Fast Cars and Falafel in Kuwait

It’s January, and what better way to start the year than with sleep deprivation and swift trips to foreign lands? Kuwait seemed the obvious choice.

Arriving at our hotel at around 7AM, we were bleary-eyed and delirious, but didn’t fail to notice that the hotel looked less like the five-star super-modern vision of luxury we’d seen online and more like the Brutalist 1970s time-warp that had been described to us by some of its current guests – another team of our own LED drummers, also gigging in Kuwait at this time. Following an awkward meeting at the airport with a bunch of men who carried all of our luggage to the minibus – and who we had assumed worked for our client but were in fact just opportunist buskers of the airport world, hoping to earn some dollar (of which we had none on arrival) – our driver, who actually did work for the hotel, taxied us off without a single word of understanding passing between us.

We waited in the lobby, confused and trying not to appear impatient in our sleep-deprived state, while two important-looking men in traditional Arabic attire had a lengthy meeting with the concierge. After eventually checking in, we decided to take a quick look at breakfast before stumbling to bed, and found the best in Middle Eastern cuisine laid out in the restaurant on the 17th floor, which boasted a panoramic view of Kuwait City and a breathtaking sunrise (okay, so it was still luxurious). A few moments later, just as we were discussing whether or not this was the very same hotel in which our colleagues were currently staying, the lift pinged and in walked our boss in his pyjamas. That’ll be a yes, then.

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Sunrise at breakfast

We slept into the late afternoon and awoke to the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off skyscrapers, just in time to get a late lunch – because every free meal you can get is a valuable one – and to discuss our evening plans: to go and see our own show, as performed by the other team, at an open-air food court across town. I suppose you might compare it to something like working in a restaurant and going there for a meal on your day off. Whatever the case, it seemed perfectly reasonable.

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Good afternoon, Kuwait City

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And good evening

The event at which the other drummers performed was in celebration of the Arabian Gulf Cup Final – that’s Gulf, not golf, thus football, not golf – featuring the Emirates and Oman national teams, a big deal in this region. Though this was nowhere near where the match itself was taking place, they sure knew how to sell it. The programme included virtual-reality goalkeeping (a game for which I accidentally broke the highest record), mini football pitch for kids (and a few grown men, but I won’t name names…), memorabilia for sale, virtual 3D maps of new stadiums being built for the 2020 Qatar World Cup, plus a huge stage reserved for music, dance and laser-based acts. Among all of this, three shows took place each night, performed by five of our own LED drummers.

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BREAKING: Drummers invade children’s football game

Watching a show you know so well is a bizarre experience. Those of us not playing felt like we should have something to do, something to worry about that we might have missed. I filmed the first two shows on a fellow drummer’s Go-Pro, partly to capture the it for the performers to watch later on, and partly just to have something to do, to feel useful rather than becoming a mere bystander. That’s not to say the performers didn’t keep us fully engaged: they did a incredible job and reminded us just what a great show we do (collective trumpet fully blown).

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A bizarre but brilliant experience watching our show from the audience

Feeling at a loose end between shows, we enjoyed lemon mints at an Iranian restaurant, and then ordered a ridiculous feast – as this part of the world tends to encourage us to – at a Lebanese place. As we listed about five mezze dishes each from the menu, as always, there would be that haunting question asked in earnest: ‘Are we sure that’ll be enough food?’ The answer is YES, YOU IDIOTS, THERE IS ALWAYS ENOUGH, EVERY SINGLE TIME. As we tucked into gargantuan amounts of hummus, aubergine moussaka, cheese sambousek and spinach fatayer (‘Whoops, this is definitely too much… please waiter, stop giving us bread!’), musicians took to the large stage in front of us, and we felt serenaded by the sweet sounds of hammered dulcimer, Hang drum and darbuka. Meals like this typically start with rumbling stomachs, an air of excitement, and a familiar rapidity at reaching for each dish. The pace gradually decreases and, by the last tidbits, is slowed almost to a halt as each consumer feels their body balloon beneath them. It’s a game of two halves, in which the latter half will determine the final winners and losers, though it’s difficult to tell whether this is down to eating more or less.

After what felt like a long day of work but, for half of us, was in fact a day of doing nothing, we all reassembled in the hotel. Drummers from both teams gathered in one room, some with the remains of clown white around their eyes and ears, and others still blissfully clean, accompanied by production managers and light painters (those also involved in the show from that evening). Never before have there been so many of us in one hotel at the same time, and we were like excitable children meeting their heroes after a Christmas show.

