A virtual journey of sound across the Balkans

As a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, the Osnabruck Morgenland Festival took place via YouTube for the first time – transporting us to new cultural regions through music. Marian Brehmer attended several of the virtual concerts

By Marian Brehmer

Bells ring and the camera flies, via drone, towards a white monastery canopied by delicate domes, the Danube a streak of blue in the distance. Inside the Serbian Orthodox Vavedenje monastery, singing rings out, a style of singing nearly two thousand years old. Divna Ljubojevic’s ethereal voice echoes, accompanied by the Melodi ensemble, praised by many reviewers as "angelic", resonating throughout the monastery for a good thirty minutes, while the camera pans over flickering candles and gilded icons.

The old recitations of the Eastern Church are just one of the elements of this year’s Morgenland Festival, dedicated this year to the musical traditions of the Balkans. Ljubojevic is a household name in her native Serbia: in the early nineties, the fifty-year-old artist began singing the old Christian liturgies in the Belgrade monastery every Saturday, reviving a musical traditional which had to some extent been forgotten in her home country. Ljubojevic has been teaching choral and church music since the nineties and played a part in the country’s spiritual renaissance following the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Spiritual music, a cappella

The Byzantine anthems represent a deeply spiritual music performed entirely without instruments, drawing attention to the tonal possibilities of the human voice. On this midsummer evening, at the third concert to be held during the Morgenland Festival, the listener feels as if they have travelled back to a distant century, transported instantly to archaic, sacred Ancient Byzantium. Except with all the technological trimmings of a 21st century festival.

Even in early March, it was clear to founder and festival director Michael Dreyer that there would be no possibility of live concerts in June – the traditional ‘Morgenland Month’ in Osnabrcck, Lower Saxony. The festival was in the midst of its final preparations when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and fundamentally changed the life of culture in many parts of the world.

However, despite – or perhaps because of – the pandemic, the organisers were keen to make it possible for all the scheduled musicians to perform, and to get paid. Hardly any group worldwide has been hit so hard by COVID-19 as freelance artists – particularly because in most countries, as in Germany, there has been no financial support for those working freelance in the cultural sector. They opted for an online version of the festival, followed by a slimmed-down live edition, which will take place from 2 - 6 December.

The concept for the online festival saw the musicians create recordings in places which were significant to them, and these were then edited into short films by the festival team. These virtual concerts streamed at 7 pm on the festival’s YouTube channel until 27 June. Around 16,000 viewers tuned in to the festival in its first few days.

From emergency stop gap to unique format

"It started out as something of a stop gap, but I’ve since learnt to really love the online edition," says Dreyer, discussing the new format. Last year, the Morgenland Festival celebrated its 15th year together with an international family of artists and music lovers, which the festival has brought together over the years.

In Europe, the name 'Morgenland' (Orient) is associated with charm and scope, and has practically become a symbol of a musical take on the East, free from cliches. It’s about attempting to bring together Eastern and Western musical cultures, retaining the beauty and wonder of both sides while creating a new space for commonalities beyond geographical and ethnic categories.

The festival pretty much achieved this with the creation of the Morgenland All Star Band which brings together Middle Eastern music greats like the Syrian-Armenian singer Ibrahim Keivo and European jazz and rock musicians.

New faces and new music

The festival has constantly charted new waters. The city of Osnabruck remains a constant, but projects have ranged from the St. John Passion performance in Tehran in 2008, which received much attention, to gigs in locations such as the Saygun Arts Centre in Izmir, the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, the philharmonic hall in the Kazakh city of Almaty or a concert in the Bekaa Valley on the border between Syria and Lebanon. These gave rise to musical friendships and collaborations which have endured for years and kept the festival’s flame burning.

Speaking on this year’s festival, Dreyer explained: "I felt we had to make a clean break with the festival for once, and really showcase only new faces and music." The focus on the Balkans seemed obvious. Like 'the Orient', it shares a history of minimal representation rife with cliches.

The consequent slogan for the 16th Morgenland Festival is 'Balkans Beyond Brass', playing on the well-known cliche that Balkan music is composed solely of cool brass ensembles. This traditional brass music is rightly feted, Dreyer stresses. But there are so many other sounds in the region, which deserve equal attention.

Breaking persistent cliches

The Morgenland Festival wouldn’t be the Morgenland Festival if it weren’t committed to breaking persistent cliches. The festival was opened by a duo comprising the eloquent Bosnian singer Jelena Milusic and the exceedingly soulful accordion player Merima Kljuco, who performed love songs from Sarajevo, from the Romanian, Croatian, Kosovan and Sephardic singing traditions.

Their performance in a Franciscan monastery entitled 'Lume' immediately conveyed a taste of the richness of the folk music traditions of the countries between Central Europe and Anatolia that the festival aims to bring to its audiences. The term 'Lume' boasts a broad semantic palette, symbolising the cultural richness of the Balkans: it means, in various languages, world, life, light source, illusion, spark and lover.

The diversity of the Balkans is evident, Dreyer claims, from the fact that the name given to the region in English is plural. "Of course, it’s a tremendously multi-ethnic, multicultural region. Anytime you get this many influences coming together in one place, it releases cultural energy."

It’s important to bring this rich history of musical interaction to the stage, particularly given the bloody history of some of the region’s capital cities, but also in light of the rampant nationalist and parochial tendencies currently observed in the world at large. It is therefore a joy that something as significant as the Morgenland Festival has remained a constant in the German cultural landscape throughout this crisis, continuing to stimulate us spiritually and culturally.

Marian Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu