Festival Report - Ostroda Reggae Festival 2017
08/13/2017 by Gardy Stein
Four stages, 37 acts, 20 Soundsystems, Reggae University and countless sideline-happenings - again, Ostróda promises the full festival experience. Reggaeville-reporters Gardy and Lars are on the ground to cover these exciting days for you, and even though they won't be able to mention every little thing, you'll be granted a glimpse of what makes this Polish festival celebrating it's 17th edition so special. Witamy! - Welcome!
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Thursday - August 10th Thunder & Lightning
Did you know that "Thurs-day" etymologically stems from the ancient Thor, God of thunder? Well, today that's only fitting, as the morning starts with a heavy storm hitting the beautiful Polish landscape of Masuria, thunder and lightning and all. Luckily, this title correspondance ends at noon, when Lars uses the last raindrops for a photo session with Stephen "Lightning" Newland. From then, it clears up quickly, and our walk to the Amfiteatr, where the unpronouncable band Bezjahzgh open the stage at 4pm, is a pleasant stroll on Ostróda's bustling lake promenade.
With eight people on stage, Bethel attract a growing, predominantly young crowd. Singer Grzegorz Wlaźlak is in constant interaction with both his band members and the audience, and from the secure ease of their delivery, the 400+ concerts that they have already played since their formation in 2006 becomes obvious. Even though I have not become fluent in Polish since last year, I understand a few more words now. Dobrze, że jest, the title track of their last album, means something like "it is good" or "Ok, that's it", and Jedna Miłość is the equivalent of "One Love". Special mention deserve the cool ruler on bass, Magdalena Dachowska, as well as Piotr Zarówny on trumpet. To thunderous applause, the band ends their energetic set with a synchronized jump that is carried forward through the audience, and the mood is thus set right for the performance of Chonabibe, who are up next.
To the backdrop of a song called Wolność (Freedom), we meet with the Irieites Soundystem Crew who just arrived at the Pier. It's their first time in Poland, and a little patronizingly, we show them the ropes of this festival's runnings. The glowing orange sun promises a pretty sunset, so we stay on and watch the tireless water-skiers gliding more or less gracefully over the lake.
The sweet, deep, reverberating sound of a masterfully played bass lures me back to the stage, where singer Damian SyjonFam is in full swing, presenting a critical song about the much-debated immigration and refugee issue. We've seen the likeable singer on an early slot on the main stage last year, but the lights illuminating the gathering darkness in the Amfiteatr as well as VJ Mayonez' wonderful visuals (including a flock of grazing deer) provide a much more intimate, intense setting. The singer's voice is like molten gold, but it's the combination with the skilful delivery of the band D'Roots Brothers (founded by bassie Daniel Słomińscy and his brother Jonasz) which creates my first magic moment.
Lost in a slightly swaying reverie while listening to an acoustic encore, I am jerked awake by Karsten who tells me to follow him and Olivia Lili Musiatowicz for a little surprise. Lili takes us through the surprisingly ample belly of the Amfiteatr to a room where tubes and heating pipes meet, and squeezed in between all of this are 7 or 8 people on mics and instruments: Jafia and band practicing with Stephen Newland for their joint show! We quietly tune in to their last two tracks and are joined by the youngest members of New Kingston, who have just arrived. What we hear is amazing - people, get ready for tomorrow!
While moderator Mario Korpol talks to the crowd, I am told by three people in a row that the next act GrubSon is a real highlight. Thus appetized, I attentively follow the unfolding light show that dips us in flashing red and blue lights to the howling sound of a siren. Sudden movement from behind makes me turn around, and it takes a moment until I realize that it's the two MCs GrubSon and Jarecki walking through the crowd with mic in hand, singing the opening track. Wow!