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The following day it was time to stop observing and actually do some work, and so we loaded our gear down to the underground carpark and waited for our gig contact to arrive. After a quiet half hour waiting, we suddenly heard the monstrous rev of an engine, and in fled a sleek, black Maserati: oh good, the client. We threw all of our luggage onto the back of a huge, vermillion pick-up truck, driven by his friend, and four of us jumped straight into the Maserati. I didn’t think I cared about fast cars at all, and still try to maintain this stance, but it was hard not to feel the thrill being driven down open highways at breakneck speed in the tan leather front passenger seat, windows down and rock ‘n’ roll blasting from the stereo. A few times we stopped at traffic lights as the red pick-up pulled up alongside us, and we gesticulated at our bandmates as we rapidly pulled away, reducing them to nothing but a dot in the far distance.

Our gig was at The Avenues, a shopping mall which is currently the largest in the Middle East and, due to new developments, is set to soon be the largest mall in the world (that’s if Dubai doesn’t compete and get there first). Walking through it was not like being in an ordinary mall, but something far more overwhelming. Whole buildings and warehouse-sized stores, such as an entire Ikea, occupied relatively small spaces within it; real palm trees lined what can only be described as indoor streets or boulevards; and finding the way outside was an ordeal that involved a half-hour walk, only to reach the mall’s very own garden, complete with ponds, waterfalls and concrete paving.

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The gig itself attracted bigger crowds than we knew it possible to squeeze into one mall, and there were gold iPhones springing at us from every angle as we paraded along one of the many boulevards. At times there was so much excitement from the masses of shoppers that we could barely move from one space to the next. Following our main set, we stood in front of a stage for the world’s longest drum roll in anticipation of a prize draw, in which one lucky entrant would win the equivalent of a few hundred thousand pounds and the other a very expensive car. It’s no wonder there were so many people waiting around looking eager. As expected, the final winner wasn’t actually present but was instead informed of his newfound riches over the phone, and the host kept him on the line, baffled as ever, for as long as possible before announcing his prize, at which point the winner sounded like he’d nearly died of excitement. It was like watching any TV gameshow, in which the host can be expected to say any number of predictable things, and is easy to understand due to his tone, never mind the fact it was all said in Arabic.

After one more set parading in the opposite direction to the first, we returned to the dressing room, sweaty and hungry as ever. You wouldn’t believe just how much we felt like the prize-winner on the phone, then, as when our client turned up with bags full of Middle Eastern buffet food – falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush, stuffed vine leaves, sambousek, and warm bread. It was the perfect feast before rushing off to the airport to begin another long journey home.

This time, those of us who had already been in the Maserati swapped with the others to allow everyone the chance for a speedy thrill, and enjoyed sitting up high in the pick-up, getting lost on roads that all looked the same and learning some Arabic words and phrases in the meantime (about ninety per cent of which we’d shamefully forgotten by the time we alighted at the airport).

After a short flight to Dubai, four hours in another glittery airport passed quickly with the help of card games, to which we may or may not have learnt all the rules. The pressure was on as we sat around a table between crowded departure gates, observed closely by a few elderly Pakistani men and women, who watched the whole thing as if it were a spectator sport. We hoped they didn’t notice our crude naming of every game, shouted out at short intervals, and the fact the rules kept changing in every round. One or two people came to introduce themselves, and asked about where we were from, before glazing over at our enthusiastically wordy responses and then slowly walking away. Airports can be tiresome, there’s no doubt – these anonymous worlds in which a sense of time and place seem to be entirely lost – but fortunately travelling, especially with this bunch of drum-crazed weirdos, remains enriching, always different, and always interesting.

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Christmas in Kaunas

It’s been almost exactly two years since our first Lithuanian jaunt. After our second and most recent visit, we could conclude that it’s still cold, quaint, and the spirits are still strong. Kaunas upheld our expectations since our trip to Panevėžys: that despite being the second largest city in Lithuania, at times it felt very much like a small town. In the Old Town, quaint cobbled streets are lined with attractive churches and colourful town houses, and we wandered for hours squirming with delight at the twee and wintry aesthetic of it all. These streets all feed off the Town Hall Square, and it was here that we performed to a few thousand people from the main stage, located next to a giant Christmas tree. On the stage we were accompanied by Santa Claus, this time in the guise of a notoriously clumsy electrician, and his snowman friend Olaf (because the hype of ‘Frozen’ may never die), along with a couple of polar bears, some fire dancers and various musicians.

