Les 37èmes Rencontres Trans musicales de Rennes
– Saturday night, 05 December 2015 | Rennes, France –
By Jannike Bergh | “Les Rencontres Trans Musicales” translates to ‘trans-musical encounters’ in English. A musical meeting place, then, where 60,000 fans gathered from Wednesday to Sunday (2 – 6 December 2015) to witness what happens when the music industry is pushed beyond its frontiers. The annual festival is, in a sense, a place of “repérage”, as French booking agents call it: industry professionals come here to scout and discover, and so do the festival-goers. For the past 37 years, the festival has earned its reputation for showcasing the very best in everything outside of the mainstream paradigm. But when I say “the very best”, it must be noted that I don’t mean “the best” in the traditional, capitalist sense, where the only measure of success is based on who gets to the top the fastest. The Trans Musicales is not that way inclined. Instead, what the organisers cater for and are interested in, is how music moves outside of the mould, how it moves us; how music transcends trends and just exists, truthfully.
From Malgasi garage to French noise, psychedelic Thai to Johannesburg’s underground jazz scene and a Green Room to keep electro fans happy for several days, the Trans Musicales’ sole aim is to provide a big-budget platform for musical innovators to get the attention they deserve.
The first band I went to see on the Saturday night of the festival were the youthful Tuareg rockers Imarhan, from Timbuktu. We arrived just on time for their gig, a bit frazzled, and were quickly made to unwind as they reshuffled our perspective: they built their set gradually, the electric guitar tone snaking in and over and around the audience members, holding your attention; the percussive beats were entrancing rather than foot-stomping… Yes, we did move to the music, a lot, but our inadequate swaying from side to side was not really how we imagined we were dancing. A friend turned to me, and said, “The music’s tickling my insides.” The pace picked up, and Imarhan charmed us into a state of pure euphoria with their harmonising vocals, desert funk and hand claps.
We waited until the very last note of their set before leaving to catch a glimpse of Steve’n’Seagulls, the Finnish band who became an internet sensation for their bluegrass renditions of heavy metal songs (“The Trooper”, “Seek and Destroy”, etc.) The crowd area was packed to the brim and we decided to wander around the festival grounds instead. The expo centre is vast, like an airport, each hall packed out with a stage and lots of room to fit thousands of fans. The spaces linking the halls to one another are filled with bars, including a champagne and oyster bar, if you’re feeling fancy. The festival grounds are spread out enough that you hardly ever queue for anything, yet there is so much going on that it never feels empty. Instead, all you want to do is wander further to see and hear more. The most fun you can possibly have at an expo centre.
We entered the Green Room to catch Powell, an industrial dance DJ from London. People were losing their minds; a girl with rainbow dreadlocks was sitting on the floor, shaking her head like a dancing elephant, creating a circle around her. The stage is in the middle of the crowd and I was told to take heed of “the other side”, the point of no return, as it were, for all the creatures of the night.
We headed to see Thai group Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band. They play phin prayuk, their brand of what can clumsily be described as psychedelia played on a lute (or phin), their main instrument, and lots of effects pedals. Their set has ska-like beats and hypnotic grooves, but it is unlike anything else. Through YouTube, a Los Angeles-based producer became intrigued by their music and travelled to Thailand to record their album.
South African rapper Okmalumkoolkat hit the stage at 02:00, never losing the audience with his dark and heavy hip hop. For days after the festival, I kept hearing his razor-sharp lyrics “…future mfana aka smart mampara / Holy oxygen / Sanibonani inkosi ibenani…” Smiso Zwane aka Okmalumkoolkat moves across the stage with immense ease, a futuristic kwaito king. The set is energetic, but the power stems from something darker, “Why you think I’m rapping / You don’t know what happened / I was never happy / when my father left me / Left me as a baby / way back in the 80’s… / Star sign Leo / king of the animals / Talk about my heroes / Shaka Zulu Geronimo / I’m a fuckin’ demigod / Holy oxygen / Im a fuckin’ demigod / Holy oxygen…” These are songs about coming into being; unlike an identity crisis between tradition and the future, it is instead an affirmation of a battle fought and won. The honesty, and the energy with which it was articulated, conquered the crowd very quickly.
The Brother Moves On, also from Johannesburg, closed the festival at 4am. The register changed from Ok’s set, although their songs, too, are rich with the sounds that formed them. But their music ventures outside of its jazz and funk structures, drawing on the past in order to innovate, or “activate”—a word Siyabonga Mthembu (frontman) repeated towards the end of their set.
When things fall apart, they remind us, we rebuild them. Their ending of the Trans Musicales festival was a subtle celebration of music’s power to transcend the way the world rattles our humanity. As The Brother Moves On played into the dawn of day, their songs carrying the transformative power of mourning, it felt good to be alive.