Le Guess Who? 2017: Five key performances

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  • The 11th edition of the Utrecht festival Le Guess Who? was the "most Le Guess Who? year yet." That is to say, its multicultural program was more eclectic, more probing and more inclusive than ever before. More than 100 performances took place in 18 venues across the four-day weekend. These included churches, factory outhouses, grand theatres, dark clubs, cosy cafés and various shops, which were used on Saturday as part of Le Guess Who?'s satellite event, Le Mini Who? Also on Saturday, held a short walk away at Jaarbeurs convention centre, was the world's biggest record fair. If ever there was a festival tailored to making new discoveries, this was it. Since 2014, the beating heart of Le Guess Who? has been the spectacular TivoliVredenburg, a nexus of concert halls connected by snaking escalators that several attendees likened to a "hipster shopping mall." The additional bars, food court, record shop, exhibition and pop-up club space helped foster a festival vibe. It also meant that you could settle in for the night there and come away thoroughly satisfied. With curatorship from James Holden, Liz Harris, Seattle hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, Lebanese act Jerusalem In My Heart, Dutch percussionist Han Bennink and outspoken pop star Perfume Genius, just about every musical genre you can name was covered—plus a few more you probably can't. It was a real digger's delight, with acts journeying from as far as Siberia, Japan, the Middle East and all over Africa. Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
    Gonjasufi Is it hip-hop? Is it rock? Is it experimental noise? Sumach Ecks' music is all these things and more. A song might be breezily downtempo one minute, then aggy and edgy the next. Being wild and unpredictable is kind of Ecks' thing. On Saturday, the US rapper, beatsmith and guitarist opened up Tivoli's Pandora space, the most gig-friendly of the venue's five halls, situated in the upper echelons of the building. He delivered a motley, noisy set that took a while to get into, but won everyone over by the close. Ecks was joined by Skrapez duo David Lampley (Psychopop) and Jonathan Calzo (Tenshun), who performed live percussion, their fingers rapping out beats at crippling speeds as their heads bobbed in unison. Ecks, dressed in a hoodie and black preacher hat, switched restlessly between samplers and FX, rocking out on guitar and raging down the microphone. With each change he seemed to adopt another character, morphing from flare DJ to noodly introvert to exuberant frontman and back again.
    James Holden & The Animal Spirits With Pharoah Sanders and former Holden collaborators Maâlem Houssam Guinia & Band performing elsewhere in Tivoli, Saturday night was the perfect opportunity to dive into the UK artist's new "Dionysian" enterprise. The Animal Spirits is a live record suited to settings like this one, and the band put on an effortlessly synched and synergetic show. Holden was the master of ceremonies, sitting crosslegged between band members Tom Page on drums, Marcus Hamblett on cornet and Etienne Jaumet on sax. The set swooned between warm, instrument-heavy jams like the Gnawa-indebted "Pass Through The Fire" and more shimmering electronic fare, like "Each Moment Like The First." The entire room was spellbound.
    Les Amazones d'Afrique "This is dedicated to all women all over the world," began singer-songwriter and music teacher Mariam Koné. She's one of the ten core members of Les Amazones d'Afrique, a collective of West African artists with a powerful feminist agenda (profits from their first single were donated to help survivors of sexual violence in Congo). All the Amazones are solo stars in their own right, representing a range of musical backgrounds and generations. There's Grammy Award-winning Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, Mariam Doumbia from the Afro-blues duo Amadou & Mariam and Kandia Kouyaté, a griot, kora player and renowned figure in Mali. From midnight on Saturday in Tivoli's circular Grote Zaal, four of the Amazones—Mariam Koné, Mamani Keïta, Rokia Koné and Awa Sangho—took turns performing songs from the group's debut album, République Amazone, including Rokia Koné's soulful "Mansa Soyari" and the groovy "Doona," sung by Keïta. In an exuberant finale, they all kicked off their high heels, rucked up their gorgeous dresses and began dancing with wild abandon.
    Flohio EKKO's Sunday afternoon bill looked enticing: rising grime MC Flohio, followed by Yves Tumor—whose volatile shows are nothing like his records—and confrontational noise artist Pharmakon. The venue was the last stop on the Le Guess Who? map along the picturesque Oudegracht, the canal that runs through Utrecht's city centre. It's a hip café out front with a womb-like 300-capacity club at the rear. The crowd was a diverse mix of beer-swilling youths and coffee-drinking elders, but when Flohio came on she got everyone going with her infectious energy, sincere lyrics and fearsome delivery. The music underneath flowed between tropical bass ("SE16" by God Colony) and harder trap and grime beats. At one point, she dived into the crowd to spit her toughest bars of the set, which was all over in a thrilling 25 minutes. It was only 3:40 PM but it felt like we'd been raving all night long.
    Linton Kwesi Johnson Arguably one of the best performances of Le Guess Who? had no musical accompaniment whatsoever. Instead, acclaimed writer and politicised reggae MC Linton Kwesi Johnson read from his Penguin book of Selected Poems, starting with his 1973 five-stanza epic Five Nights Of Bleeding, which details the bloody violence of South London's sound clash scene. In between readings, which included moving eulogies to his father ("Reggae Fi Dada") and Afro-German poet May Ayim ("Reggae Fi May Ayim"), he talked about the turmoil Afro-Caribbean communities lived through in London during the '70s, '80s and '90s. The poems were recited in his characteristic Jamaican patois, which is so naturally rhythmic it got heads bobbing in response. Historical, insightful and entertaining, Johnson had the crowd transfixed from start to finish with nothing but the profundity of his words.
    Photo credits / Juri Hiensch - Lead, Gallery Tijn de Kok - Gonjasufi Jelmer De Haas - James Holden & The Animal Spirits, Linton Kwesi Johnson Melanie Marsman - L'Amazones d'Afrique Tim van Veel - Flohio, Stairs, Yves Tumor Erik Luyten - The Residents, Sevdaliza, The Sun Ra Arkestra, Liu Fang, Pharoah Sanders