A Hungarian Rhapsody

Sziget Festival, Photo by: Kálló Péter Gottschall
Sziget Festival, Photo by: Kálló Péter Gottschall

By Rory Winston 

As Robbie Williams belted out the lyrics to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody at Budapest's 23rd Sziget Festival, it became ever more difficult to determine what the answer was to the opening phrase "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" What was certain, however, is that between the 'thunderbolts and lightning' and lazar shows and dancing, there was something uniquely bohemian as well as rhapsodic to this international music festival.

Held on the Island of Freedom – an island floating between Buda and Pest, between east and west, between headliner acts and upcoming artists – the 7 day long 24 hour a day Hungarian extravaganza tallied 441,000 guests from 95 different countries. With 300 bands from 50 different countries – along with many local bands to boot – the event was a cornucopia for music and art. Boasting acts like Florence and the Machine, Paloma Faith, Tyler the Creator, Ellie Goulding, Marina and the Diamonds, Interpol, Major Lazar and Gogol Bordello to name just a few, the main stage was alight with industry heavyweights while the many tents and stages left room for a range that ran from eclectic to indie to opera to classical to jazz to world music.

photo by: Sandor Csudai
photo by: Sandor Csudai

"Your sex is on fire consumed with what just transpired", sang the Kings of Leon to a hormone-driven crowd in the throes of love and dance. No discernible drugs. No heavily intoxicated football hooligans elbowing their way through the crowd. This was boho-heaven – a wild but relatively well-mannered tipsy crowd having fun the old fashioned way by kissing and cavorting, hugging and jumping. It was an Island with its own rules. No closing hours. And plenty to do when not listening to music.

Complete with several visiting circuses, dance companies, theater groups and art shows, activities are virtually endless. A myriad of ethnic foods, gourmet kiosks, cocktail bars, pubs, wine bars… the island made up a micro-nation of its own wherein the "Szitizens" (as they refer to the guests) could pretty much move about from one environment to the other, dwelling within whatever mood suited them.

There was an Artzone wherein performance and conceptual artists drew you into a world of body paint and 'portraits for a beer' and 'build your own installation from these given components'. In addition there was a designzone and a sportzone that boasted all sorts of gadgets in an atmosphere that I can only refer to as a 'post-modern outdoor gym' where one got to exercise on idiosyncratically futuristic contraptions that were as entertaining as they were good for you. Then there was the I ching Labiryth – better than what it sounds like. And a multitude of freestanding art structures reminiscent of Burning Man.

As Fred Durst, lead singer of Limp Bizkit announced shortly after shouting out: "rollin rollin rollin rollin, Budapest, you are so amazing. The best festival in… maybe ever."

A young man from New York shared his enthusiasm with me: "Coachella, Lollapalooza, Roskilde, Isle of Wight, Reeding and Leeds… you name it, I been there and I swear I've never partied so thoroughly anywhere. This place so totally rocks."

Photo by: Balázs Mohai
Photo by: Balázs Mohai

Magic Mirror, Sziget's queer program venue also celebrated its fifteenth year. Besides a series of films, talks, cabarets and performances, there were some special guests of honor, namely, Pussy Riot. The girls explained how wonderful it was to be at a festival with big name bands and still be able to openly celebrate being gay and how different that was to many places in former Eastern Europe and especially Russia.

Boasting a large camping site for tents, the festival supports large numbers of young people being able to stay overnight for the full duration. However, since public transportation is available in and out of the city 24/7, it is just as easy to stay in the center of Budapest while still being able to choose your own hours for partying. An additional big surprise was that unlike many festivals I had been to mobile phone signals were up and running at all times no matter how jam-packed the island got.

As a new generation's Woodstock, Sziget is an alternate universe as much as it is a venue for hearing the best in music. Besides the vast number of exciting new bands such as Selah Sue and Balthazar – both incidentally from Belgium – and coming from as far as Israel (Infected Mushroom and Asaf Avidan) and Australia (Knife Party and Nevo), Hungary boasted its own talents in the form of standouts like Akkezdet Fiai, Irie Maffia and the in-your-face Anna and the Barbies.

But best of all, Sziget offers one the opportunity to make totally unexpected discoveries – especially since the city in closest proximity to the festival grounds is Budapest, a place that has for centuries been regarded a center for music. In dire need of a rest, I decided to call it an early night and headed towards my hotel with only a pitstop for a nightcap in mind.

NavaHo, phot by: Zsiga Fabri
NavaHo, phot by: Zsiga Fabri

Walking through an area of the city that locals often refer to as the Jewish District – named after what had de facto been the Jewish ghetto (both prior to and during WWII), I wandered through a endless labyrinth of narrow swirling streets, jutting neoclassical architecture, abandoned warehouses, and ornate market squares. This bustling Bohemian enclave is home to hundreds of restaurants, theme pubs and clubs. It is a timeless hub of interminable chatter with wine flowing as freely as conversations. With historic courtyards hosting some of the cities most respected music, I was quickly drawn into a night spot that seemed filled with local artists, students and your random assortment of hipsters and bobos. Little did I imagine that my minor detour would land me in a venue where I would be listening to one of the most exciting and engaging singer songwriters I had come across in years. It was here, while ordering a drink, that I first got to hear the Scandinavian singer songwriter, Karo, playing under the artist name NavaHo, I say 'first got hear,' because I find it unimaginable that I or music lovers like myself would not be hearing from her again. Karo (Karolina Alanko) is a post-punk-edged indie singer whose catchy pop melodies are infused with moody chord progressions, Sami Joik styled singing, native American wailing, and harmonies the likes of Dirty Projectors.With a pop rock sensibility, NavaHo manages to juxtapose elements from darkly ambient synth pop with smart lyrics and playful hooks in order to come up with what can best be described as a 'born again romanticism' in a post-apocalyptic age. It did not surprise me to hear that NavaHo will temporarily be putting their gigs on hold since Karo has recently embarked upon a creative collaboration with a relatively well known composer of movie scores. Though I did not imagine running across something like NavaHo at Sziget, somehow the serendipitous discovery was perfectly in line with Budapest.

Between 1846 and 1853 the late great Franz Liszt composed his Hungarian Rhapsodies series, fusing classic music with themes taken from Folk. Making use of the hitherto unexplored 'Gypsy scale', he revolutionized the western canon and altered the course of orchestral music forever. Besides being a brilliant composer, Liszt was a virtuoso pianist who believed greatly in showmanship and was famous for making women swoon. He was, in a sense, a classical rock star with compositional genius and virtuosity. In a sense, Sziget Festival is a celebration of his spirit – a Hungarian rhapsody in the most vivid sense of the term.

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