Pack your bags, let’s rock around the world

Bored with the likes of Latitude? Then follow Nick Hasted to the festival scene’s furthest frontiers
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The Independent Culture

”We’re going to sleep under a collapsible Yurt,“ Adam and Joe’s Adam Buxton sings in “Festival Song”. “We’ve got a nurse in case anybody gets hurt…”

Buxton goes on to list the clichés of comfortable middle-class UK festivals such as Latitude that have joined Glastonbury as signposts of the British summer. But for anyone feeling blasé about yet another weekend in West Country mud, a planet of possibilities beckons. The festival experience, which has become a thriving cultural industry here, is now embedded in every continent. If you’d rather see Coldplay in Rio this year, all you need is cash.

The Nordic nations, the only European region to consistently challenge the Anglo-American dominance of pop, also have the Continent’s most established and thriving festivals. Denmark’s Roskilde (below) began in 1971 and equals Reading in rock clout, with The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys among its acts last month. Iceland Airwaves (12–16 October) will, of course, welcome Björk back to Reykjavik, alongside foreign artists and crowds drawn by the city’s thriving music scene. Finland’s Ilosaarirock (15–17 July) is another survivor from 1971 with an enduringly idealistic atmosphere.

Watching Finns skinny-dipping in a gorgeous lake in a month when the sun barely sets, and listening to the likes of Madness and local metal weirdness, you realise just how exotic Europe can be. Spain’s Benicassim (14–17 July) in Valencia is the Nordic giants’ main European rival for British fans.

UK promoters are now basing themselves in the continent’s far corners. The Outlook festival (1–4 September) is a British venture held in a disused fort in Pula, Croatia, where bass-heavy sound systems pound at night while beach and boat-parties fill the day. Croatia was also chosen for the award-winning Stop Making Sense (12–14 August), featuring international sound systems such as Paris’s Favela Chic. Its location on the sunny Adriatic Coast is central to its success, says its promoter, Chris Greenwood.

“It was the one thing that made me want to do it. I’ve been involved in big UK festivals such as The Big Chill for a while, and that Adam Buxton song sums up how things have become more and more clichéd. Last year 80 per cent of our crowd was UK – and about 60 per cent from Shoreditch!” he laughs. “A lot of people in that area will go to something like Lovebox inLondon, but they’re starting to choose somewhere more exotic too. Most come in groups of six or more, and it’s an adventure as soon as they get on the plane. But it isn’t strictly Brits abroad. People get involved with the locals by using accommodation in the surrounding villages. You’re not just camping in your compound, like a version of Sandals.”

Bands and fans who once focused on Britain’s summer festival circuit can now theoretically keep going all year round. The Australian summer has already had its version of Womad (the next Womadelaide is in Adelaide, 9–12 March 2012), and V’s stuttering presence in the country is rumoured to be reviving. The Big Day Out tours Australian cities, usually as a one-day affair, in late January and early February. It gives an early look at the bands heading our way in the summer.

It’s a similar story at California’s Coachella in April. Americans were bemused by the British festival phenomenon, despite having inspired it with Woodstock, till Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction started his alternative culture road show, Lollapalooza, in 1991. Coachella, where this year you could watch The National and Tinie Tempah in 100-degree heat in a desert valley, amid a sprinkling of stars jetting in from Hollywood, is the new US festival king. Meanwhile, each March, in Austin, Texas, South By Southwest crams hundreds of mostly new bands in front of thousands of music biz types and regular fans, across the city’s many small, sweat-drenched venues.

Fuji Rock (29–31 July) lets you catch up with Arctic Monkeys’ latest tweaks to their festival set in Japan, while the gigantic Rock In Rio (23 September– 2 October) finds Coldplay and Elton in Brazil. The over-familiarity of such bills is reinforced by global franchising, which now, absurdly, has a Rock In Rio in Lisbon.

It’s at this point that the truly seasoned festival-goer may turn to more challenging locations. The Garma festival of Aboriginal music in Australia’s sappingly hot Northern Territory in August is one alternative to the Big Day Out. Mali’s Festival in the Desert (above; 12–14 January 2012), north of Timbuktu, was popularised by Robert Plant’s appearance in 2003 and attracts the cream of African acts. Anyone with their own tent has to put it up hidden from the main Touareg campsite, so it doesn’t start looking like Latitude.

Malawi’s Lake of Stars (30 September– 2 October) mixes British and local musicians in an effort to make global festival-going a matter of mutual cultural enrichment. “Our founder, Will Jameson, came back from a gap-year project in Malawi in 1998 thinking, ‘How can I get my friends to go to Africa, which had such negative connotations for people?’” says Tom Porter, one of its UK promoters. “We’re moving three to four thousand people from the UK, and we’re a massive attraction in the region: 65 per cent of the audience are Malawian. Our focus is trying to tell a story of Africa. People are starting to recognise using art as a showcase for tourism. Malawi’s minister of tourism is very keen that’s there’s more to say about it than Madonna and Aids.”

Again, the journey and where you arrive are at least as important as the music. “From the airport, you go through arid countryside for three-and-a-half hours,” Porter says. “Then you hit this beautiful lake that looks like a sea. It’s off the beaten track and not the cheapest place to go, so we don’t sell a three-day festival; we sell a two-week adventure of a lifetime, where you can experience safaris, beaches and mountains.”

There are always new adventures to be had at Worthy Farm. But, for those who can afford it, there’s a whole world of opportunities to explore.