Mėnuo Juodaragis 2017
A few years ago I found out about a Lithuanian folkloric festival, the Mėnuo Juodaragis, thanks to a friend who shares my tastes in folk music and pagan culture. Travelling in Central Europe this summer I decided it was the occasion to push further my travel towards the North-East in order to discover this promising festival. Indeed, for its twentieth edition the Mėnuo Juodaragis (which means "black horned moon") was being held on the island of Lake Dūburys, at the North-East of Lithuania. The natural environment seemed to be idyllic, and the musical programming very complete.
Although the festival itself – located at roughly 150 kilometres from Vilnius, the capital – was not easy to reach, possibilities were not missing. Buses and shuttles were especially organised for the occasion in order to reach Lake Dūburys directly from Vilnius, or from one of the neighbouring villages, connected by coaches and trains. As for myself I took a usual coach from the capital. It led me kilometres or so away from my destination. From there a special shuttle was leading festival-goers to the event. On my way I met a few Lithuanians, who were helpful at giving informations when needed, as regarding the coming of the shuttle. I also met other Western Europeans, also on their way to discover the Mėnuo Juodaragis festival. The last few kilometres were to be walked on a country-side road, far from any living places, and in spite of my big suitcase I managed to reach my destination on the evening of the 24th of August.
The festival was originally due to open in the morning but because of strong rains the opening was delayed. The festival's organisers managed to deal with setting in place the first concerts, which only happened a bit later than planned (this was coming handy for me due to my late arrival).
After the usual controls at the entrance people were entering the ground of the festival by crossing first a woody hill and then a small wooden bridge connecting the island. My nocturnal arrival did not allow me to take into account the natural setting, but the lit forest was setting the tone.
After installing my tent under old oaks enforcing respect, at the boundary between the quite camping site and its "normal" counterpart, I was able to locate my first concert. Crossing a meadow and a pine wood I managed to enjoy Niel Mitra's concert. Usually playing behind his computer in the renowned band Faun, Niel Mitra was alone on the stage to mix a more or less folkloric or haunting electronic sounds, under some kind of canopy reminding a Viking tent. That was the "Fir Stage", whose atmosphere was intimate and sympathetic, in a clearing of recently cut pines.
Knackered by my long trip which had started very early from Paris on the same day I did not linger before to go to sleep.
This allowed me to wake up early enough in the following morning in order to discover the island of Lake Dūburys before the first concerts. By the way, this festival is not only about music, far from it. There were numerous conferences (sometimes in English), projections all along the festival, some organised activities such as workshops, bathing, walks, discoveries of the area and fishing in the lake, not forgetting a spot dedicated to activities for the children. For my part I focus on concerts and on the area.
I went to look for the island's springs, which gave me the occasion to discover a good part of the place. Besides wide meadows in the centre, the island is made up of woods with pine trees, oaks and beeches. The landscapes along the lake were very different for the Frenchman I am.
There were some runic decorations or contemporary artworks here and there amongst the trees. I manage to collect enough water for the duration of the festival thanks to the source located at the North-West of the island. The water is rich in iron, as its slightly orange taint showed. I drank it for several days without being sick, but the most cautious people could buy big water bottles at the festival shop.
On Friday the 25th of August I started to see the concerts of the small stage dedicated to folkoric bands, the "Folk Hill" stage. As its name suggests it is located near the island's mound, which was adorned with flags for the occasion. I was able to discover Lithuanian folk bands, either traditional ones such as Rumbučiai ore more contemporary ones such as Laiminguo. I then strolled to the forest in order to watch the great Perkūnas ritual with a performance by Kūlgrinda, one of the rare local band I already knew before coming to the festival.
That ritual was taking place under the Old Oak, which is probably one of the very oldest tree on the island, in its main wooded area, not far from the "Fir Stage". Kūlgrinda is a band comprising several musicians and numerous singers, mostly women. They sang folkloric pieces in ancient traditional costumes. Every now and then the main singer would declaim some ritualistic phrases. Grains were thrown on the nearby public gathered around the oak, in a clearing surrounded by white hanging drapes. Fire was also present in this ritual – it was being kept alive through out the whole Mėnuo Juodaragis. That moment was moving, on one hand due to its pagan nature in such a natural setting, on the other hand due to the involvement of the Lithuanians attending, either those from the band, the organisation or the audience.
I then went to the "Dūburys" stage – not far from there on the border of the meadow – to see Gyvata's concert. It is the other Lithuanian band I knew before coming. Accustomed to their folkloric sound I was surprised by the rocky leaning of that concert, with drums, electric and bass guitars. Traditional instruments were also used but the whole seemed discording from what I was expecting.