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Walking from our warm hotel to the frozen square

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View from the Town Hall Square

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As for our post-gig experience, it seems Kaunas, while near-deserted in the daytime, truly comes alive at night. The charming cobbles became a hotspot for smokers, dancers, shouters and dramas surrounded by the neon lights of bars and basement clubs that seemed to appear out of nowhere. After a couple of failed attempts at entering the hippest bars – presumably turned away for not being local – we settled on a couple of friendlier, tourist-tolerant bars, and eventually a completely packed-out club, and that’s about where my memory ends, though I’m assured an excellent night was had by all. Most importantly, the gig had gone down a storm, and we’d enjoyed every second; even in the moments we had to take cues in Lithuanian (a language we’re not particularly well-versed in) from Santa the electrician and his giant snowman friend.

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‘The usual unusualness’ is a phrase that has come in handy more times in the past year than ever before in my life, perhaps even including when I was a toddler, experiencing most things for the first time. From escaping devils with whips at a Caribbean carnival to insane tuk-tuk rides in Delhi and UFO raves in Latvia; from dancing with mangos in Blackpool to playing among ageing rock stars to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, and just about every other bizarre, clown-whited, verging-on-psychedelic experience in-between, in 2017 I’m delighted to feel like a toddler once more, though this time with the haunting knowledge that I have to file a yearly self-assessment tax return. Happy New Year, everyone; use the time to do the things that make you excited to be in the world.

 

 

Lights On, Eat Pizza: Parading Through Pula, Croatia

Anyone who woke up in Pula after a long journey would be forgiven for thinking they were somewhere else entirely. Every restaurant serves primarily pasta and pizza, locals say ‘ciao’ when they bid goodbye… oh, and there’s a great big Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town. Sitting just across the Adriatic Sea from Venice, Pula’s history of both Roman and Venetian influence shines through in its endless list of striking buildings and ancient ruins scattered all around the city.

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On our first night in town we were taken to an Italian restaurant down a quaint street on the edge of a pretty square, and it was here, the client’s restaurant of choice, that we would eat our own bodyweight in pizza and pasta for lunch and dinner for the next four days. The wine wasn’t complementary, but seemed a worthwhile investment. Well, when in Rome… wait, where were we? At some point we asked if there was anywhere we would be able to try some typical Croatian food: ‘no,’ was the response, ‘this is the food here.’

The following day, we plunged into an ice-cold pool at the hotel and walked down to the comparatively warm sea. I stood in the clear water among the rocks, happily gazing across the harbour in the sunshine, blissfully unaware, while bandmates endured the garrulous promotional chatter of a dodgy dealer selling boat rides.

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Ignorance of salesmen is bliss

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Ball games in the square

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Pula Cathedral mind control

After more pizza at our new favourite restaurant – from staff who didn’t seem as pleased to be there as we were – followed by a site walkthrough and a few verging-on-obnoxious ballgames in the square, we ate some takeaway pizza (yes, really), and then began preparations for the evening’s mammoth parade gig. By the time we left our dressing room in the town hall and entered the square, this time in full costume, it was completely packed with expectant people. Visualia, Pula’s annual light festival is evidently a very popular event among both tourists and locals, and once we got the parade going it was near-impossible to shake off the crowd, even as we took a scheduled water break halfway through. The parade covered a fair distance, from the town centre to the seafront and back again, down shopping streets, through parks and various light installations, including kaleidoscope-like projections on Pula Cathedral and a crane light show in the harbour. With a touch of heatstroke and dehydration following one day in the sun – which we’d long-forgotten about back home – it was exhausting, but as always the crowd (and a sip of water) kept our energy levels high, and by the time we returned to the dressing room we were hyped and ready to play again. Alas, time to pack up, finish the pizza, crack open a beer and relax.

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Our own little billboard in the square

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Over the following couple of days we: listened to the Alan Bennett-style ramblings of older holiday-makers and their accompanying flesh basking in the sun by the hotel pool; made the most of a nearby waterslide, ‘supervised’ by the most oblivious man in existence, who didn’t seem to notice four-person trains repeatedly descending into a pool of chaos; half-reluctantly swam and staggered around in the rocky sea among thousands of tiny jellyfish (fortunately non-stingers); and explored more of what Pula had to offer. This consisted of doing whatever we could for free: in other words, walking around the outside of numerous historical structures. The view of the city from the fort was worth the walk to the top, and gave us opportunity for an obligatory cannon photo shoot.

Saturday evening saw performances from the Lords of Lightning, another UK-based performance group, in the Pula Arena (the amphitheatre), finally granting us free entry to the city’s most impressive ancient site for a mind-boggling, electricity-mad show. Between watching shows we resided in the main square, quenching our thirst and observing runners in the annual 10K Night Run. As runners glided past us in our guilt-ridden drinking hats, we noticed a distinct lack of noise and support from other onlookers. Having recently been almost moved to tears by the heartening support shown by crowds watching the Great North Run, a well-renowned half-marathon in my home city, we couldn’t allow such apathy. So, for the next half-hour or so, we cheered, clapped, high-fived and provided a Mexican wave for every single runner who passed us. It soon got the rest of the crowd making more noise and doing much the same, and became a joyful experience for everyone involved. We’d like to think that in future years, the 10K Night Run in Pula will become known for its incredibly supportive crowds, all thanks to a few merry drummers who couldn’t stand to see people trying so hard with no glory. Well, when in Ro… Okay, enough of that.

