Meakusma Festival is the only place I’ve ever seen someone play a balloon. Not play with, but instead, play as an instrument. At some stage on Sunday evening, one of the balloons that had laid atop the netting hung from the ceiling for Lena Willikens’ Saturday evening set found its way on to the stage. More precisely, a slightly older man, who appeared to be on acid for the whole of Meakusma, happened to knock the balloon, mid-flail, to the feet of a bass player who promptly put down his bass, picked up the balloon, placed a microphone on it and proceeded to tenderly pluck away at said balloon. The output from the microphone was run through a synthesiser.
Quickly gaining a reputation as one of Europe’s premier experimental music festivals- with a distinct slant towards the electronic end of that genre (yes, genre, but this is a label that we’ll return to later)- Meakusma centres around a complex of buildings in the German-speaking, east-Belgian town of Eupen. Because of the vagaries of the British transport system and a very late lunch with an uncle in Antwerp, the Bizarre Culture team, i.e. Navz and I, arrived after the sun had set, and though.
Given this late arrival, we decided to concentrate our energies on the Halle stage. The largest of the rooms (all but one of the stages at Meakusma were inside). Kara-Lis Coverdale’s live electronic musings morphed into a relatively downbeat Ben UFO, which slowly built up to something which had the tinges of his usual harder techno stylings and instead focused on a particular distortion of bass music, but this particular conclusion was never quite reached. Instead, it was left to Batu, Ploy, Bruce, billed as label mates under the heading of Timedance DJs, to blow the roof off instead. A bit of context is worthwhile here. Ben played Meakusma in 2017 and apparently liked the festival so much that he came back for the second year and organised the line-up of the stage around him. Given that Kara-Lis Coverdale is generally known for experimental, minimalist electronic music and Batu is known for face melting bass-heavy techno, I really wasn’t sure how the transition from one to the other over the course of a few hours would work, but it did. By trusting in the work of the acts around him then, Ben managed to create a pretty unique musical experience over the course of a few hours.
Obviously not musically sufficed by hanging around at the back of the stage, drinking red wine on Friday night, Ben could also be seen wandering around the festival site on Saturday morning, soaking in the dub-heavy sounds emanating from the sound system set up as part of Meakusma’s only outdoor stage. In fact, most of the acts seemed to stay around for at least part of festival outside of their sets, which always like a stamp of approval for the quality of music being played, while also creating a nice democratic feel to a festival, breaking down the barrier between performer and audience giving everyone the sense of equal access to the experience of the festival.
On Saturday night, Lena Willikens curated a stage of Japanese acts drawn from her recent residency at the Goethe-Institut in Kyoto. Rie Lambdoll and Kopy stood out, playing highly intricate techno sets. Placed in the Kuhlraum just off from the main hall, with the aforementioned green netting hanging from the ceiling, these sets had the most “club-y” feel of any moment over the weekend. Lena Willikens followed up her selection of artists by slowing things down, throwing things sideways and running away from any kind of beat that could be considered four on the floor. In the main hall, Drums Off Chaos attracted a significant crowd for the hypnotic rhythms and in contrast to Lena Willikens’ slowing things down, Shackleton’s performance was a classic piece of fast-paced live techno.
Just outside of the acts in the main complex was The Dublab Sleepless stage, whose presence was one of the highlights of the weekend. dublad.de the Cologne-based radio show broadcast a mixture of talk-shows, live performances and DJ sets over the course of the weekend, focusing on dub and bass music in the evening then meandering through various experimental styles throughout the day. A number of performances stood out. The Barcelona-based Mans-O played a lovely live set of spacey electronica very early in the morning. Marc Hollander, a legend of the Belgian music scene, played on of the most eclectic sets DJ I’ve heard, swapping from traditional French songs, to spoken word to some techno, seemingly with little, if any forward planning and yet the mix worked perfectly- a true testament to a lifetime spent in music. Londoner Coby Sey, who seems to be finally getting the recognition that he deserves, played a blistering mixing his jazz, experimental and hip-hop leanings with a heavy dance attitude.
Outside of the main arts complex, Tomoko Sauvage and Emmanuelle Perrinen’s performed in IKOB, Eupen’s gallery for contemporary arts. Tomako is a Japanese musician with a jazz musician who for the last decade set about using a version of traditional Indian tuned water bowls as, according to her website, natural synthesisers. Perrinen, on the other hand, is part of the French new-folk tradition and brought along a hurdy-gurdy and a harp. The set comprised of the artists reacting to one another, developing a series of soundscapes.
Across the weekend, I found myself circling back to the Dublab stage over and over again. For some, heavy, experimental techno music for three nights running may sound like a musical dream come true, and while certainly, I enjoy this, there are times when I need to either (a) feel like I don’t need to grapple with music to dance with it, or (b) save my eardrums from the ever impending threat of tinnitus. By offering a continuous programme of slightly more subdued, though never not enjoyable, music, the Dublab stage offered a little heaven from which to explore the ever-evolving landscape of Meakusma, giving a kind of coherence to the festival which could otherwise have teetered towards feeling like a series of concerts.
Late on the Sunday night- more realistically early Monday morning – Navz and I, returned to our tents for a little post-festival chill and chat. For some context here, about the tents and not the chat, the camping ground is at the rear of the complex, behind the rather vegetable patch which serves Eupen’s sustainable living initiative, though the patch wasn’t so large as to mean that you couldn’t hear what was playing at the Dublab stage in the wee hours of the morning. During our chat, two themes kept on recurring: what it actually means for a festival to present a selection of experimental music and who it was presenting this selection too- which isn’t a particularly novel question to ask about experimental music, but I think it’s worthwhile discussing a little bit here for a reason I’ll return to at the end of this article.
Navz gave a good example to get us started: the kind of music made by Tomoko sounded incredibly new to me, but for him, as someone from where Tomoko’s instruments originate, the music wasn’t experimental in terms of absolute innovation, playing something never heard before. Instead, it was experimental in a scientific sense, in the sense of the combination of some musical components. At Meakusma, at least for me, this was presented to a new audience, but the question is whether at the end of the day, if this particular experiment, this particular combination is done over and over again, the innovation aspect is lost. A perfect example of this problem of when the experimental becomes blasé was getting John Talabot to play his particular brand of electronic music in a medium-sized venue at peak hours on a Friday night showed a lack of clarity with what Meakusma wants to be. The point here is that this wasn’t a bad set, in fact, it was a good John Talabot set and so, therefore, better than the vast majority of other DJ sets, but it was an “experiment” that was conducted on a pretty much weekly basis across much of the world this summer.
I think that it’s worthwhile including in this review the fact that Navz and I had this discussion precisely because of how good Meakusma was. If Meakusma is to become Europe’s leading experimental music festival, which if it can sustain and even build on what we saw and heard, it will inevitably become, Meakusma will have a particular power in experimental music. A big part of this power will be in essence to help define what is “good” in contemporary experimental music (the implication, whether true or not, is that the best festival in a genre gets the best acts). If Meakusma continues to place acts like Talabot and Shackleton at the top of the bill, rather than focus on allowing some moments which felt genuinely innovative, could hold back the festival from just being a great showcase of some experiments, rather than achieving its full potential of pushing experimental music forward.
Words by Matthew Gibson
Photos by Caroline Lessire