Then I walked to the main "Perkūnas Stage", further on the meadow. There I discovered the Latvian band Daba San, mixing folk et world music.
While the day was already coming to an end I discovered Marga Muzika under the rain. It is a local contemporary folk band with various influences.
I shifted to the other big stage to see Spanxti, a Lithuanian band combining neofolk and ambient.
Then I went back to the main stage to see a concert with Dónis featuring Rasa Serra, a Lithuanian singer working with several musical genres, including folk (traditional, revisited or contemporary).
Going further away from the two bigger stages I came by chance on a concert by Aidi-Ataidi and Sita playing on the folk stage. These two bands played together in front of numerous persons performing folk dances. The atmosphere was warm in spite of the fresh night.
I walked back to the stage named after Perkūnas, the god of thunder and justice (the local equivalent of Thor or Perun) to whom this edition of the Mėnuo Juodaragis was dedicated. There I discovered DrymbaDaDzyga, a festive Ukranian band defining itself as playing ethno-rock.
I eventually ended this Friday with a majestic Auļi concert. I already knew this Latvian band. For the occasion it was accompanied by Tautumeitas, an ensemble of folkloric crown-wearing female singers also from Latvia.
The Saturday was more sunny and it was nice to discover other bands playing on the folk stage while resting sitted in the grass one the side of the mound. I was thus able to see Vadauja, a Lithuanian band playing on contemporary instruments (guitar, bass, percussions...), then Ramtatūris, a band using similar instruments but with numerous singers in traditional costumes for typical Lithuanian songs. Then it was Girjaukis, with folkloric instruments (drums, bagpipe, "kanklės" zither) and Dainava, a traditional band from Belarus.
I then slunk off to attend Einar Selvik's lecture under the Old Oak. There Wardruna's leader explained the origin of the band's music, the way it was being created and talked about the instruments used. He performed alone, singing and playing on his lyre. These moments under the trees were magical.
It was then time for me to savour a good dish chosen amongst the variety of vendors in the festival part dedicated to catering. By the way the official beer of the festival was tasty and rather cheap. This pause allowed me to browse through the medieval market and glimpse on a percussions jam on top of the mound, which followed the theme of Perkūnas.
Then I walked back to the "Perkūnas Stage" and discovered there Baltos Varnos, a nice Lithuanian contemporary folk band, then Atalyja, a more traditional Lithuanian folk band with some rock elements. I then had the pleasure to see again Irdorath, an energetic Belarusian folk fantasy band I had discovered at a German festival in 2016.
Back in front of the "Dūburys stage" I discovered Elle Márjá Eira, a Norwegian singer of Sami descent who performed songs in Sami along with electro music in front of projections of her own short films. This artist was presenting all of her pieces, describing aspects of the culture of her people and the challenges they have to face in our time. I found this concert instructive and pleasing, it was a whole show, for besides the music Elle Márjá Eira's films were perfect illustrations of her songs.
Facing again the greater stage I saw a grandiose concert by Skylė featuring the singer Aistė Smilgevičiutė. Not being a Lithuanian and not understanding the language I certainly missed things about this set but I still appreciated this folk rock concert with a slightly dark atmosphere. Anyway, Lithuanians were attending in number, some of them with national flags.
This Saturday ended for me with a solemn Wardruna concert, a band totally fitting this festival.
The two high goats built from wood and hay at the entrance of one of the meadows were burnt on this night.
The festival was ending on Sunday the 27th of August in the afternoon and I had no time to see much of it between my accumulated fatigue and the folding of my tent followed by a continuous rain. I took the time to contemplate Lake Dūburys all the same before to take a coach around 4pm to go back to Vilnius.
I would go back to the Mėnuo Juodaragis with pleasure in order to immerse myself again in its beautiful natural setting. There I felt that Lithuanians showed a great interest and caring for their traditional heritage. They seemed to me at the same time proud of their ancestral culture and conscious of the need to transmit it, without cutting themselves from its contemporary or foreign expressions. That may have been even more tangible for this special twentieth edition. In the more or less equivalent festivals of Western Europe that I am used to attend I did not feel such a keen interest amongst festival-goers. That might be explained by the fact that Lithuania and its neighbours managed to save more easily their own cultures due to their history different from the one of Western Europeans. Anyway I recommend the Mėnuo Juodaragis to people sensitive to these subjects and advise them not to hesitate to take the trip to the upcoming editions.
You can listen to my musical selection dedicated to the twentieth edition of this festival here.