Other activities involved accidents with beach balls, all-night card games, and various band members being either held captive or pushed out of the hotel casino, the last place to close each night. We spent many taxi rides, with our incredibly calm and hospitable driver, attempting to learn the Croatian for phrases such as ‘Two beers please’ and ‘This gentleman will pay for everything’ – top of several lists of helpful suggestions according to the Croatian tourist board. How convenient.

If you’ve been following this correctly, you might have worked out that our only day of actual work was at the beginning of the trip. It seems the mosquitos and weather gods heard this, too, because by the time we left our glorious refuge by the sea my face was covered in karma-indulging swollen insect bites and, due to a sudden electric storm on the final day, our flight was delayed by four hours. Here proves that in everything exists some sense of balance. On the one hand, the sea was lovely and the jellyfish didn’t sting; on the other, I’ve returned home to rainy England with a sore, sad, red face. Well, when not in Rome, you can’t have everything.

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A view I could get used to (if only I could still see out of my swollen left eye)

The Street’s a Stage: Welcome to Bucharest

On a flight from Amsterdam to Bucharest, a few travelling musicians peered out the plane window to the ground below to see a familiar-looking lake – long and thin, containing memories from the previous week. I think I could even hear a distant thumping of beats reverberating from the earth around it. This summer sees five drummers return to Eastern Europe as many times as they’ll take us. Next stop: Romania.

We arrived in Bucharest’s Old Town for a vibrant street theatre festival, where we would play strenuous parades and street shows in front of cheerful, partially rain-soaked crowds for the next three days. Accompanying us throughout that time would be colourful stilt-walkers from Germany and a huge number of thundering Spanish samba drummers dressed as skeletal furry goat-men. Nothing unusual there, then.

On our first night in the city, we ventured out in search of food, through sleazy alleys and touristy haunts towards a highly-recommended and totally bizarre restaurant. As we entered the huge dining hall, we found ourselves interrupting a ballroom dance in front of the main bar. The dancing couple then invited various customers to dance, including one of our drummers, and while avoiding this invitation I turned around to find Charlie Chaplin wearing a stack of hats on his head and a real, bright-green parrot on his shoulder. It took us another half-hour to get to the bar, a circular array of gold taps with an overlooking gallery and stained glass window, and at no point before this did we get the impression any member of staff wanted us to eat there, as they abruptly rushed past us with plates of food and the entertainment – now causing a people pile-up by the entrance, a cumbersome wooden revolving door – continued. The place was busy and buzzing with families and tourists, and the waiters had no time to spare, or so it seemed. Eventually we found a table, ordered some local Romanian food, with no help from a lethargic waiter, and later tucked into stew, cheap wine and beef salad that contained neither beef nor salad. Our spirits were nonetheless high, and we enjoyed every last unpredictable bite.

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A right old mix: Bridal shop/night club/massage parlour

In the mornings we enjoyed outdoor breakfasts on the hotel’s terrace and wandered into the Old Town – Bucharest’s beautiful, historical centre, outlined by contrasting architecture both old and new, including a number of nineteen-sixties concrete apartment blocks that make you say, ‘Why?’. In the daytime the Old Town itself was the perfect quaint European tourist spot, a thriving hub of cafes, restaurants, antique fairs, churches and museums peppering its attractive narrow streets, and the occasional busker. By night, suddenly it seemed these same buildings were all home to at least one ‘gentlemen’s club’, and the neon signs offering massages and dancing girls came to the foreground. The nightlife was clearly a hit with backpackers from every corner of Europe and beyond, and Romanian seemed to be the last language we heard spoken, making way for French, German, Italian, Hungarian and English.

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It was on these streets that we met some characters we may never forget; real-life street theatre artists, if you will. First came Larry, the old Romanian English teacher, who chewed our ears off for around 30 minutes to prove his more-than-sufficient level of English, seemed surprised that we had heard of the Beatles’ White Album, and eventually asked the all important question, ‘Will you buy me a pint of beer?’. Larry had an incredible way with words that could only be admired, and he certainly had a creatively roundabout way of getting to the point, but sadly after discovering he was just another beer-fiend like the rest of us, we realised our conversation had come to an abrupt end. If he’d asked the same question after our day of work, and not at 11 o’clock in the morning, perhaps we would have ended up on a night out in Bucharest with a retired English teacher; I suppose we’ll never know.

