Based on Arca & Jesse Kanda’s strangely satisfying performance at The Hague’s Rewire Festival last year, one thing became abundantly clear: This festival has a predilection for artists who are autonomous on stage, artists who toy with expectation with shows that – deliberately or not – split the discussion down the middle of what live music could be. The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual shows being an obvious example of the following quandary: to what extent should the artist cater to the audience?
Of course, as fans of headstrong spirits like The Knife and Arca, the romantic notion is to leave a performance to “the beauty of circumstance”, as we concluded a year ago. Indeed, things that just happen unplanned can make a performance singular and memorable. But as we found out at this year’s edition, there’s a limit to that aforementioned notion. Sure, like fellow Dutch fests Le Guess Who? and Roadburn, Rewire prompts and trusts artists to be their headstrong selves in order to create something truly ‘out there’. But those same artists, in turn, need a forward-thinking festival like this just as much, to facilitate and realize their vast breadth of ideas and whims. Especially those whims make it a potentially fickle tango, one that needs to be reasonably in sync in order to work to the max.
Unlike Arca, who wisely kept us in the dark from the get-go, this year’s most buzzed name, SOPHIE had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances. It goes to show one thing: artists can be in complete control once they take the stage, but if they back out of previously set terms last minute, someone has to eventually pull the plug. Fortunately, Rewire found a more than capable replacement in Mykki Blanco, who can fill a room with his presence alone, even with the most slapdash of preparations. Artists like that rarely disappoint. In Paard’s main hall, Blanco enlists LYZZA – who performed earlier in the small Paard-venue – behind the turntables. His silhouette haunts like a spectre behind think curtains of smoke, waving his mic stand like a magic wand.
“We all love SOPHIE, but do they know what’s inside my heart!? What do you think... I’m some kind of performance artist!?”, Blanco defiantly asserts, immediately shutting down the idea that he’s playing some sort of court jester. Like Arca, he’s a reactionary, playful musician who scrambles gender binaries, sexuality, and human identity, an intuitive force who will impact you regardless of setting, composition or size of the room. After Mykki Blanco leaves the stage in dust, LYZZA rides it out with some Zombie Nation and Cardi B, which is exactly the kind of music one would relish at 1am, with all these mind-expanding experimentalist performances being the norm.
Even when artists disappoint at Rewire, they still manage to intrigue and bewilder. Last year, we noted how Arca was such a fresh departure from the trite image of an electronic producer dressed in an anonymous black hoodie. Producer and concept artist Fatima Al Qadiri however, puts her own unique stamp on this crude assumption. Standing with her back towards the audience dressed in – you guessed it – a dark hoodie, doesn’t feel like a game of smoke and mirrors at all, more like an act of defiance. Call it an anti-performance if you will, but audience members reaching for its redeeming factors will immediately home in on Al Qadiri’s swirling, tantric productions, music which embodies a fractured marriage between anatomical and pixelated sonics.
By being silent herself throughout the show, she’s simply opening up a new rift for your senses. The only reason why it would be disappointing is because we’re all conditioned to enjoy an artist performing for us, as opposed to one who wants to experience music with us. And even though Al Qadiri is more conceptual than visceral in her presence and MO, like Mykki Blanco, she wants to reach out to you, build bridges. To opt for the most outrageous of means – distance – takes some serious cojones. And of course, the reactions were mixed.
There was plenty of genuine fun and revels at Rewire too. Take AMMAR 808, responsible for the most outright joyous performance of the entire weekend. Led by North-African trailblazer Sofyann Ben Yousseff, this collective unleashed a whirlwind scramble of different traditions – from Moroccan gnawa to Egyptian chaabi – over a thumping, infectious pulse. A lot of bands that interlace homegrown sounds with technology do so with a precise vision, whereas AMMAR 808 are delightfully haphazard and rambunctious. The band members laugh at their own fuckups, playing with carefree abandon from start to finish, letting all these disparate elements run rabid.
Sheer joy and untethered expression arose in more understated fashion too. Ben Vince manipulates soothing saxophone tones like a paint-soaked brush in clear water, allowing the colours and textures to spread and dissolve like embers. That’s a radical one-eighty compared to the primordial, smouldering wail of Mats Gustaffson’s The Thing. Even as new sounds keep getting introduced to our psyches, it’s baffling to consider how the range of expression from a single and familiar brass instrument keeps evolving.
Irreversible Entanglements throw the rulebook out altogether. This remarkable free jazz alliance – composed of Keir Neuringer (sax), Luke Stewart (upright bass), Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), Tcheser Holmes (drums) and Camae Ayewa (words) – was founded in the aftermath of the Musicians Against Police Brutality Event, following the shooting of Akai Gurley. As if you haven’t figured it out yet, blithe enlightenment isn’t on the agenda here.
If you followed Ayewa’s work as Moor Mother in the past, you’d be familiar with her ability to be a potent vessel for pain from the past, present, and future. Well, with Irreversible Entanglements, this basically gets amplified times five. Ayewa understands the pliability of her own words, as she throws them into the cauldron for the rest of the band to interject their own vehemence to. What you get is a combustible expression of acute pain and catharsis. Repetition in Ayewa’s words is applied to rev up the mayhem further and further, to burrow it into our own subconsciousness.
