07. 25. 2010. 10:26

As live as it gets

Street Music Festival, Veszprém

The decade-old Street Music Festival features a distinctive, essential link between festival and location, performance and audience: busking. Here music is a street art, and if you aren't a musician playing or carrying an instrument, you'll probably start wishing you'd brought one along.

Summer means festival season, and touring the summer festivals has become a Hungarian cultural institution by now. It is also a prospering industry, sprouting festivals across the country in all shapes and sizes (you can't help but wonder about the design work going into the pattern, a grand coordinated scheme to synchronize starting and closing dates, schedules and overlaps, logistics experts analysing cross-country road network hitchhiking frames and potential sites with tour bus accessibility...) so it would appear that with a bottom line of more than one featured concert and enough sponsors to cover overhead and promotion, why you might as well start your own. To clear the air though, go to Veszprém and see it done right.
The decade-old Street Music Festival, which seems to incorporate all the usual elements of a festively good time, also features a distinctive, essential link between festival and location, performance and audience: busking. Here music is a street art, and if you aren't a musician playing or carrying an instrument, you'll probably start wishing you'd brought one along (something pocket-sized, a harmonica perhaps, handbells or maracas, or even what if...) but then observe the mutability of roles, passers-by to singers-along as the pavement levels everyone quite spontaneously, so the main thing becomes atmosphere of the moment rather than any sort of continuous event. Yet there is a great deal of organized effort, stages are abundantly scattered throughout central Veszprém, linked into a circuit by streets in carnivalesque full summer dress, if you can picture La Rambla transported to a post-communist pedestrian zone of concrete blocks and department stores, then carousing on through maze-like alleys and terraced enclaves to a historical district up to the Castle, and everything in between, theatre to cinema to library all resettled and recycled into festival geography.
Ultimately, there is no demarcation line between regular town life and the Festival In Progress: there is a general commingling of spectators and "real" pedestrians usually quite alien to the rock festival scene. Little children are ubiquitous, and often the traffic of stores and offices passes amid the festivities, fitting it all into real life during a really brain baking July heatwave, booming beer season and schoolbreak summer in a university town. The performers are multitudinous, and anyway it seems that the crowding young and old, locals and strangers, these waves of festivalers leave a residue of guitar-bearing, tambourine-shaking buskers to line the streets and collect in musical clumps on benches, nooks and stairways. The scenes really flow into each other, and music comes in all levels of prowess, volume, language, form and genre, from sketchy guitar strumming through virtuously amped jam sessions to crowd-moving singalong numbers. Many are featured on most of the festival stages proper, probably jamming right through the four days, international and Hungarian performers in and out of competition. There is a generous prize for whoever solicits the most SMS votes, but a fair bit of traditional hat and guitar case coin collection is also underway.
So let's see in retrospect, Wednesday to Saturday, where to start, and which way to go? It's all taking care of itself really, connecting (not quite linearly) as you go along through the four sundrenched days and populous nights. Maybe when you listen to Italians playing Celtic fusion music on stage while the early afternoon shisha smokers set up pipes of peace in the squareside shelters of shade as the sweltering sun hits the top of a fountain, and then start towards another street, while a melody pops up in your head from an oblivious film score, you turn around the corner and there's a teenage girl singing flanked by two guitar-playing kids and it's actually your song, how synched-in is this going to get, she has the incredible voice people stop to stare at. Another stage band puts on an infectuous show of perpetuated four-chord guitar strums topped by an effortless arsenal of popular vocal medley, anything from Metallica to the Beatles to Brian Adams, Bob Marley to Green Day to popular soap opera tunes and eighties Hungarian hits, buoyantly wise to the four chords you'll ever really need to get off the ground.
Further in toward the old town, a bulky antique keyboard hangs from a peg on the wall onto the street front, a herald to the noise stage, with dials to twiddle and a cable snaking back over the wall, over which spills what could be described as the sounds of a sleeping robot's digestive tracts, in amplitudously bad transmission, and on the inside there is the altar or barricade of wiring and machinery, turntables, miscalleneous gadgetry and sampling tools, placid young men chilling out on bean bags in the shade, one plays accordion into a microphone plugged into another's laptop and fed back into the main frame, figuring out what sounds his adroit strokes of the fingerboard actually make amid delay and echoing feedback from jungles and airports, oceans and factories, all a self-organizing, elaborate mistake, but accompanying a nubile hulahoop dancer as a matter of fact. An angry old lady complete with wicker basket turns up and confronts the electronic sound hooligans, killing the deejays with a single unbroken monologue of righteous fury demanding silent acknowledgement for the Holy Mass in session just this very minute in the apparently adjacent church building all to the noise of highway construction radio transmission circuitry failing white pink and black crackle and oscillating hummm, dampening, smothered and censered religiously to submission. Might as well have plugged in a mike to the service really, it's all in the mix.
In the glare of the afternoon sun, a brass band plays oom-pah to a funky drummer's beat, one trombonist wears a sombrero, the square is deserted. To a different drum (or possibly a digeridoo) a sinister mob pervades that crowded afternoon, clowns in sombre primary colours and comical makeup twisting balloons and cracking gags to unsuspecting children and parents, while a rival possee skulks outside the 24-hour shop puffing away in full carney drag. Amid all the busking and bustling there have been sightings of moving statues, fire jugglers, even the stray vuvuzela artist, as booming sales in flashing headgear and miscellaneous neon toys, even lucrative light sabre deals hint that this might escalate beyond the portcullis. Through an archway and up a few stairs, we get to a second-hand bookshop with bookshelves ceiling-high, now screened off with recycled cardboard for displays of selective waste disposal, reclamation and hazardous waste management, biodegradables and batteries of awareness-raising paraphernalia, and a quiz with a prize draw. The books loom in the background, witnesses in silent acknowledgement.
As the sun sets lower, we watch a sitting circle of young girls, one strums a sticker-mottled guitar and sings, the others listen or hum the tune or talk while the girl playing darbuka takes a call on her mobile. I ask them if this is an all girl's band,and quickly negotiate a sit-in with the darbuka, tapping along in a blissful hippy-esque mindstate that cannot last, she hangs up and returns to the seance. Drums welcome the evening, samba drummers followed by dance instructors, belly dancing, a guy with a full drum kit rips into the skins, then give his seat over to a little boy and proceeds to teach him the basics, one tap at a time. A mass drum session gets on the way closeby but on another day entirely, multitudes are quickly armed with an arsenal of kitchen utensils and buckets and pots and pans, clattering in unison to the pounding beat of a dumpster. Night sets to a variety of musical scores, multikulti melodicos and campfire guitar chords, a monotone warmup set thumping the disco tent taut, American-wannabe bluegrass yodeling through the kebabbery, American hotdogs bouncing to a Balkan wedding band in full swing.
And who knows where you'll end up in those summer nights? Dancing to eight-bit chiprock anthems, driving blues rock or spanish ska, or the sitdown stoner-rock session in the library yard? There's probably at least one night out there where you ignore featured concerts in favour of the impromptu jam session in some side street, off-programme and very much alive. Around 1AM, the local powers-that-be come around to discourage public music making. Oh, and there was a cordoned-off Main Stage in there somewhere, but we left that for the paying audience this year.
Dániel Dányi

Tags: Street Music Festival, Veszprém