Later that day we encountered Bucharest’s answer to Michael Jackson – still living and breathing, though perhaps only just. There he stood in the middle of a cobbled street, a tiny man in his sequinned purple hat, dark glasses and single glove, pulling a series of incredible dance moves, and a moonwalk to rival your grandpa. He didn’t speak, nor did he ask for money, and so we stared on while every other passerby pretended nothing was happening (I now understand they must have seen him before). We encountered this sparkly enigma again one night while sitting outside a bar in the same area, as he dance-battled with the drunks and whispered profanities into his jacket lapels. He was no less peculiar, but if one thing was clear, it was that he had won the battle fair and square.

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Jacko… reincarnated?

Following two mad and exhausting shows – including a huge parade through the city centre – on the Saturday night, we set out away from the sleazy clubs and in completely the wrong direction in search of a good bar. After what felt like hours of walking, we eventually came across Happy Pub, and delighted at the cosy atmosphere and never-ending list of beers. We sat outside in the warm night air, listening to recordings from a Pink Floyd concert, singing and sipping our ales, until suddenly we noticed the music had changed, and all we could hear was drums. After listening for a few moments, we soon realised the recording now coming from the pub’s speakers was from one of our own shows. One drummer leapt into action, beginning the choreography in front of the bar inside, gradually encouraging the involvement of every barmaid. We stared in bafflement, until realising that simple advertising – say, a hashtag on the back of a t-shirt – really does come in handy every now and then. Soon, we were all up on the metaphorical dancefloor, and it wasn’t long before I crashed head-first into a waitress coming through the door, but was met only by laughter and continued merriment. After our final impromptu set of the night, it was time to sit down and talk, drink beer, and watch a small group of cockroaches congregate around a spilt drink on the ground: it really was a party for everyone.

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‘Let’s do this all again later in a pub, yeah guys?’ (Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley)

 

The following day we went out with the sole intention of visiting the Kitsch Museum, which exceeded all of our expectations. Here, hidden in a small, unassuming building in the Old Town, we learned about vampire kitsch, religious kitsch, Communist kitsch, gypsy kitsch, art kitsch, and just about any other kind of kitsch you can imagine. There were bowls of fake fruit, garish rugs and pictures of the Virgin Mary, fake money for the specific purpose of ‘making it rain’, gold medallions, pink fishnets, glamour models, gypsy weddings, Dracula in all his guises, watermelon wallpaper, bad taxidermy and, a concept close to all of our hearts, a tribute to the Romanian kitsch tradition of clapping on aeroplanes. We had never felt more at home than in what can only be described as a mecca for the tacky and ironic.

The final night of shows was preceded by thunder and rain, and we were convinced there would be no crowd at all. Our audience that night, however, was committed, smiling and responsive, and had so many umbrellas that it seemed rude not to use them as props in just about every element of the show. The rain brings you crowds who really care, who won’t go home halfway through a performance, who will stay with you and laugh and dance right to the bitter end. They’re the last ones standing at the party, they’re the heroes of your big night out. Sunny days and warm nights are easy, but to stand in the rain for hours on end and then stay for pictures and autographs at the end is only for the hardy folk who you can guarantee will show up time and time again.

It’s been a couple of years since we were last in the picturesque town of Sibiu in central Romania, and I hadn’t forgotten how incredible a Romanian street theatre festival could be. What with this and the popularity of clapping on aeroplanes, I imagine this won’t be our last visit.

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Greetings from Bucharest – always check your side-door

Beats, Beats and Bigger Beats: Balaton Sound, Hungary

It’s day four of five at Balaton Sound in Zamárdi, about 70 miles outside of Budapest, and our ears are almost bleeding. We’ve endured days of relentless dance music being blasted from opposing stages in every direction, while scantily-clad, picture-perfect, bronzed bodies move and shake and gyrate in the 35-degree heat. All of this takes place on the edge of the beautiful Lake Balaton – fresh water, shallow enough to stand in almost all the way across, on squidgy, cushion-like sand perfect for barefoot exploring. Perhaps the only place to escape the intensity of the pounding beats – because let’s face it, even if you love it, everyone needs an ear-break – is out on the water, as far as you can go.

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The crowd and general atmosphere (immaculate toilet blocks included) is a contrast to Glastonbury, which I only recently left: instead of an eccentric and mixed age group, it’s basically Club 18-30, and while the chance to wear as little as possible in the summer heat is generally liberating, here it seems routed in a sense of competition, starting with ‘Who has the shiniest six-pack?’ The amount of flesh on show has got so extreme that my band mates have started to get excited by punters wearing more clothes due to the sense of mystery it provokes.