During the following 90 minutes, they completely de- and re-construct genres like Reggae, Rap, HipHop, Jazz and DnB, showering us with a blur of lights and words and movement. Innovation and style! In between, DJ BRK (who performs some wicked live-scratching-action on his turntables) pics up the mic as well, the three of them rocking the maximum capacity crowd together with the amazing Sanepid Band. What did drummer Michał "Malina" Maliński do to his cymbals? It is cut in a potato-peel-like spiral, and I'm not quite sure whether it's decoration only or relevant for the crazy sounds he produces.
Their performance is a breathtaking show, including circus elements like juggling (again, the drummer attracts all attention) and vocal excursions into African chorals. Oh, and I just loooove how almost every band finds a way to include slavic musical patterns in their set. Mirosław "Maken" Dzięciołowski, one of the festival organizers, tells me that their next song became a hit in Poland and has already reached millions of clicks. "We will meet on top of the hill" is a rough translation of the obviously intricate and intelligent lyrics, one of GrubSon's major trade marks. And, like a prophecy, these words ending this fantastic concert accompany our way to a spot I've never been to before...
Jah Love Soundsystem! It almost seems as if we penetrate the festival deeper each year, slowly becoming insiders. In a place that appears to be a holiday-camp-village of some sort, two big speaker stacks have been set up in a big wooden barn, making it easy to follow the booming bass to its source. At this point, I will give in to the rising dancing fever and resume the report tomorrow. Thanks, Ostróda, for making us feel instantly at home again. Do jutro!
Friday - August 11th 2017 Fire & Wind
Summertime! The city of Ostróda is baking under a hot August sun, and the fountain on the lake-shore is a welcome possibility to cool down, not only for children. Places in the shadow are in high command, and at noon the Reggae University at the Amfiteatr provides not only that, but also an exhibition of the finals of an International Reggae Poster Contest, hosted by Maria Papaefstathiou from Greece. A first movie is shown there as well (The Traveller, a documentary by Joao Pedro Moreira), and when we reach the main festival area, we face a day full of musical fire.
Marcin "Silverdread" Pospiszyl holds a lecture about the Roots of Reggae music at the main stage. Songs like Soul Rebel and Stepping Razor follow his introductory foundation, and even though I don't understand all of what he says, it's a fine way of starting the second day of the ORF.
During the performance of Cała Góra Barwinków (a group of 9 in fancy jackets and pink ties), I take a stroll around the festival area which has changed a bit. Since the old Army Grounds are starting to be sold for house building sites, the press center as well as the kid's area had to be moved. Stalls and food stands are still where they were, though, with the pitiable exception of the fine Mexican Quesadilla stand we were so fond of last year. While Andrzej Czaplinsk has started his foam cannon building bubbly castles for a delighted crowd, we pause for diner at the vegan backstage catering and prepare for a dose of Jam-Pol collaboration.
"Przepraszam - Excuse me, my sister's unicorn fell behind the speaker box!" is what the young lady in front of me has probably told the security, judging by his puzzled look. But it's true, something was flying from the crowd a moment ago and it turns out to be a cuddly unicorn toy which the security guy smilingly hands to the waiting girl. Turning back my attention to the happenings on stage, Stephen Newland performs a set from a few Ganja tracks over a Bob Marley cover (Rastaman Vibration) and songs taken from his upcoming release Thunderground to an acoustic Nyabinghi rendition of the Conquering Lion who will break every chain. The band behind him is not Rootz Underground, however, but Jafia - and maaaan, they work well together!
Polish Reggae Foundation Bakshish are up next. "Kazdy dzien, kazda noc" frontman Jarek sings, a touching love song that describes how he waits for that special someone "every day and every night", as Maken explains to me. The band celebrated their 35th anniversary this year, playing an amazing concert with a classic orchestra at the Amfiteatr last month. Would that I could have been there!
At the Green Stage, the Irie Ites Soundsystem crew has just taken over from Ras Bass. With a massive six people, they rep it for Germany. Rallf-i, Dubious, Toppa and Micha play a mix of own productions and popular tunes while MCs Baba Message and Zeb heat up the crowd. Boom! Heat is what drives me out of the hall, back to the main stage, where...
