- Holly Dicker attends the Budapest festival with a bold and uncompromising vision.
- Tourism is booming in Budapest, with more than 3.8 million visitors in 2017. On a typical Saturday night in the 7th District––AKA the "party district"––the winding streets, hip bistros and "ruin bars" of the city's old Jewish quarter are overflowing. The city has plenty to offer the casual culture-seeker, but there's also a grittier and more authentic side that weekend trippers rarely see. Ultrahang Festival, or UH Fest for short, provides the key to this clandestine underworld.
Founded in 2001 by András Nun as a series of alternative music concerts, UH Fest has grown into the most important, and only, experimental music festival in Hungary. With its unique approach to programming, strict no headliner policy and extremely broad lineup, it's also unlike most other European festivals. It prides itself on offering audiences unexpected musical encounters by placing deliberately eclectic or seemingly incongruous acts side by side. A concert might begin with guitar noise and end in dystopic R&B; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
I arrived on Thursday, as the festival was gearing up for day five of eight. For the next three days, there would be an early evening concert followed by a club night in a different space. Not only were we discovering new music, but the city itself. The venues were mostly cultural institutions. Some were contemporary, like Trafó House, one of the few state-subsidised art centres with an international focus. Others were more historic, like the 100-year-old Erőművház building, which is more for classical concerts. On Friday, UH Fest hosted a drone event there.
Lärm, a 300-capacity black box, was the only techno club space used all week, for a party on Thursday night. I saw the Polish post-club act Kry perform a deconstructive DJ set, which careened from ambient and motivational spoken word to blistering hardcore and techno. JASSS's live set was more danceable, reforming her excellent Weightless album into a swamp of dub and post-punk. Meanwhile next door, 100s of tourists were drunkenly losing it to cheesy pop at Fogas Ház, another extremely popular ruin bar and tourist haunt in the 7th District.
There were little to no signs advertising UH Fest. You could often only tell you were at the right venue by the crowd of people smoking and drinking outside. It was as if the festival didn't want to be found, which was partially deliberate. UH Fest is open to everyone, but it isn't necessarily for everyone. Krisztián Puskár, who joined the team six years ago, explained that last year's afterparty at Lärm got taken over by tourists halfway through. UH Fest isn't a party festival, which is why this year's afterparty was situated away from the main drag at Toldi, a cafe by day and a cinema-turned-live music venue and club space by night.
I saw my weekend highlights at Toldi: two very different live techno sets from Nene H and the noisy hardware performance artist Ewa Justka. Both are ones-to-watch from this year's SHAPE platform. Nene H's set on Friday folded charming vocals, sonic details and ambient reprieves into a banging club set. On Saturday, Ewa Justka, armed with a table full of gear and a disabling eye-level strobe, delivered a tour de force of hardcore acid. The set began at a languorous pace, but she kept accelerating, wildly resetting the rhythms and BPMs until it became a runaway gabber train. I was surprised to find that I wrote the word "boring" in my notes at the start of the set––it became anything but.
Container's boisterous cassette performance earlier on Saturday, at Trafó, was another of the clubbier successes, but on the whole there were more baffling chin-stroking moments than opportunities to dance. There were times when the festival's devotion to the unconventional became unbearable. On Thursday, Opera Mort's relentless siren sounds and nonsensical singing drove me out of the basement of Három Holló. The improv "sound poetry" of the local duo Sirumám was a difficult primer for the last musical event of the festival, which ended in a moody DJ set of Belgian hardcore and buoyant London sounds from Nkisi.
UH Fest embraces schismatic creativity. Crucially, its failures are as valid as its triumphs. It stands for independency, borderless exchange and diversified culture—ideals that sit in total opposition to Hungary’s current ruling government. Last year, a new law was passed essentially deeming foreign-funded non-government organisations, like UH Fest, as "foreign agents." Under prime minister Viktor Orbán freedom of expression and dissident art are not supported by the state. Both have either been driven out of Budapest or sent deep underground. It's pretty incredible, then, that UH Fest has endured for almost 20 years while remaining steadfast in its unyielding musical vision. Hungary needs UH Fest, and openminded adventurers need to experience it, too.
Photo credits /
Máté Kőrösi - Sirumám, Trafó, Girl, Container, Film
Ofner Gergely - All others