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Baywatch-tastic

Today I swam in the lake for the umpteenth time, played on some large inflatables, ate my bodyweight in free risotto, and lounged in the sun, temporarily forgetting what it was I came here to do, and tonight I will play another swelteringly fun 45-minute show for a somewhat rowdy yet responsive and loyal crowd. Between the six-packs and slim-line beer kegs there are many lovely souls and outrageous dancers, just the way we like it.

By day four, we’re sitting having lunch in the VIP (very inconveniently positioned) area, as we do every day, directly between Finlandia – a small and disproportionately loud stage dropping ear-splitting wob-wob-wobs all day long – and the main stage, which begins a soundcheck at precisely the moment we sit down to eat. It feels like we’ve heard these Coldplay and Ed Sheeran remixes a thousand times before – and, truth be told, we probably have. Today the earplugs are out and, like a bunch of disgruntled and exhausted pensioners, we’ve all had enough; talking isn’t an option as it’s simply too loud, so everyone looks down at their thumbs and electronic devices and gives up on real-life socialising. At night it seems to make more sense, but in the daytime we feel like decrepit geese sweating in a locked pen, yearning to be set free in the cool lake, away from it all.

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Main stage – prepare yourselves for another big drop to a beat you never expected (Photo by Alex Tustin)

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Ahhhh, much better

One 45-minute show a day by a glorious lake at 11PM doesn’t really feel like work – except when the mosquitoes are out in their thousands and drawn to our drum lights and sticky white faces – so we spend each day enjoying the sun, the lake, trying out a bit of experimental drumming, and, on the final day, scaling a climbing wall and descending on a giant zip wire, which propels us from one end of the site to the other, above a sea of tiny half-naked people. For the sky-high view of the lake alone, it’s worth every penny (and this is Hungary, so not many).

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Optional bungee jump by the main stage

Backstage we’re accompanied by various other street theatre companies in neighbouring makeshift dressing rooms: a stilt-walking group from Germany, a walkabout group from France, and a Samba Batucada group (complete with capoeira and samba dancers in bright, buttock-revealing costumes) from Budapest. We catch moments of these other shows throughout the day, and make our way over to dinner while casually samba-dancing along the main track.

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Samba Batucada – a pleasant walk to lunch (Photo by Alex Tustin)

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Cheeky

Highlights in the programming include Mija and a number of other artists on the Jäger stage, which we find ourselves drawn to each night, and Noisia’s set on the final night on a tiny stage at the far end of the site. The lowest low is Jason Derulo, who makes the main-stage crowd wait for 45 minutes before bringing on the world’s most awkward hype man for an embarrassing school disco, and then finally turns up just to repeatedly shout his own name over butchered remixes with his hands lingering conveniently down his pants while various women dance around him. Watching the young crowd’s enthusiastic reactions and hearing their screams, it feels as though we’re bearing witness to the birth of a new cult. Time to cover our grimacing faces in clown white and get back to work.

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Jäger Stage (Photo by Alex Tustin)

With our gigs here coming to an end, it’s not long before we’ll be missing the daily rituals of lake-swimming, predictable drops and endless bikini time. Our spritely, young coordinators have been organised to the point of perfection (nothing like a ravers festival back home), and despite the monumental levels of noise all over the site which completely drown out the sound of our drums, the gigs have been all sorts of fun. We even have a soft spot for our hotel, a strange but somehow homely place, 15 minutes’ drive from the festival site down a straight road in the middle of nowhere, with brightly-lit advertisements for a restaurant that doesn’t exist and a half-finished concrete roof covered in sun loungers. Here we’ve enjoyed a few bracing swims, ping pong games, bicycle rides to Tesco, hot nights with no air conditioning, and scrambling behind the reception desk for room keys in the dark only to discover the watchful owner sitting silently in a pitch-black corner. It’s been hilarious and eerie, and the breakfast pastries and selection of mystery meats have kept us going throughout the day. What more could we ask for?

 

Now, time to polish off this risotto and jump back in the lake, where we might just have another walking singalong to 90s dance classic ‘Freed From Desire’ as it echoes from some distant shore.

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Latvian Illusions: Raving Mad in Rēzekne

The official tourism website for Latvia describes the country as ‘Flat in landscape, quiet in temper, cold in temperature and small in size.’ Except for the temperature, which right now (summer) is a great deal warmer than the -25 degrees it can apparently drop to in winter,  I couldn’t come up with a more fitting description after spending a single weekend in the small eastern city of Rēzekne.

