Photo: Vadim Kulikov aka Badian Sauna System

Features Artpole. Interactive relaxation and music festival by the Black Sea

The ArtPole festival has become one of the most well known festivals in Ukraine over the course of its five-year history. In the past the festival exclusively featured traditional Ukrainian folk music as it developed and flourished during the last decade; now the focus is on what may be called the new urban folk music.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds pages 20-21, BW 2010 vol III:3
Published on balticworlds.com on september 21, 2010

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Relaxing is perhaps not what one associates with a festival — at least not if the festival in question is Roskilde or Glastonbury. But outside Odessa in Ukraine, there is actually the opportunity to enjoy both music and a spa vacation at the same time. The festival known as ArtPole is located next to the legendary and ramshackle sanitarium Kuyalnik at Kuyalnytsky Liman, a bacteria-rich hypersaline clay lake. My Ukrainian friend described the place as a “populated Chernobyl”, a place where time has stood still in recent decades. The place certainly has its charms, with remnants from medieval monuments and 19th century baths intertwined with Soviet concrete.

In addition to its attractive proximity to healing mud and bacteria, ArtPole offers an airy festival program that leaves time for excursions to the Black Sea, just three kilometers away, or to the vacation metropolis of Odessa. Those who choose to stay in the area can enjoy an eating experience that includes cold rice, buckwheat, oatmeal, a refreshing glass of kvass (a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread), or just a lukewarm cup of tea. Those seeking to learn something new can attend one of the many workshops offered each day involving activities such as fire theater, contact improvisation, pantomime theater, wire butterfly crafts, the chorus “We sing as well as we can,” morning exercise (“good morning body”), and so on. At its core are playfulness and interaction, which I have never experienced at any other festival. Everyone joins in, participates, and has fun — and fun it is! The day I manage to drag myself out of bed for the morning exercise at 9 a.m., a worn-out festival participant lies snoring under the trees where we are supposed to wake our bodies up. The instructor has to roll him out of the way, whereupon he awakes beneath the gaze of 40 pairs of eyes. After gathering himself together for a couple of seconds, he decides to join the exercise session. The instructor points out that he has a mustache painted on his upper lip, but he just calmly replies “I know, it’s cool” and concentrated on the exercises.

It is easy to relax and experience only the best acts (all), since the festival lasts an entire week, the concerts are scheduled in the evenings, and there is only one stage. The area is small, having just a few thousand visitors, which adds to the feeling of communion. Tickets purchased in advance only cost € 15 for the whole week, a price that presents no serious obstacle for those interested in attending.

The ArtPole festival has become one of the most well known festivals in Ukraine over the course of its five-year history. Although I lived in Kiev and traveled extensively within the country from 2007 to 2008, this is the first time I’ve attended a music festival outside the capital. Maybe it’s not so strange that I felt drawn to this particular festival just this year, since the program represented a daring departure from earlier years, experimenting with new musical styles. In the past the festival exclusively featured traditional Ukrainian folk music as it developed and flourished during the last decade; now the focus is on what may be called the new urban folk music. A few warbling babushkas still carry on at a highly appreciated singing workshop every day. But the stage is dominated by musicians who have managed to create their own style by experimenting with the traditional while drawing inspiration from outside sources.

Three groups from Belarus have succeeded in doing just this. Owing to the political situation in their homeland, they have become better known internationally than at home, and they tour much of Ukraine, Poland, Russia, France, and Belgium. The music of Gurzuf and Port Mone is primarily instrumental. Their arrangements are for percussion and accordion, in the case of Port Mone with the addition of an electric bass. Gurzuf’s show is multifaceted without losing its cohesiveness. The set list features sophisticated compositions, but the last piece is a cocky French rap by drummer Artem Zalessky. They convey incredible energy that engages the crowd in a dancing frenzy, while Port Mone transfixes the audience as they experience the incredible pain of the wailing accordion while enjoying the beautiful melodies. The Malanka Orchestra conveys joy and a quirky approach to music with their highly intense, what they themselves describe as, Roma music influenced by klezmer, samba, and surf rock.

Aleksey Vorsoba of Port Mone explains that the situation in Belarus has intensified their focus — they realize that the only way to achieve recognition is to be really good. And in my conversation with Yuri Naumenko, bass player in the Malanka Orchestra, I hear a similar interpretation of the situation. He tells me that in Belarus, only by entering the unconstrained world of music can complete freedom be experienced.

Friday’s big event   is performed by the Ukrainian experimental folk group DakhaBrakha (which means “give and take”), comprising one man and three seated women wearing wedding dresses and huge black Cossack hats. They sing and play the djembe drum, cello, digeridoo, trombone, and many other instruments. They combine evocative and innovative oriental rhythms with the unique way of singing traditional Ukrainian folk music: high notes straight from the throat. Their megastar status is evident from the huge ovation with which the audience, myself very much included, greets them.

The presence of just one DJ on the program does not matter much to us dance fanatics since the DJ happened to be Badian Sauna System from Kiev. During his travels to India, Badian collected bhangra beats, which he mixes with unique Ukrainian folk music recordings. This symbiosis releases tremendous energy and although the hour is late when Badian sets free the first notes, the entire field is soon undulating with dancing festival visitors.

As for the Western European elements, Italian energy à la Gattamolesta offeres sure-fire high-quality Balkan sounds and cries, while Di Grin Kuizine from Germany delivered fast Ukrainian folk music, in Ukrainian, much to the joy of the audience.

Also on-stage are those festival-goers who participated and rehearsed during the week with the chorus “We sing as well as we can.” Three compositions are showcased in what resembled a school commencement exercise delivered with a comfortable, casual approach. Foreigners can, in addition to enjoying the great tunes, practice pronouncing some of the difficult Russian and Ukrainian vowel sounds.

I sacrifice my train ticket back to Kiev because, like so many others, I thoroughly enjoy the culmination of the festival, and though I had been there for five days, I still hadn’t had time for a mud bath in the healing Kuyalnytsky Liman. The day after the festival’s final night I wade out into the 7.5 percent saline water. While I had never dreamed of taking a mud bath, after seeing Aleksey Vorsoba’s (Port Mone) blissful expression and hearing his high praise, even I finally take the plunge — completely black and enjoying every moment.

The spa experience for both body and soul culminated in peaceful sleep on the open sleeping car to Kiev after making the acquaintance of 88-year-old war veteran Lyuba. She baked bread for the army during World War II and now I found her in one of Odessa’s cozy courtyards while waiting for the train.

Despite the healing bath and relaxed schedule, the new acquaintances and many experiences caused me to sleep for 15 hours after returning home, and for days I felt enveloped in a world of invigorating memories. Pack clothing (and swim gear!) for 35-degree heat and join me next year! ≈

Links to the music: