I think I first came across the festival through one of their first annual CDs (from about 1995 or so), bought from a second-hand shop ... and then sent them a playlist, which triggered further annual releases from them. I was very interested in the range of music represented at these festival, and by the description of Baba Yaga playing on 'castle ramparts as the sun set', and I quietly committed that I'd make it one day. Finally we achieved attendance this year, and were excited to receive media accreditation to cover the event.
Background and Location
Rudolstadt is a small town in the eastern part of Germany. If you want to find it on a map, look just south of Weimar, in the district of Thuringer. I found out that there had been a traditional dance festival there since the mid 1950s, mainly drawing on groups from eastern Europe, and later inviting dance groups from western Europe.
With the end of the GDR and the unification of Germany, the local town authorities wondered what to do with the festival, and advertised for proposals for ongoing directions; the present organisers won the tender with a proposal to broaden directions into 'world music'. Initially about 5000 people attended in 1991, but this has grown to about 30,000 people per day.
Now the festival stretches over many sites throughout the town. The program shows at least 27 locations ... and there are probably more with small stages and buskers all over the place. There are three main areas: the castle above the town with two main stages (main stage and terrace, and two smaller locations); the park across the river and railway line with two further main stages (and two smaller dance tents and museum stages); the market square and related areas around the centre of town, including the market square, the church, the theatre, and so on ... including people's houses ... Each of the areas has some relaxed security, with wrist bands and passes, so you can get both overall and daily passes, and also some limited 'town passes'. I think.
The Festival provided us with media passes and car parking as well as support and advice. The lovely media team facilitated contacts with artists - and access was easily available back stage for interviews and front of stage for photos. We recorded six interviews over three days, as well as doing a live cross to the Global Village program on the Sunday morning.
Food and drink was everywhere, both at the regular shops and restaurants throughout the town, and also at hundreds of street stalls. And we needed them, as the weather started hot and got hotter. Even with a free half-hourly shuttle bus from the town up to the castle, it was a slow and sweaty slog to get to gigs. We saw much less than we intended and planned, but enjoyed very much what we did see and hear.
So let's go through the days in order. It started at mid-afternoon on the Thursday, driving into town, dropping into the media office to pick up accreditation and passes and greeting the supportive team. We checked out the various stage locations - up to the castle and down again - before crossing the river to the park area where the evening's music started at about 9 pm.
The first group was Coetus, the Iberian percussion orchestra from Spain. We saw them set up and sound check, and then enjoyed their performance. There's about 17 people in the group, mainly percussionists on traditional instruments, directed by Aleix Tobias, as well as three singers (Eliseo Parra, Ana Rossi and Carola Ortiz) and a wind player. All members sing and musicians play a variety of different percussion instruments, from subtle tinkles to kitchen pots and pans to booming drums and pandeiros. They play rhythms from various parts of Spain and Portugal - a big sound.
We were very keen to see them, after seeing their youtube clips. Strangely for me though, I thought the sound was under-amplified! Maybe we'd heard Gaiteiros de Lisboa previously in smaller rooms and had our bodies shaken; here the sound was good but could have been more powerful and hence more engaging. It was a very enjoyable opening experience, but finally we were left wanting more.
Later in the evening Sly and Robbie were joined by Norwegian Nils Petter Molvær, Trio Dhoore played in the Dance Tent, and Caravan Palace presented electroswing after midnight, but we were long gone back to our accommodation, some half hour away ... and tired from the early start to the day ... and the heat!
On Friday, we started down in the town, having arranged to catch up with Galician singer Ses. The band had just arrived in town, so we dragged Ses into the storeroom at the media office for a quick but enthusiastic interview ... more on this later when we saw them play in the evening.
Then it was up to the castle courtyard at the top of the town. We caught the end of an early (2.30 pm) gig from Lebanese traditional/jazz/middle-eastern/atmospheric group Masaa, joined by Israeli singer Yael Deckelbaum - pleasant, but not really engaging.
Then Welsh group 9Bach were on the neighbouring stage. We'd met Lisa and Martin in Melbourne some years ago, when they were collaborating with the Black Arm Band, and it was fantastic to see them live in concert. Their music is based largely on reworked Welsh traditional tunes and songs written by Lisa, arranged by Martin - a six-person group with a sound that alternates between delicacy and power. They use xylophones, keyboards, harp as well as guitar, bass, percussion. There were still strong connections with their Australian experiences and Lisa talked about the impact of learning about the stolen generation.
Then it was down to the park to see Ses perform at 7.30 pm. She is a whirlwind of energy - "a hurricane called Ses" say the program notes. She draws on a background of tradition from Galicia in Spain, but is more influenced by blues and punk, professing a love for the Clash. This was a dynamic performance, for which we were right up front - we'd learnt by now not to hang back. The heat broke (temporarily) in a heavy thunderstorm just before they came on stage, but this stopped before their gig, leaving us wet and jumping. A highly energetic and enjoyable concert, by a 4-piece band we now count as friends.
