10. 12. 2005. 15:30

A permanent Woodstock

Sziget Festival, Budapest

Start to plan your summer vacation ahead! HLO is trying to help you choose by bringing you the history of one of the most colourful festivals in Europe, told by a musician/journalist who was there right from the outset.

If you judge by its age, it is only a thirteen-year old teenager, yet it has been essentially a grown-up now for a long time. Sziget Festival in Budapest is an incredibly important happening in the summer cultural scene – not only in Hungary and not only due to the wide range of international rock bands invited.
As far as I know, there is no other one-week festival in the world as manifold as Sziget Festival, where martial arts and contemporary poetry, drug prevention and the catering business, sport and meditation, religion and the unholy spirit coexist in such natural harmony; where quality lies, paradoxically, in the very victory of quantity. And of course, there is music, the frame for all other activities here. Amateur and professional music, folk music and electronic music, star bands and losers perform here – everyone can find something for their taste. But mind you: music is not the most important thing here. Having set up your tent, prepared to spend a whole week in this amazing chaos, you will realise soon enough that the big stars are just the icing on the cake. And the cake is: you, and the other tens of thousands of people of your kind.

Like any other open-air music festivals, Sziget Festival is a late descendant of Woodstock. However, the scene of the fest, Óbuda Island or Shipyard Island, is much more than a farm. It has been inhabited for thousands of years, in Roman times there was a stone bridge leading to it. In the nineteenth century lots of ruins and mosaics were found here, which at the time of the construction of the shipyard were moved to various museums or reburied under the ground. Today it is most like a huge playground, though a small part of the old shipyard, which used to be big enough to house four hundred ships, still works.

The first Sziget Festival was held in 1993, and the second one, called Euro-Woodstock, in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock festival, in 1994, both with a limited budget and with the contribution of popular Hungarian rock bands and music-historical antiquities such as Jethro Tull or Ten Years After. It was, however, much more important that the organisers invited not only rock bands, but also stage plays, art shows and performances. People with weekly tickets could set up their tents and spend the whole week on the island. That is how Óbuda Island became a gigantic camping site where everything was given to make it unforgettable for both the organisers and the audience.

The word Woodstock, of course, still reminds us of hippies, flower power and things like that; but in the early nineties the ‘war for peace’ required money, money and money. The organisers went bankrupt after the 1994 festival, and it seemed that there would be no next time, the two unforgettable summer weeks would be forgotten in a decade, not unlike the 1980 concert of some Hungarian groups, P. Mobil, Hobo Blues Band and the Beatrice, all of them highly popular, but black sheep in the eyes of the communist regime. The Black Sheep concert had an audience of more than forty thousand ordinary people and thousands of policemen.

But finally, Sziget Festival was not forgotten, as the organisers realised the only way to survive was to gain sponsors. Pepsi became their biggest sponsor, and the festival was renamed and called, until recently, Pepsi Island. The new name and the new way of thinking, of course, irritated ‘hippy’ regulars very much, but it helped the festival survive. Gaining financial strength slowly, the festival became bigger and bigger, more and more popular, able to win over not only stars of yesterday, but also stars of today. The list of stars having visited the island since 1995 is extremely long. Óbuda Sziget Festival has gained international reputation.

Yet, as I have already mentioned before, this is not the most important thing. You are important, reader, and your friend and your neighbour and the guy living in the other end of the world who takes his tent and comes to Budapest in the summer. You will get to know him, believe me. As you will get to know the tiger-headed teenager icon and the pig-headed master as you are drifting along with the crowd dressed in Nirvana T-shirts, with Mohawk or a pigtail or a beard, with true or fake tattoos. Here you can be whatever you like: an East German guy in a skirt, a pogo-dancing broker, a doppelganger for Marc Bolan or Bruce Lee, David Lee Roth or Lee Van Cleef, Alvin Lee or Jamie Lee Curtis, Tommy Lee Jones, Tommy Lee or Captain Lee, and everyone will believe you when you howl: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’. You will get to know dull students and bright policemen, Dutch girls laughing and crying at the same time over their tent ruined by the storm, you can smile at them, and of course you can be absolutely sure that sooner or later you will catch sight of the plastered Hungarian version of Iggy Pop or a rock-shark riding a moped.

Budapest is an open city. It welcomes everyone. True, only for one week, but for that one week with its whole heart.

Tibor Legát

Website of the Sziget Festival in English

The author is the founder and singer of the underground band Kézi-Chopin (1983). He is also a regular contributor to the weekly Magyar Narancs and winner of the Prize for Quality Journalism in 2005.

Tags: Sziget Festival, Budapest