Rēzekne (Photo by Ashling McCann)

We flew into Riga airport over stunning scenes of shimmering sea water, thick forest, numerous lakes and expansive, flat farmland, the red roofs of quaint wooden houses, spread far apart, hiding between the trees. We were greeted on arrival by our host – the perfect Northern European embodiment with his quiet nature and flash of white blond hair – who would become our good friend and team member no. 7 throughout our stay.

The following information may be best read and understood as a kind of dream sequence, in which all events happen in a seamless fashion that made sense at the time but, in telling it back, now appear rather surreal and at times contradictory, perhaps even unlikely. While the art of good storytelling often benefits from obscuring or exaggerating the truth as opposed to offering an accurate and impartial portrayal of facts, as far as I’m aware, this is a weekend in Latvia as it actually happened, or at least as it was for six clowning drummers from north-east England.

“Hi there, taxi? Yeah, there’s literally nobody here.” (Photo by Ashling McCann)

At first glance, the city of Rēzekne, located in the Latgale region just 63km west of the Latvian-Russian border, appeared to be something of a ghost town. Having driven four hours east from Riga, the capital which houses a third of the country’s population, Rēzekne looked like a small town peppered with modest clapper-board houses accompanied by beautiful vegetable patches, and absolutely no people. That was, until the festival began, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Castle ruins on Castle Hill

In an attempt to explore the distinctly unbustling city centre before the gigs began, we headed down quiet roads past an assortment of charming churches towards the first hill we saw (one of seven in the region, though the whereabouts of the other six wasn’t immediately obvious) where there stood the Castle Ruins. Here, there stood a stone arch, the humble remains of a castle, at the top of the hill, perfectly framing a striking redbrick church in the city below. In a field beside the ruins we noticed an intriguing set-up taking place: various tents, neon flags and bizarre flying saucer-shaped objects began to appear as a few dreadlocked hippies prepared for some sort of rave. Moments later, after snapping a few shots of the Castle Ruins from various angles, we were ambushed by two terrifying six-year-olds with wooden swords, as if enacting a battle from medieval times. Brendan took the first hit, shortly followed by Adam, and soon the whole team was down on the ground pleading for mercy. But the youngsters refused to give in, and battle commenced for a good twenty minutes or so, while peaceful painters glanced disapprovingly over their easels and any parental adults remained blissfully unaware.

Tranquil haven on the hill

ATTACK!

Victorious soldiers

After being fought off the territory of two victorious six-year-olds, we descended towards the tourist gift shop and ogled woollen mittens, patterned winter socks and stuffed animals made from felt. Upon paying for one or two woolly luxuries we noticed by the window a strange hooded statue with no face, which prompted a local ghost story from the shop assistant, who told it with the utmost sincerity. Then, having lost half of our group following the Great Battle of Castle Hill, we wandered towards an intriguingly angular modern building nextdoor, which turned out to be hosting some sort of school concert to which our friends had already been personally invited. Shuffling into a crowded hall full of costumed kids and proud parents, we watched on in baffled fascination, at performances by classical guitarists, breakdancers, ballroom dancers, and everything in between. By the time certificates were being awarded, and we had eagerly applauded on ten or more occasions between Latvian speeches we had no chance of understanding, we decided it was time to leave and eat ice cream, which was conveniently served at a non-specific eatery nextdoor.

Mysterious angles, mysterious content

The evening brought three half-hour gigs of unexpectedly large proportions. Having been a drizzly ghost town by day, by night Rēzekne was transformed. Each gig got busier, and by the second night we were almost wondering where we would actually perform, as it seemed every inch of space around the main square and stage was taken. We still have no idea where all the people came from, but what we do know is that they seemed delighted to be there.

Daylight gigging (Photo by Ritvars Pujats)

After some lively and incredibly enjoyable performances amongst the crowds, we packed up and headed back towards Castle Hill, where the afternoon’s preparations had culminated into a full-blown UFO rave. The DJ was spinning discs inside a transparent, neon inflatable flying saucer, while computerised psychedelic visuals danced above him on an elevated screen, and techno pumped loudly through a PA while ravers enjoyed dancing between smoke machines and neon rags and miniature solar systems hanging from the trees. We danced and danced as if we hadn’t just danced for hours in front of large crowds moments earlier, and then decided to take a chance on the ‘hipster kebab house’ down the road, which the Latvian organisers had promised would provide the night of our lives.