New experience, New Kingston! This band of four is a father-son-combination which came into being thanks to Courtney Panton, an extraordinary Jamaican bassist. With songs like Key To Life or some tracks taken from their upcoming album Come From Far, they present a different type of Reggae Music, obviously making a good impression on the Polish crowd. While keyboarder Tahir takes over Daddy's bass, Courtney senior picks up a Djembe and then joins Courtney Jr. on drums as hundreds of hands clap along - vibes!
"Rally round the flag, rally round the red, gold black and green!" A band founded in 1975 and no bit quiet - Steel Pulse! Even though only David Hinds and Selwyn Brown remain from the original set-up, the additional members make for an exquisite sound, and the specially designed visuals of VJ Mayonez unfold their magic on the square LED-screens arranged rhombically to give a 3-D-impression. Songs like Babylon Makes The Rules or Bodyguard float through the night air, and Taxi Driver from their 1991 album Victims becomes a theatrical show that involves the whole band.
A sudden strong wind that is blinding with the dust and sand it carries drives me to the Green Stage once more, where K-Jah Sound along with Denham Smith and Ras Jah High I are just finishing a fiery set. They are followed by what, for me, becomes one of the surprise highlights of the day - Nucleus Roots from the UK! Three elder gentlemen (Ossie Gad, Simon Dan and Moses) perform own compositions as well as covers in perfect vocal harmony, and especially their sweet rendition of Picture On The Wall and John Holt's Man Next Door explode with shouts and applause from the considerable crowd present. Make sure you check their upcoming production!
The day is coming to a perfect close with Poland's own Paprika Korps, a band that has a much more raw and electronic take on music, and Ragana, so far the first female singer. Her voice accompanies me to the Yellow Stage, where I find half of the Irie Ites Crew rocking to the sounds of Krzyki HiFi and Rising Vibes, and it is here I better end the reporting for tonight. Dobry noc!
Saturday - August 12th 2017 Water & Earth
Grey skies and a drizzly rain accompany my tired self to the breakfast-table. After some basic vital functions have been restored with a strong coffee, I meet the New Kingston sons and Stephen Newland in the Hotel hall with a mission to bring them to the movie screening at the Amfiteatr. Delayed by (mostly female) fans who ask for a picture, we arrive in the middle of Karsten Frehe's lecture about Reggae in Germany, a presentation that covers the development of the genre and its German embassadors during the last three decades. After a short break, the movie Kingston Crossroads is on, and Jonas Schaul (co-producer of the movie, the "other half" Oliver Becker being absent) proudly tells us that the film has been nominated at three different festivals as best documentary. When the movie is over, Reggae University host Bartosz Wójcik, Jonas and Stephen Newland start an intense discussion about living conditions, culture and organic farming in Jamaica. We are then on our way to the main festival area - let's see what Saturn, the ancient God of farming, has in store for us on this Saturn-day!
First, it is Maken's turn to talk about the history of Dub music, and we are led through the fascinating world of delayed, echoed and contorted sound frequencies of Jah Shaka, Mad Professor and Linton Kwesi Johnson. His presentation is followed by a musically intense but vocally rather poor performance of The Rockas, a multi-national group that formed in 2008 in Gdańsk.
During a belated lunch backstage, Damian SyjonFam and Mesajah sit next to us and start practicing the Redemption Song, attracting a little crowd of young fans. No doubt they prepare for the performance up next, a collaboration of Polish artists around the Riddim Bandits born two years ago in Wroclaw: Tribute To Bob Marley. Together with artists like Dawid Portasz, Martyna Baranowska, Naaman, I Grades, Cheeba and Wlazi, they present their own versions of Bob Marley classics, and the growing crowd is obviously enjoying these covers.