This goes against the consensus that words merely domesticate jazz music. In this case, words are the amplifier that keeps the whole damn engine fired up. “You will forget right now”, Ayewa snarls continuously, fighting against our collective fear of memories being either dissolved or manipulated. It leads me to think that punk rock spirit isn’t dead at all, it just entered the host body of jazz. Hard to argue after seeing The Thing, hearing that marvellous new Sons Of Kemet album, and now this. Irreversible Entanglements provided by far the most intense and eye-opening moment of this year’s Rewire, not to mention the most unforgettable.
The more household names produced shows with varying results, and not always as memorable. Noah Lennox of Panda Bear embarked on his usual nautical journey of quirky electronics and morning dew crooners. Though sweet and with a some genuinely impressive sonic tidal waves, hearing A Day With The Homies wasn’t the same joyride as when listening to it through headphones. Though Noah’s Ark sunk too soon, James Holden & The Animal Spirits’ meticulous and masterful alchemy of free-jazz and electronics kept the audience firmly in trance. Though steady and supple, after about 45 minutes in, we start yearning for more heavy apocalyptic torrents instead of Holden’s meditative oscillations. We found it next door in Paard II with Chino Amobi, who virtuously unleashed his box of corrosive post-R&B like the Ark of The Covenant or something. Which was ultimately a more fun, holistic experience.
Suuns were one of the few household names this year who showed command without trying too hard to stifle the chaos. Though the Montréal foursome make some of the sexiest music imaginable, they haven’t been as sexy to write about as, for instance, Holden. They are a pragmatic, poised bunch shrouded in their own little corner of the universe, where they forge familiar elements into their own amorphous lingo. They don’t mythologize what they do, there’s no hyphen necessary to describe them. It all seems to bubble up subconsciously. Their fiercest critics like to point out how some influences permeate too obviously – namely from bands like Clinic, Can, or Massive Attack – but that’s different from being a complete rip-off.
Point being, Suuns have been – unassumingly almost – one of the most steady and elemental bands this very decade. Their shows, even though they can become pretty loud, always feel VERY intimate. That intimacy is more palpable than ever on their latest self-produced LP Felt, with songs like ‘Make It Real’ and ‘Look No Further’ almost composed like old school hip hop, leaning on rudimentary beats, a single riff and Ben Shemie’s disembodied vocals. Suuns have been an absolute touring monster for the bulk of their existence, and a broken snare drum isn’t going to shake that savvy. As a matter of fact, from the front row, it just looks like Shemie and drummer Liam O’ Neill are goofing off.
As said before, their experience as a live band gives Suuns a sixth sense of when to use chaos to their advantage. Once the new snare drum is in place, they churn out their most famous song ‘2020’ to loud cheers followed by a maniacal version of ‘Powers Of Ten’, which in essence is a Suuns-version of trap music. But the comedown after the chaos gets more emphasis this time. A Suuns show always reflects where their headspace is: which is more colour, more tranquillity. With a saxophone player in the mix, ‘Love And Peace’ brings their set to a heartfelt end. The chemistry is right there: Shemie leaning back and turning his gaze to O’Neill, who plays the drums like a kid tiptoeing not to wake his parents. As Joe Yarmush is the steady anchor in the middle, Max Henry dazes in his own mystical soundscape heaven, completely absorbed. A bit of myth is always nice, but sometimes the best myth is when you witness what’s happening before you: a band in perfect harmony, doing what they do best. And Suuns do this over and over again.
On Sunday, Nadah El Shazly’s show with band evokes a similar sentiment. The Egyptian composer’s musical DNA is imbued with just about anything you can think of: from punk rock to traditional folk singers like Mounira El Mahdeya, wispy electronics, minimalism, and classical music. It’s easy to become a sum of parts, but El Shazly doesn’t as much juggle her reference points as allow herself to be engulfed in them. Her wonderful debut Ahwar – one of the most striking releases of 2017 – translates to the word ‘marshland’. That should give you an idea.
Like genetics start amalgamating in that movie Annihilation – not to sound tacky – the compositions on Ahwar are ever-changing in a live setting. The militant saz riff of ‘Barzakh’ sounds more sleek and amorphous, whereas the strange, videotape cadence of the tracks' second act now sounds like bizarro math-jazz. It’s absolutely stunning, even to those familiar with the record. Though El Shazly is an incredibly gifted and versatile vocalist, she doesn’t let her music lean on that single aspect of her overall talent. That being said, the show’s most unspoilt and pure moment comes in the form of a minimalistic, passionately sung hymn. The eerie chorus effect of the sparse guitar makes it almost sound alien, even though El Shazly’s vocal delivery feels more grounded in reality than all the other stuff. You get the sense that the next time we see her, her music will have evolved into something new yet again.
Like El Shazly, Suuns, James Holden, Laurie Anderson (whose performances and appearances we unfortunately missed), and many more artists at Rewire this year, set assumptions of what ‘challenging’ music should be are challenged on every turn. Pundits are shaken up and casual onlookers sucked in. If one thing has became clear, it’s that music itself is a marshland engulfing and imposing on our self-made codified structures, melting them into each other, growing in unsurprising directions from fertile places watered with audacious spirits. And therefore, we can’t wait how our impressions of Rewire 2018 will develop into next year.
Photo Credit: Parcifal Werkman (except Nadah el Shazly by Bram Petraeus)