“There is no intellectual property in old melodies”, shouts Vik Sohonie to early-goers. It is six forty-five on a cold Thursday afternoon, moments before the music kicks off at the TivoliVredenburg hall in Utrecht. Vik Sohonie is the founder of Grammy-nominated label Ostinato Records, which focuses on music from Africa’s past, and he’s here tonight to open the fifteenth edition of Guess who ? Festival.
To be exact, he’s about to introduce the first act Noori and her group Dorpa; their music is in dialogue with the Sudanese music of decades past, started when the young Noori forged a guitar neck in Port Sudan with the vintage drum offered by his father. Since then, their music has been used to uplift the ever-resilient community of Beja, whose history is marked by oppression from the Sudanese government.
This strange mix of modern and traditional, of ancient culture and globalization, is the backdrop to these vital questions about the role the music industry should play today.
“The future of this one depends entirely on your hands,” continues Sohonie, her voice echoing off 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 may have been first heard thousands of years ago around the fire.”
If a festival attendee wonders if they support the IP sector or the music sector – “In Utrecht you support the music sector and the band that is about to perform.”
It is a poignant reminder. These conversations are rooted in very deep and real fears about the music industry that, of late, have been squeezed to the wire. Last month, curator animal collective pulled out of their European tour and festival performance citing inflation and currency devaluation: “We were faced with an economic reality that just wasn’t working.”
This is a devastating assessment of an industry that survives not on streaming but on other forms of income such as touring, releases and merchandising. Between fellow music aficionados, it’s a conversation that leads between journalists and music professionals, to snapshots of conversation in the street, to drunken debates in bars. “The music industry is dead,” she has so often proclaimed that her blade has dulled.
Not only that, but we are living under the boiling pressure of our times: we are once again living in anger, exhaustion and anger, which, without the necessary precautions, could boil over and fade into apathy, or more happily , stay bubbling and active. And at Guess Who?, that’s where these emotions are expressed.
We are scathing in the language of insect, whose performance of his landmark LP “Fire” last year unleashes the societal pressures of poverty and societal division as evidenced by his Grenfell Tower dedication “The Missing”.
We are angry in the turbulent urgency of dream breakerbreaking the boundaries of stage and spectacle to remind us of the peace and connection found in the midst of chaos.
We are pensive in the spaces of chameleon where the Palestinian writer Farah Chamma verbally describes spaces and dialogue within the larger themes of identity and belonging.
At Guess Who?, you can viscerally see the change and loss faced by successful artists here. Slauson Malone performs his album “Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Crater Speak)”, a German word meaning “to face the past”. Its experimental outbursts, audience interruptions, and sudden climaxes reference the excruciating way we deal with the traumas of a nation’s history, especially in black political thought.
In Reserve for injuries, we bear witness to the loss of band member Stepa J. Groggs two years ago; the duo now take to the stage with Groggs’ voice still heard in songs from their final album which was largely completed before his passing. At one point, the two performers quietly leave the stage as Groggs’ voice echoes through the room until the end of the song; the loss is tangible without reservation.
With OK I, we see some of the last remaining players of the indigenous Japanese Ainu five-stringed harp, the tonkori, where the family acts together to celebrate their shared cultural identity in the face of centuries of historical discrimination.
The Master Musicians of Jajouka directed by Bachir Attar, affectionately dubbed “the four thousand year old rock and roll band”, bring old music from their small village of Jajouka. The collective is actually 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 witness, act after act, from aggression to despair, performer and audience are united in a common purpose.
We have Mono Back and their brand of explosive experimental Japanese hip-hop, which once described their destination musically and spiritually to “restore culture in society” – to transform us into something less submissive, more subversive.
We have Kaito Winse who grew up in the village of Lankoue, Burkina Faso, and requisitions a host of traditional instruments such as the tama drum, Fulani flute and mouth bow to perpetuate his ancestral musical tradition.
So you have someone like GOAT. Their status as psychedelic rock crusaders is almost mystical, as they claim their cult originated in a township in the far north of Sweden. It would take a thesis to investigate their role in the music, as they wear colorful masks and costumes to exemplify their alternative, experimental fusion trance flavor that they have referred to as “world music”. But a thought comes to mind – that in all the diversity of cultures, we must not embrace disparity, but recognize and showcase our wonder, our appreciation and our similarities – our appetite for knowing and understanding more and better.
The gratitude genuinely runs deeper than last year’s sheer elation of returning to live music after the long 2020. Reserve for injuries pausing at the end of their show to thank their audience and emphasize how important it is, not only to perform as performers, but to be reunited with many of their respected peers to collaborate and meet face to face face – which is sometimes only possible because of festivals like this.
By supporting festivals like The Guess Who?, purchasing merchandise and supporting artists in ways that go beyond airing a few songs, we cultivate and invest in a space that nurtures others and ourselves. – we find the community. We continue to hope. We build change.
Perhaps the best farewell word actually comes from Greta Thurnburg, whose article I read as I left the Tivoli room on the first day: “Hope is not something you talk about, it is something you do”. The world we knew continues to crumble – but through it all, and despite it all, the music is still there. We are always here.