We headed to Croatia to enjoy one of it's best loved homegrown festivals.
Date published: 10th Aug 2017
Image: Samir Cerić Kovačević
Boris Vlastelica, lead singer and guitarist of Serbian band Repetitor, holds his guitar to his face, his eyes shooting down the neck as though holding bassist Ana-Marija Cupin in the sights of a sniper's rifle. She seems quite relaxed about it. And over ten years into Repetitor's punk posturing, aggression release and Vlastelica's stage antics, well she might.
When the riffing recommences, Vlastelica shuffles back swiftly in time to the monstrous rhythms being pounded out by drummer Milena Milutinović, his angle changing rapidly in a movement that, alongside the mock use of his guitar as a gun, is incredibly reminiscent of similarly captivating stage performer Wilko Johnson.
Repetitor's opening two songs are gratefully received. But the atmosphere on this main opening of Friday night is somewhat underwhelming. This, despite Repetitor being the festival's highlight for many and them having drawn a crowd that easily numbers over a thousand.
Whether it's the audience that needs to warm up or the band, by the third number each takes their cue from each other and the tension rises. A small mosh pit is formed. Shirtless guys momentarily fall to the floor, only to be instantly lifted back to their feet by tens of offered hands, Vlastelica's gangly frame leaps off the stage and he hammers his guitar line, eye to eye with the most enthusiastic of his audience who are pushing against the barrier, wide eyed and raging.
By the sixth or seventh song both band and audience are in full flight. And then nothing. The lights remain on but the sound cuts out. After a few minutes it becomes apparent there's no easy fix and the band leave the stage, returning briefly to remove their instruments and offer unamplified apologies to a crowd braying for more.
10 years in, you would have thought the lakeside Ferragosto, one of Croatia's best loved homegrown festivals, would be past such interruptions. Last year's festival was also cut short, albeit by an unforeseeable and huge summer storm that destroyed some of the infrastructure.
But you might have assumed that event would guarantee improved preparations for this year's festival (it turns out they were, the electrical failure occurred in a local substation, outing the power in a whole area of the nearby town). The electrical power follows the sound in cutting out and stays inactive until Saturday afternoon meaning beers are sold not cold and some food stalls close.
When hungry, blackout or no blackout, most campers are well equipped to fix up some food. At UK festivals you may be lucky enough to see a sole attendee struggling to heat a can of beans atop the tiniest of gas canisters, Croatians do things very differently. They are the Bear Grills (pun intended) of outdoor camping, their improvised barbeques can be several feet in length, made on the spot from rocks, a grill brought from home and fuelled by wood collected from the locale.
Similarly, the cessation of the official music programme doesn't mean that Ferragosto falls silent. Many have brought large soundsystems, some powered by generators, the foresight and planning equalling that of a lifetime spent constructing and stocking an apocalyptic nuclear bunker.
Most beguiling of all the music we hear is some of the Yugoslavian rock music aired. On a soundsystem near me, Saturday afternoon witnesses an airing of 'Alo Połega' by Montenegrin-born Serbian musician and provocateur Rambo Amadeus. Even to the ears of someone well versed in all manner of electronic music it provides a true “What is that?” moment.
Music is however not the sole reason most here attend nor the only sound that breaks the silence. Many campers can be seen to be wearing no festival wristbands, the camping area open to all, free of charge and this is taken advantage of by those who just wish to hang out with friends (and strangers) all weekend. Some, such as the group I am part of, don't even bring a tent.
Optimistically reliant on the usually great Croatian midsummer weather, there are five of us sharing a thin blanket on the slopes surrounding the lake. Luckily there is always a nearby friendly šator (tent) of better equipped people from who help can easily be asked.
The festival is universally good tempered. Sure, everyone gets loaded on booze, but you don't see anyone collapsed, vomiting or struggling under the effects of anything they might have imbibed, as you may well at festivals in other countries. People are here for a good time. And they let you know it. Intermittently throughout the weekend, groups of friends will issue a deep, sustained cheer to show their appreciation for the time they're having.
Morning on Saturday is heralded by some such all night ravers who are singing in Croatian around an acoustic guitar on the other side of the lake. After the sun begins its ascent of the day they are heard to sing “Đurđevdan” (St George's Day), an adaptation of the classic Romani song “Ederlezi”, made famous by Yugoslavian era rock titans Bijelo Dugme, providing another smile to banish remembrances of the previous night's sound failures.
By Saturday afternoon the electricity and sound returns and the music programme continues on time as advertised. That evening features Yugoslavian era, Split-associated act Đavoli, 20 year old Serbian pop punk band Six Pack, well received indie rock band Jonathan from Rijeka and Osijek based hip hop group Krankšvester.
Each are enjoyable for the casual listener, although with all of the acts coming from Croatia or neighbouring countries at this incredibly cheap, domestic festival (less than £15 for the whole weekend, less than £20 for the weekend plus the warm up with Sepultura members), I'd be hard pushed to report any song titles or what indeed they were singing about. Frankly, it didn't much matter.
The hard dance stage, thankfully set apart from the main festival and camping area, was avoided by myself, but many others enjoyed it. During the power cut on Friday, Zagreb hip hop band Kuku$ valiantly take control of the stage, providing a set without the aid of microphones or music, although they are aided by a small pair of phone speakers donated by a member of the audience and the handclaps of the grateful, gathered audience. It's a typically Ferragosto moment of community spirit.
After over half an hour, the sound briefly returns to the main stage on Friday night, although 4 or 5 songs into the set by Pips, Chips and Videoclips it has disappeared again for the night. But, much to our relief, it does mean Repetitor can finish their set. Over half a century since the birth of rock n' roll, you might think the limitations of a guitar, bass and drums trio with vocals would have been reached by now. But Repetitor swing back into action to test this formula to the limit, their songs often starting as seemingly predictable punk, fleshed out with heavily distorted guitar.
But by the end of a track they can often combine in glorious, elongated sections of telepathic riffing, less reminiscent of the amateurish vigour of punk and more akin with the leaden, blues-drenched onslaught of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. They are simply devastating. It was worth going to Ferragosto to watch them alone and that can usually be said of the one band you discover that's special to you at each annual instalment of this festival. Not that anybody goes to Ferragosto just for the music.