If you haven’t heard of OFF Festival, I’m not surprised. All things considered, it is likely one of Europe’s best kept secrets–– a gem of a festival held since 2006 in the small city of Katowice, in the southwest of Poland. Their stages have played host to The Flaming Lips, Ariel Pink, My Bloody Valentine, Patti Smith, and Suicide among countless others, and their carefully curated line-ups have kept festival-goers coming back for more year after year.
I ventured out to OFF Festival for the first time in 2014, on a tip from a Polish friend who had been attending the festival since its inauguration. The lack of solid Canadian camping festivals gave me little idea as to what I was getting myself into, and I had never been to Poland before. A 6am bus ride took me from Berlin to Katowice, and I was in a new country surrounded by a new language and currency. That weekend really stuck with me–– I saw Slowdive, Neutral Milk Hotel and The Jesus and Mary Chain from backstage, high-fived Michael Rother, befriended Bo Ningen, and discovered the marvels of cheap Polish food and beer. It was only inevitable that I would return for a second time while back in Europe in 2016.
The title of this article comes from Jenny Hval, who played on the opening night of the festival to a packed crowd on the Experimental Stage. In between songs, over a melodic drone-like hum, she called out to the audience to watch out for one another. “If you see someone who is being harassed, do not be afraid to interfere. We’re all in this together. If you see someone who is harassing someone else, do something to help. We’re all in this together.” Her voice echoed in my ears, and I praised her internally for being such a strong, female force. Using her stage presence to bring awareness to subjects like rape and harassment, which are often rampant at gatherings like concerts and festivals, is beyond praiseworthy and only added to my admiration for her as a musician. Sonically, it is always a true pleasure to experience a performance from Jenny Hval, and I left thankful.
OFF Festival has four stages spread over a large park area. As with most festivals, running between the stages is all part of the fun, and gives way for unlikely musical pairings to occur. The curation of this festival is astonishing, and places emerging and established Polish acts next to touring bands and artists from all over the world. Just so you can get a sense of the diversity of this festival, I’ll give you a list of my personal highlights.
Ata Kak: A Ghanian musician who gained notable attention when his 1994 tape, Obaa Sima, was uploaded to Awesome Tapes from Africa in 2009
By the end of this set, everyone was jumping up and down and I thought the floor would cave in. From the stage he screamed WHEN I SAY ATA YOU SAY KAK, ATA KAAAAAK, ATA KAAAAAK! It was remarkable, and not a single person was stood still.
Lush: A definitive British shoegaze band from the 90s, led by power-babe front woman Miki Berenyi
Freshly reunited, Lush are out with a new EP that picks up right from where they left off. They played with ease, apologized for Brexit, and brought me back to a time in my life that was solely defined by their music. Basically it was all I could have hoped for.
Orlando Julius & the Heliocentrics: A pioneer of Afrobeat, Nigerian saxophone player Orlando Julius influenced Fela Kuti, and has been writing and recording since the 60s!
When an 8-piece band like this takes the stage, you know you’re in for a treat. Pure jazzy funk, led by the captivating Julius himself, it was impossible not to dance!
Derrick May: Essentially the father of Detroit Techno. Need I say more? — Derrick May could have played until the sun came up and nobody would have stopped dancing. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun dancing in my life. Will leave it at that.
Other acts that played this years festival included Devendra Banhart, Yung Lean, DJ Koze, Basia Bulat, Kero Kero Bonito, William Basinski, Beach Slang and Pantha Du Prince.
There’s something about the energy of this festival. It’s small enough to feel grounded, to feel safe, to enjoy who you came to see. Over the weekend I heard numerous accounts of strangers generosity and kindness to one other. It’s cheap enough that you can buy that extra beer, and choose to eat from a huge selection of all-organic food trucks and stalls. A ticket for the whole weekend, camping included, is less than $100 CDN. OFF is a festival for the music, where the party (though definitely in full force) is only a side note. Surrounded by vibrance, there is a genuine love for music that you can feel from performers and attendees alike. Throughout the weekend, I felt a inexplainable camaraderie with those around me. Yes, I thought, we’re all in this together.
• Camp. It’s cheaper, sweatier, weirder and definitely part of the festival experience.
• Find the secret lakes which are a walkaway from the grounds. They are your saviour in the likely 30 degree Polish heat.
• Stick around the Experimental Stage for the most interesting mix of world-wide music and dancing.
• Eat perogies and wash them down with a Jagermeister Yerba Maté–– nothing cooler.