January 25 – 28, 2023
The essence of this new festival is to discover artists from the southeast of Europe, bringing them farther north than is often the case. There are elements of punk, jazz, traditional folk, and electronic dance music, and there’s also an encouragement toward collaborations between styles, scenes, and countries. While the See Festival’s heart lies in musical heritages (the festival is a collaboration between the leading Brussels arts venue Bozar and the MOST organization, “The Bridge for Balkan Music,” based in Budapest), it’s particularly interested in how those roots can be renewed, sprouting fresh shoots. For this second edition, there were acts traveling from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Romania, Greece, and Turkey, as well as one band that co-opted members from Moldova, Bulgaria, Italy, and Belgium.
The four-piece Perija arrived from Skopje, North Macedonia, sharing vocals and often exchanging instruments. Under deep mood-lighting they delivered dark folk songs that sounded traditional, even if overlaid with a rugged punkish sensibility. Many of the songs featured modern poems attached to the tunes, forming a fresh hybrid. Subjects included sex-work and unrequited homosexual love, with texts from Albania, Serbia, Turkey, and Greece. Chief vocalist Katerina Dimitrovska has a strategy of searching out suitable poems for song overlays. Three-quarters of Perija play string instruments: cümbüş, oud, and a bowed yayli tambur, along with a variety of percussion, the dominant skin being the large frame drum of Dea Plevne. Movement passed from plaintive voices to spirited locomotion, intensity rising, the musical interest maintained in part due to changes in coloration via instrumental variation. Perija’s incantatory vibration is reminiscent of the solemn aura created by irom, from Slovenia.
The Cretan laouto (long necked lute) player and singer Georges Xylouris has been regularly visiting New York City as Xylouris White, in duo with Australian drummer Jim White. See Fest gave the opportunity to catch a solo Xylouris set, which is an infinitely quieter, more considered and focused experience. In fact, following on from Perija, he suffered slightly by being more sonically one dimensional, even if his delicate instrumental journeys were still mesmerizing. Xylouris operates in an extremely low-toned vocal region, gradually elevating the level of his strumming as an invariably narrative composition disperses its moods. He started out with his own songs, but worked toward a climax of traditional material.
The festival’s final night was mostly devoted to Turkish music, beginning with the Taksim Trio from Istanbul. Their line-up is Hüsnü Şenlendirici (clarinet), İsmail Tunçbilek (baglama), and Aytac Dogan (kanun), never straying from this core spread, entirely focused on the relationships between these three instruments. Although drawing from a traditional well, their approach is magnified both by grand gestures and high volume, making their set sound like a bombastic rock show rather than an intimate acoustic folk set. It was curious how the music seemed like it could be so radically transformed via such an attitudinal stance. The essence of their licks, solos, and thematic connections were essentially folk-orientated, beginning with introverted poise, embellished with delicate traceries on the baglama, and Dogan adding flat-hand slaps on his kanun-wood, emphasizing a deep bass boom. Solo roles moved around the three as each instrument shone. Tunçbilek also sang, resonating low then soaring upward. The trio’s guest was another clarinet player, Ismail Lumanovski, weaving in with Şenlendirici’s lines, the pair lithely compatible in their reed approaches. Sadly, Lumanovski only stayed on stage for a couple of short pieces, and then the trio continued, perhaps so well-worn in their rapport that they preferred the sound of a single clarinet.
Islandman provided a festival highlight, right at the close, playing an extended set that didn’t flag at all, steadily constructing deep groove pulsations, ornamented by individual solo overlays from the inspired roster of musicians. Istanbul’s Tolga Boyuk provided the central electronic beat-spine, sometimes laying down electric bass guitar lines. Significant contributions were made by “extra” members Tamar Osborn (baritone saxophone, flute) Muhlis Berberoğlu (electric saz) and Okay Temiz (percussion, berimbau). Guitar and drums completed the spread. Osborn leads her Collocutor combo, in London, as well as being a member of Flock, while Temiz is a veteran Turkish player most noted for his time with Don Cherry.
Islandman’s journey is long, set on prodding much of the seated audience into dancing action by set’s end. Temiz spent a fruitful amount of time out front, leading with his Brazilian berimbau, and also blowing a selection of bamboo flutes, climaxing with his tama talking drum. He also used a jaw harp, and what looked like a large, wobbly cake-slice. There were aspects of hippy trance dance, but Islandman inserted enough punching sonics to curve the pulse towards a harder zone.
This second edition of the See Festival set a particular focus on performers from Greece and Turkey, but in the future there are many directions to be taken, from Serbia to Slovenia, or from Ukraine to Bulgaria. Also, with its lack of style-rules, the invited artists are free to explore folk, classical, electronic, rock, or jazz musics, or any combination they prefer. It’s a specific section of Europe that’s highlighted, but that’s the very essence of this festival: to bring less-traveled acts up north to Belgium, and quite possibly beyond.