For the thrilling stuff that sometimes doesn't make it to British shores
In the five years since its establishment, MENT Festival has gained a reputation of one of Europe’s most significant showcases – unconcerned by hype and far more likely to get it right by showcasing the weirdest, most thrilling acts (acts that seldom make it to British shores and, for the depressingly obvious political reasons, are unlikely to in the near future). Why does MENT have a track record of getting it so right? For one thing, Ljubljana is particularly well situated, a rare outpost that’s easily accessible for acts from Northern Europe, the Balkans and Russia alike. Crucially, though, it’s the festival’s bookers who genuinely make the event what it is, having their tentacles in the underground scenes of all of the regions mentioned above.
It’s because of this that you can find yourself in Ljubljana’s Kino Šiška watching a performer who feels, to all intents and purposes, a star – exactly how I felt about halfway through watching Moscow’s Интурист / Inturist. The music is taut and tightly-wound – think Lizzy Mercier Descloux or James Chance – and clean-cut frontman Jenya Gorbunov echoes the music’s nervousness, twitchy like David Byrne with a similarly charismatic onstage presence. It’s incredibly exciting, and his band features various luminaries from across Eastern European underground music, notably Glintshake’s drummer Alexey Yevlano, On-The-Go’s bassist Dima Midborn and ТОПОТ/RIG saxophone player Sergei Khramtcevich. In their amalgam of punk funk and free jazz saxophone, you could be listening to the latest Speedy Wunderground banger. Perhaps, they should be the next Speedy Wunderground banger.
One of two UK acts performing at the festival is Kamaal Williams, the bookers wisely shining a light on the UK’s continuing new jazz moment. Williams, an understated presence on keys, makes music that sits at the point where jazz, Afrobeat, hip-hop and hard funk intersect – almost exactly the unique combination that makes today’s London jazz scene so exciting. Listen to the impossible yearning of sax player, or the cosmic lounge hinted at in Williams’ keys – the breaks alone, heavily inspired by hip-hop, anchor Kamaal in the contemporary.
Cabaret – in all its artifice, its fusion of the high and the low – has often been a response to tumultuous political times, and this is something that’s drawn upon heavily by Dakh Daughters. Dakh Daughters are seven actresses who use music and performance to explore the biggest of themes: history, poverty, war, crucifixion, family. There are moments of immense poignancy – lyrics based on classical Ukrainian poetry delivered over slow droning viola – and moments of lightness that use fragments of popular hits as a way of exploring the past. It’s a mesmerising, politically sharp performance – some of the reference points may be lost in international audiences, but there’s a universality to the overall effect that captivates at MENT.