A surprise addition to the team of moderators is Grzegorz Halama, a well-known Polish cabarett artist. When he is not on stage announcing artists or bridging the change-overs, he walks around shaking hands with everyone from artist to festival visitor to security personnel. Right now, the Kingfisha are introduced, a band from Brisbane, Australia. They play a smooth, relaxed mix of Reggae, Dub and Electro which is obviously called Pacific Soul - if you know what a mix of Fat Freddy's Drop and Black Seeds would sound like, you got their ring. Their track Keep The Waters Running (luckily, the weather is not obeying) accompanies me to the Green Stage, where a next highlight is getting ready to appear.
With a boom-box and a flag displaying their well-known logo, the Dancehall Masak-Rah crew circle the festival grounds to collect people for their show. The trip is a success, and ten minutes later, they open their set to a hall filled with an expectant crowd. As last year, this is one of my highlights, and the next hour melts into a hot, loud and colorful madness. As last year, the bar lady shares out countless shots of vodka, the Ukku Bit DivAss show sexy dance moves and 27Pablo as well as founding member Junior Stress and guest MC Diego Cichy Don heat up the mood to a boil.
Out of breath and a bit sweaty, I reach the Red Stage again, just in time for The Skints performing my favourite songs. The British band who describe their output as "music from Jamaica in a London style" have laid down a millenial album with FM, and share tracks like Tazer Beam, Eyes In The Back Of My Head and Friends & Business with us, of which especially the latter's Ska-beat makes the crowd move. A special moment is also the magic of The Forest For The Trees, which beautiful singer Marcia starts with a clarinet intro (another instrument she masters next to the 5 or so others). The enchanting experience is made complete with yet another breathtaking visual by VJ Mayonez, best absorbed directly in front of the stage's center. At one point the screen says "Solidarity with the Białowieska Forest", one of or even the most ancient forest in Europe which has been opened to clearance by the Polish government against heavy protests, as our local colleagues explain to me later in the press office.
After a short detour to the Green Stage, where The Rootsman obviously plays his last set ever, I hurry to the main stage once more - big things a gwaan! For the first time ever in Ostróda, Shaggy performs to a crowd that seems twice as big as yesterday's. After the filigree soundscapes The Skints have woven into the night sky, the more forthright delivery of his backing band (added to by backing tracks) is a harsh contrast which however fits the party-atmosphere envoked by songs like Boombastic, Oh Carolina or Sweet Jamaica. 100% performer, Mr. LoverLover makes the ladies scream and the gents jump, and with Feel The Rush, he closes his explosive set, telling the people "Thank you for keeping the Reggae Music alive!"
The almost complete darkness in the Green Stage is a welcome relief after all the bright lights. Umberto Echo has deliberately turned down the colourful illuminations to make room for his audiophile productions, just leaving a spot on for Silvan Strauss of Analogbasscamp who adds incredible live-drumming to the show.
These guys just made my day! Dreadzone is a first for me and a MUST to see live, as the combined powers of Greg Dread, Leo Williams, Chris Compton, Bazil, MC Spee and Earl 16 send a constant flow of goosebumps and shivers and little golden bubbles of excitement up and down your skin, spine and belly respectively. What musical skills! What entertainmetn qualities! What vocal harmony! The six gentleman from the UK are up and running for 24 years now, and their dynamic mix of Dub, Ska, Reggae and Trance elements (spiced up with snippets of Iron Shirt and other well-known samples) has the crowd going crazy. Especially their encore, a speedy track involving a few slavic folk patterns, makes every single person present move, jumping up and down in a wild frenzy that seems like a climatic release of today's built-up energies. Thank you Dreadzone, thank you Ostróda, for another unforgettable night!
Sunday - August 13th 2017 Time & Energy
Good things always seem to make time run faster. It's already Sunday and thus the last day of this lovely festival, and I feel a bit like folding my arms, stomping my feet and burn my return ticket to stay here forever. Instead, I do get my feet in motion to reach the Amfiteatr once more.