UFO rave on the hill

The hipster kebab house, it turned out, wasn’t just a kebab house but a bar that happened to serve fancy kebabs as well as beer, and hosted DJs that played all night long; it was also the location of the festival’s artist after-party. Here we met with other performers from Latvia, Russia, Spain and Argentina, and continued dancing non-stop until the sun came up and we could no longer ignore the daylight. Perhaps the most telling part of a good night of dancing is when the sound system breaks and the party continues. In fact, the point at which the music packed in for half an hour or so was probably the most entertaining part of the night, as the celebrations erupted into full song and dance, including a rap battle and dance-off led by Spanish breakdancers, followed by an improvised song about Rēzekne, and then a conga line that involved the entire population of the venue and led outside before ultimately descending into the Macarena. Meanwhile sound technicians anxiously attempted to uncover the root of the problem, yet we were so far past needing anything but our own voices that barely a soul in the bar seemed to have noticed there was a problem at all.

Sunrise over hipster kebabs

Leaving the bar giddy and woozy from dancing, having forgotten to try a kebab, and with a hundred new and temporary best friends, we wandered across the barren planes of the town, stopping by a deserted play park on the way to get childlike thrills from jumping off a roundabout and rocking on an inappropriately squeaky seesaw. The neighbourhoods were simple and clean, organised by straight, wide roads and green gardens with dilapidated sheds and perfect flowerbeds. We walked back to our hotel in the fresh air and the early morning sun, the sincere words of kind yet intense strangers still ringing in our ears. We walked along empty roads, alongside the pavement, recalling being kindly told off by sensible teenagers for that very thing earlier in the day.

“Guys? Where is everybody?”

Not a bad find for this time in the morning

A quiet walk to the hotel

The following day we downed the Emergency Muesli and left the hotel in the early afternoon to get lunch at the cultural centre known as ‘Gors’, which stood at the centre of the festival site. Though a grand and beautiful modern building with a wide range of event listings, the venue itself was not used for the festival except for providing meals and a dressing room for us, and was otherwise almost completely deserted throughout the weekend, except for the odd school trip and a wedding. Lunch, like dinner, consisted of some kind of meat, mashed potato or rice, and shredded cabbage and carrot. It was always hearty and delicious: exactly what performers need between energetic shows where you lose half your body weight in sweat. We took the time over each meal to discuss other meals we’d eaten in various parts of the world, the good and the bad, the extravagant to the shocking. We asked our Latvian friends if the food we were eating was ‘typically Latvian’, but it seemed nobody knew. Well, you can’t expect to learn everything in one weekend.

Outside we were met with sunny weather and pleasant acoustic tones from the smaller stage by the river – the perfect antidote to the previous night’s escapades. Eating more ice cream, as holidaymakers do, we took a stroll by the river and eventually came across a huge lake, where novice wakeboarders splashed about in the freezing water and teams of twenty-somethings played volleyball in the sand. I took the opportunity to sprawl out on the grass and take a nap in the sunshine, being awoken at short intervals by the cries and whoops of watersports spectators as a wakeboarder took a particularly large jump, or as a sorry man took yet another fall in a Walking Water Ball that made him look like an especially clumsy, oversized hamster.

 

Wakeboarders and volleyballers at Lake Kovsu

The gigs that night were more strenuous again, and the sheer volume of the crowd even more monstrous. For the final show, we went out into swarms of mosquitoes, drawn to the lights in our drums and sticking to our whited faces, and waited patiently behind the main stage while the previous act – an incredibly popular Russian female singer who appeared to attract fans of every generation – came to a finish. In a final trick I’ve never seen played out so smoothly, the band continued playing as the glamorous singer left the stage and flitted past us before stealthily getting into a gleaming white 4×4 with blacked out windows which promptly disappeared seconds later. No chance of an autograph, then. A minute or two later, the music on stage came to an end, and the singer was already nowhere to be seen.

Our own final performance was one of the most exciting we’ve played, with merry festival-goers dancing and jiving from every direction, and a few hilarious clowning moments with overly-keen punters who lingered a little too long in the performance space. Getting right up in the grinning faces of content party-goers was the perfect way to finish an exceptional weekend, and the subsequent reviews from various festival-goers in the following days became the icing on the cake. One happy punter aptly nicknamed our low surdo player ‘The Destroyer’, describing him as ‘scary at first’ but, as the performance progressed, came to see him as a friend, someone he could trust. The show’s narrative had never felt so pivotal, the reviews alone so far-fetched and entertaining.

Another incredibly fun night of shows at the Seven Hills Festival (Photo by Chris Maines-Beasley)

The next morning we hopped back on a bus with all our gear, accompanied by a small number of the other artists we’d since danced and sung the night away with, and headed back down that long, straight road west towards Riga. After a few hours of chatting to Russian pop stars in between sporadic naps against drum cases, we dropped a couple of passengers off in Riga’s Old Town, making the rest of us envy their free time before flying home, which allowed them to explore what appeared to be a truly beautiful city. This, among many others, is a good reason to return to Latvia, and I sincerely hope that we do.