Did you know that Norway has over 400 music festivals every year? Nah? That’s okay, neither did we. So, we decided to get busy with it.
Bergenfest is a week-long Nordic summer celebration where musical innovation is welcomed and nurtured. Running consecutively since 1994, over the past couple of years, the bill has seen a crescendo of experimental, gender fluid and urban acts alongside cult rock roll bands contrasted with some of the most major home-grown pop acts. Previous editions have seen Brits Ellie Goulding and Rag n Bone Man blessing the stage, NYC’s Wave Queen Princess Nokia, icons Patti Smith and Grace Jones, and brawling distortion galore masters Royal Blood.
Scattered across five days and five different stages, once a year, the idyllic Bergenhouse Fortress welcomes thousands of music lovers, and Bergen’s downtown becomes the festivities epicentre.
Arriving at the festival on Thursday, the British envoys were greeted with a torrential rain of biblical proportions. Ezra Furman’s performance ended up getting cancelled due to the imminent risk of electrocution, and only a couple hundred dared to stay at the stage frontlines for Father John Misty’s performance.
The showers were indeed relentless, but that didn’t prevent the show to go on. Not all stages are open air, and at the intimate stage in the Magic Mirror’s tent, Anna of the North’s seamless sugary-pop ensured that our spirits were lifted, Mancunian Palewaves performance saw the first kinda-sorta-of moshpit and Anderson East sent us to bed in high spirits. Well, at least some of us.
Toronto’s singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez performance was one of the most outstanding features of Friday’s afternoon. Some artists tend to live in a bubble of their own making, but Jessie’s shows usually stand out for her playful character and intense connection that she seeks to create with her crowd. Her transparent and unfiltered display of vulnerability led the audience through autobiographic highs and lows of her past, and even though some might find specific topics approached in her songwriting antonym of “entertaining”, the heartfelt hug that I saw between two women in the crowd to the sounds of “Gatekeeper” proved the opposite. Therapeutically emotional, yes, but in a right way. Friday’s repertoire also saw Scandi bands such as up-and-comer Cezinando, Myra, Halie and Phoenix alongside countrymen Tom Grennan and J Hus closing down the night.
Ghanaian and Nigerian Afrobeats have been around since the ‘60s, but to this day, they remain a relatively new and unfamiliar musical genre outside the British border. Even though the body count during the performance it was only a small sample of what we are used to experiencing in a London-centric event, the Norwegian crowd couldn’t help but dance to the thick, expansive and enticing rhythms that are the foundation to J Hus’s Sonic DNA.
The sun only sets for a handful of hours in the artic latitude at this time of year, and one anticipated for the fire to decrease towards the end of the festival. That wasn’t the case. Bars, R&B-tinged synth-hazy pop bangers and an incredibly friendly audience punctuated the last day’s festivities.
In the main stage, Scandi Pop Queen Astrid S. big dramatic choruses encouraged the crowd sing-alongs, contrasted by minimal millennial sweetheart, Sigrid. It was unusual to see these two artists in their natural habitat, engaging conversations mid-set with the crowd in their mother tong. The natural mountainous in the background almost allowed for a picture perfect moment.
OVO Sounds up-and-coming Roy Woods, Sleaford Mods, Kelela and James Bay, kept us going till sundown, but Little Simz shut the festival with a bang.
Simz’s music is intrinsically British, but the way she weaves grime, American hip-hop and the southern-states jazz instrumentality in her live performance proved to be a winning formula, expertly executed, and got the crowd vibing till the very end of the festival. Speaking with her backstage before the performance, she mentioned that she has been working with the likes of Anderson Paak and Thundercat and that there will be a collaboration between Joey Bada$$, Jorja Smith and her soon to be released.
One must highlight the festival’s multicultural and egalitarian approach both to genre and performances. Being of particular relevance as earlier this year, British festival organisers have been pressured and exposed by the constant lack of female acts in their bills. Funny how this problem didn’t seem to exist here. The festival settings allow you get up close and personal with bands that you will only see in larger arenas these days, mostly just as a small dot in a big screen next to the stage.
Music festivals might not be as relaxing as the basic beach escapade or other warm-weather luxuries… But if you’re looking for an excuse to use up some of those paid holiday days and soak up some Scandi culture, Tolkien-esque locales, munch some reindeer, sea urchins and wash it down with some Aquavit, then BergenFest might just be what you’ve been looking for. Bergen’s multi-coloured dwellings creep up the hillsides, ferries flit around the fjords, and a there’s a bundle of art museums to visit. Just in case Bergen’s notoriously fickle weather sets in.
Bergenfest runs from 12th – 15th, 2019. See you next year!
Words by Catarina Ramalho