Professor Carolyn Cooper just finished her presentation on Global Reggae (focusing on the "rebel soul" of the music), most of which can be gleaned in her book by the same name. Although it's been an interesting lecture and I will make sure to read the publication, I can not help but feel a bit disappointed by the rather superficial treatment of this vast topic and a tendency of generalizing things. The lights are now dimmed to start a documentary about the Dub music scene called Weapon Is My Mouth by Leonardo Vidigal from Brazil. For everyone who didn't come here to party only, this well-organized daily Reggae University is a fine way of looking beyond one's own nose indeed!
We decide to take a ride on a swan. Don't worry, we are not breaking any animal protection laws, but rent a pedal boat for one hour and cross Ostróda's pittoresque Jezioro Drwęckie. From far we hear the booming bass of the Dancehall-Workshop held by Ula "Afro" Fryc and Malwina "Malwa" Zygowska of the Ukku Bit DivAss dancing crew at the pier, while the rhythmic beats of Dominik "WaDaDa" Muszynski's daily drum class welcome us upon entering the festival area a bit later.
After Paweł "27Pablo" Szawczukiewicz enlightened early visitors about the history of Dancehall music, a very young band called Johny Rockers now opens this last festival day. With a Roots sound inspired by Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse, they cozen more and more people from their tents and hand over a still growing crowd to the British band Talisman. Founded in 1977, they have a lot of stories to tell, and one clear message is transported in the track Racism Never Sleeps with a warm instrumental flow and threefold vocal harmonies.
The weather is sweet, sunshine with a cool breeze, and so I decide to take yet another stroll through the grounds to look around and snack one of these delicious Polish Pierogi. I pass a group of people who suddenly crack up laughing. They are watching their friend who accepted the challenge of walking through a makeshift maze with something called "alcohol impairment simulation goggles" (glasses that blur your vision as if you're drunk), and the poor guy is a funny sight indeed, stumbling and fumbling his way through. My way more directly leads me to the Green Stage where the Lonely Tree Soundsystem performs, indeed a bit lonely, for a small group of maybe 50 people.
A much larger crowd is attracted by Vavamuffin, a local band founded 14 years ago in Warszawa. Their latest album V (Label: Karrot Kommando) seems to be well-known, as people sing along the songs presented. Marcin, one of the three singers, jumps from the stage and moves through the crowd, shaking hands and patting shoulders, singing all the while. When he comes back on, I realize what the T-Shirt he wears says: I <3 Puszcza ("I love the forest"), a direct expression of support for the movement which has formed to save the Białowieskiej Forest mentioned in the Friday report (as space does not suffice for a detailed explanation here, I urge you to google this scandalous rape of nature as well as the heroic efforts of activists to stop it!).
"Tyle mam, ile mam, ile bym chciał!" At least a thousand voices sing along to these catchy words, people jumping up and down while doing so. The dance-inducing music of Tabu is an energetic mix of Reggae, Ska, Punk and Folk elements, and the Balkan beat of the song mentioned above has me moving along with everyone else. Asking for a translation, I am told that it means "I have as much as I need to have!", thus making a clear statement against excess consumption and greed. Great music and clever lyrics!
Green Stage again. After the Italian Pablo Raster, it is now time for Poland's own Dreadsquad. This extremely gifted producer is long established in the international scene, and some of the output of his Superfly Studio in Lodz can be heard tonight. Supported by the voices of MCs Tenja and J-Man, his set is captivating enough to make it hard to leave, but the main stage is calling...
