she was discovered, as they say, in retirement by a local band. Donna Onete cut her debut album in 2012. At the age of 72.
Dona Onete @ FROG
Born in 1963 near Glasgow, Fred Morrison began learning piping when he was a nipper. His background was in the Gaelic tradition of South Uist (an island in the Outer Hebrides). It forms the bedrock of, and informs Fred Morrison’s musicianship. His ‘fragile mind’ and intensely, immensely expressive, adventurous style were further coloured by such pioneering groups as the Bothy Band and the Tannahill Weavers. Later he piped with Clan Alba (the Scottish supergroup very few heard, let alone saw) and Capercaillie.
Fred Morrison @ FROG
Next Rudolstadt Festival 5-8 July 2018 with a FOCUS ON ESTONIA!
Photo Credits: (1) Rudolstadt Festival 2017, (2) DVD 'Wo Worte nicht hinreichen… - Roots, Folk und Weltmusik in Rudolstadt', (3) Alma (by Rudolstadt Festival / Jörg Wolf); (4) Eurasians Unity, (5) Torgeir Vassvik, (6) www.karolinacicha.eu, (9) Elin Kåven, (10) Mairi Campbell, (11) Dreiviertelblut, (12) Bears of Legend, (14) L’Orchestra Bailam e Compagnia di Canto trallalero, (15) Ani DiFranco, (unknown/website); (7) Branko Galoić, (8) Breabach, (13) Helgi Jonssón, (16) Dona Onete (17) Fred Morrison, (by The Mollis).