We tossed up up whether to stay round after getting something to eat at 9 pm and saw the start of Rhiannon Giddens from a distance (crowds were now intense), but decided that being thoroughly wet excused us from any more, so went back to Bad Berka. It did mean that we missed Salif Keita and Les Ambassadeurs ... a pity but we'd had a HOT (and wet) day ...
On the Saturday, we drove down to Rudolstadt a little earlier than previously and saw Sona Jobarteh on the Castle Terrace stage ... where it was already hot and pretty shadeless. She was born in London, but now is living back in the Gambia, where she is continuing traditions from her griot background ... one of very few (maybe only?) griot women playing kora and singing. Beautiful music of both tradition and with her own compositions based on that tradition, with a small band. Afterwards, she gave an all-in interview under some trees on the terrace and talked about current situations and her hopes for musical development.
On the main stage in the castle, the winners of the Ruth (roots) prizes were presenting short concerts to the audience: Masaa, Funny von Dannen, and Eurasians Unity. We were most interested in the latter group, a large band of (mainly) women artists who had formed for the Women in Jazz festival some time ago, and stayed together. Caroline Thon is from Köln and the main driver of the band, as well as its saxophone player; in addition there is a German singer (Simin Tander), an Uzbeki dutar player and singer (Feruza Ochilova), an Iranian 'ud player (Negar Bouban), a Bulgarian accordion player (Veronika Todorova), and a Lebanese pianist (Cynthia Zaven), supported by German Alex Morsey on bass and tuba, and Bodek Janke from Poland on percussion ... and a Bulgarian dancer. Wow - what diversity. Their music has an interesting tension between the traditional music and some quite exploratory and free jazz. Not all was to my liking, but there was plenty to be moved by. And after the gig ... and their celebration for winning the award ... I interviewed Caroline about the background to their music.
That took us into the early evening, some food, and a bit more of 9Bach's second concert, before we grabbed almost front-row seats for Mariza's concert at 10 pm. Still hot as the light faded, but no rain so far.
Mariza arrived before a vast crowd, with her small band: Portuguese and classical guitars, acoustic bass guitar, and percussion. She was instantly recognisable, dressed now in a tight red sequinned gown - her 'black period' was long past. This became more apparent, as she presented a stunning and sometimes cheeky set. She started with some traditional fados, but interrupted one to grin over her shoulder at the audience; 'Guten arben Rudolstadt' she said ... and I couldn't help but feel she was channeling Marlene Dietrich as much as Amalia Rodriguez.
Her performance then become much more relaxed, chatty, cheeky, lively than we'd seen in Adelaide some years ago. She tried to teach the audience to sing with her in Portuguese, danced on stage ... looked to be having a fantastically good time ... as we were. Finally, she even did a cover of Elvis Presley's 'Wise Men Say, Only Fools Rush in...' What??!! But yes!
However, we demanded a couple of encores, including finally 'Os gentes do minha terra', during which she left the stage for the guitarists to continue the melody, only to appear in the pit between stage and crowd barrier and sing to us directly ... a metre or so away ... singing into our eyes. OK ... I'm won over!!
That was it. Down in the park was the Massive Ceilidh Band and Nomadic Massive but, with lighting and thunder and rain starting, we were happy to maintain the memory of Mariza's concert and head 'home' at midnight through a great display of sky lights.
The final day of Rudolstadt was again hot. It seems that the evening thunderstorms clear the air only temporarily, and it was about 37 or so again the next day.
We'd arranged to 'phone' in live to the Global Village program, thanks to Garry Havrillay, and we talked about the overall festival and its highlights ... at 10 am local time. Then at 11 am, I caught up with Festival Director Bernhard Henneken about the festival history and guidelines ... good background for some special programs later in the year.
We'd bumped into Kalàscima both around town and also the end of their gig on the Market Square stage, but then caught up with their performance properly on the castle main stage at midday. They have developed a lot since they were in Australia a few years ago, and presented a brilliant show ... powerfully mixing traditional pizzica from the Salento, with subtle electronics.
They encouraged a large and sweaty crowd to dance and sing with them, aided by water being sprayed across us all ... and we needed it.
Highly enjoyable. After the performance, we talked with Riccardo and Federico Laganà in an all-in interview session.
And that was about it for us. I dropped in to the church to see a little of Pedro Caldeira Cabral on Portuguese guitar, while Pat saw some New Zealand haka from Hinana.
We were going to see the Trio Chemirani but the heat on the castle terrace was such that Pat saw just the start of their set - one of the last performances to be given by Djamchid before he retires - before we made a decision to quit while ahead. That meant we missed Ndagga Rhythm Force and Noura Mint Seymali; but we said farewell at the guys from Kalàscima backstage at the Market Stage, and to the wonderful team from the festival and called it a day.
If it had been cooler I suspect we would and could have seen more ... but the frailties of age etc etc. The range, breadth and number of performances were such that we could only have seen a small portion of what was on offer anyway.
What a wonderful festival!