Big Youth! With a little delay due to visa issues upon entering Poland, the legendary veteran (he is one of the most sampled voices in Reggae!) finally shows up on stage. In an outfit that no one else but him could wear and look good in, the singer reaches out to the Polish audience, which is a bit slow to react. When it comes to the cover version What's Going On, however, Big Youth's constant repetitions create a call-and-answer reaction that ripples through the crowd. The artist continues to sing, rap, screech and talk himself through a set that's as different from other acts as can be. It's certainly not an easy job to accompany a performer like him, who seems to add to or even make up songs spontaneously, but the Uppercut Band and the live-mixing of the equally present legend Mad Professor work out just fine.
Just before the final concert starts, I hurry over to the Green Stage to experience another first: ManuDigital live! Ever since his 2016 release Digital Pixel, I am a big fan of his style which went viral with a series of videos (the Digital Sessions) of the man and his Casio MT40. Tonight, he plays a fine selection of tracks spiced up by another French artist called Bazil. International link-up!
Mesajah has just called his two background-singers up front, who are great artistes both called I Grades. They deliver a feminist song telling us that "behind every succesful man, there is a strong woman!". Go, girls! After that, Mesajah takes over again and proves that he is a fitting closing act for this festival. His unique take on Reggae, Dancehall, Dub and HipHop is extremely well-received by the audience, and especially young girls in the front rows sing along at the top of their voices. The screaming intensifies when Damian SyjonFam enters for a combination, and in a way their harmonious interaction sums up the familiar atmosphere of the whole weekend.
Speaking of: a summary of highlights in such a four-day-long sequence of highlights is hard to do, and actually all artists mentioned deserve your attention and further digging. Still, a few golden moments outshine everything else:
- Damian SyjonFam and D'Roots Brothers carrying us into an acoustic wonderland
- Ossie Gad, Simon Dan and Moses singing Picture On The Wall at the Nucleus Roots set
- Steel Pulse raising a veritable storm both on and off stage
- walking with Stephen Newland and New Kingston to the Amfiteatr
- the movie Kingston Crossroads taking us deep into Kingston's bustling Reggae scene
- Dancehall Masak-Rah (all of it...)
- The Skints in combination with VJ Mayonez' visuals in Forest For The Trees
- Dreadzone Dreadzone Dreadzone...
- the crowd singing along to Tabu's "Tyle mam, ile mam, ile bym chciał"
- nightly crew gatherings at our Hotel's doorsteps
I know, it's been a long read, but I can't leave without sending some massive shout-outs to the people who made this magic happen. First and foremost, big up Mirosław "Maken" Dzięciołowski and Piotr Kolaj, the masterminds of this operation Ostróda Reggae Festival, and of course Olivia "Lili" Musiatowicz, my sister from another mister, who is the logistic backbone of the thing. Also, stage manager Jarek "Hejen" Hejenkowski as well as every single technician, security person, shuttle driver and backstage caterer deserves our gratitude!
Big respect goes out to the moderation team of Paweł "27Pablo" Szawczuk, Mario Korpol and Grzegorz Halama, who kept the spirits high at all times and made me laugh a lot even though I didn't understand much, as well as to the organizer of the Reggae University, Bartosz Wójcik.
A heartfelt THANK YOU goes out to all who kept the press office well-equipped and cool, especially to our Polish colleagues Przemysław Kula Grzesiak, Paulina Szy, Ania Kochet, Bartek Muracki and others who always took time to explain or translate things to and for us. And thank you, Andrzej Czaplinski, for the foam and the bubbles!
I am endlessly grateful for meeting wonderful people, including all of the above and Krystian "K-Jah" Walczak, Patrycja, Faustyna, Malik "SingleDread" (organizer of the Green Stage) and others whose name I don't remember. Of course, we give massive thanks for all artists, soundsystems and players of instruments as well as to each and every peaceful festival visitor - it's YOU who made it the fantastic experience it was!
A very special mention deserves the uncompromising commitment of Agata and Wojtek, the couple who went on a trip over 400 miles ON ROLLERBLADES to raise money for the urgently needed therapy of a sick girl called Maja.
And now, until next year, take care of each other, spread the love, be positive. Jedna miłość!!!
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