Day one. On arrival, we are gathered into a bus which takes us to an undisclosed destination. As we drive through the island’s heart, the density of the fog increases until visibility is close to zero, and we are soon immersed in a dense grey mist. We disembark at a tiny coastal fishing village and are asked not to take photos of the next part of our journey, which takes place on foot. Every participant is handed a miniature MP3 player with headphones and told to commence listening. We follow a wild path in the rain, along the deserted coastline. The sounds emanating from our MP3 players are impressionistic electronic soundscapes. To begin with, we hear a calming robotic birdsong, then strange washes of machine textures, now becoming increasingly discordant synthesized noises as we progress. Our sense of dislocation mounts as we follow the path along hill and cliffside, the audio subtly changing our perception through the fine haze of raindrops. Tree roots burst through the ground, looking like mammoth cockroaches in the mist, shreds of blood-red ribbons guide us towards our unknown destination. The audio reaches a dark crescendo, now a distant incantation, or a warning. We arrive at our destination, a small barn set on a windy peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, and are greeted by the sight of two women wrapped in a single full-sized body-cocoon. The audio from our earbuds subsides, and the ladies emerge from their scarlet wrap and perform a discordant electronic noise composition entitled “Hell’s Garden”. The music is at times operatic, surreal, challenging, and terrifying. If this experience were a film, it might be a remake of The Wicker Man directed by Nicolas Roeg at his most disconcerting.
From this introduction, it might appear that Azorean music festival Tremor is the music tourism equivalent of white-water rafting or an island-sized escape room, but the curators of the festival are maverick in their choices for a reason. The boutique festival, which mostly takes place on the volcanic island of Sao Miguel in the Portuguese Azores, limits the available tickets to 1,500. The cap on attendees provides a uniquely manageable environment for some ingeniously curated alternative music experiences, and also helps to protect the natural environment of the island itself. Tremor commissions artists such as Natalie Sharp’s Earthly Delights, described above, to compose works which use the landscape of the island as part of its creative program. Sharp’s performance certainly gave attendees an unexpected and unforgettable experience.
Day two. We are again ferried by coach to a mystery destination in the middle of the island, but the rain has stopped, and we are afforded some glimpses of the island’s natural beauty. We pull up next to an unassuming set of buildings in the parish of Rabo de Peixe, and disembark into a tiny makeshift art gallery to view an exhibition by Rubén Monfort Meseguer. His photographs chronicle the local tradition of Despensas, in which teams of all-male choirs sing to invoke the Holy Ghost to bring good luck for the coming harvest. The photos show the men going about their daily lives, practicing in their homes, and later in their distinctive colorful uniforms and hats, singing during the festival, their faces lost in holy ascension. We exit into the adjacent village hall which is serving local drinks and food, and has an incongruous centerpiece of a drumkit, amps, keyboard and a glittering analog synthesizer. We are still none the wiser as to the afternoon’s agenda when we hear the beginnings of a procession outside, and rush to the street as acoustic guitars, accordions and male voices strike up a tune. In a magical moment of realization, the men from the exhibition are here, in full Despensas garb, singing as they commence their march along the street. Their songs build and their voices soar as they move into the village hall itself, and soon enough everyone is singing and clapping along. The songs are charming, uplifting and infectious, and the music is utterly life-affirming. After 20 minutes two of the singers – who it later transpires are Catalan duo Za! – take to the drumkit and keyboards. The local folk music is now joined by powerful electronic style beats, veering from Krautrock to Drum & Bass. The effect is electrifying as the energy builds and builds, and the music is like nothing you have heard before. If today’s proceedings had a director it would be Michel Gondry at his most unexpected and whimsical.
This vignette highlights the importance of the involvement of the local community and the unique experiences which the festival organizers curate throughout the five-day event. In addition to bringing close to €2 million in media exposure to the islands, an investment of €180,000 generates a return of around €800,000 with direct impact for the local community. The backers of Tremor include the Government of the Azores region and DGARTES, a national institute that supports the arts in Portugal. The organizers of Tremor see the involvement of the local community as a central element of the festival, not as an add on, and many hundreds of local residents are involved in running the event every year. They want visitors to experience the island through its people.
Day three. Another mystery is in store, this time courtesy of Polish performance art collective Instytut B61, founded by astronomer Jan Świerkowski. Once again, we gather to be taken to a secret location, and following a deadpan mission briefing worthy of a cosmonaut, we are spirited through the streets of Ponta Delgada in a coach with blacked out windows and “in-flight” astronomy lessons from the staff. The collective has commandeered the island’s now seldom utilized sugar factory, and a series of immersive performances guide us through “The Evolution of the Stars”. From a riotous wedding – complete with live party band and an impromptu “blind date” with the bride to be – to the march of human civilization represented by a man in a dressing gown singing “Psycho Killer” in Polish. Followed by an exploding chicken, and a lecture involving cotton candy. The highlight is when we are required to don white protective jumpsuits and are packed into a small room filled with mounds of paper clippings. A shaven-headed man in neon body paint explodes from the largest stack of papers and yells his way through a song called “Asshole”, and strobe lights illuminate a room full of adults now laughing hysterically and throwing fistfuls of shredded paper at each other. The experience is euphoric and mind-bending, with a touch of Clockwork Orange. The finale is a deeply poignant song from a dying star, who sounds like a heartbroken Polish Johnny Cash. If this evening had a director, it would, of course, be Stanley Kubrick.
Creative juxtaposition is key to much of the charm of Tremor. The festival website only contains photographs from local nature, instead of the usual headshots of performers. American saxophonist and multireedist Colin Stetson – a regular collaborator with artists such as The National, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver – was represented by a small bird. Ethiopian maestro Hailu Mergia was depicted as a dappled wild pony. Eschewing many festival conventions entirely, at Tremor the local environment is the biggest star. The island itself and its many historic buildings become a stage. The songs of American singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx cascaded through the spectacular surroundings of Igreja do Colégio dos Jesuítas, while the intimate Fado performance of Luna Pena took on a sublime quality in the acoustics of the former Franciscan convent building of Museu Vivo do Franciscanismo. The Sunflowers raised merry psych-punk hell in the local business society hall at Ponta Delgada, while Jacco Gardner performed in the upper foyer of the Teatro Micaelense, leaving the main stage empty.
In today’s archly competitive “experience economy” an increasing number of travellers consider music to be their main reason for traveling, rather than just a passive soundtrack when they reach a destination. The chance to take part in unique experiences like Despensas, and encounter unexpected juxtapositions around every corner, is a key differentiator for musically-minded tourists when choosing where to spend their precious time. Tremor is gathering a global fanbase by being very different, and being great at it.
Originally published in Forbes.
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