Odyssey of body music – the Body Rhythm Festival

Every time you return somewhere, it is like coming back home. Hamburg, the big harbor, capital of travelers, hasn’t changed a day for me since I visited it last year. My partner Marko and me were greeted with sun and incredibly hot June, after rain and this year’s spring (that was actually more like autumn), and the air conditioning and cool night we experienced on the bus. Solving usual travelers’ tasks of finding a safe port to cast an anchor for a short time, we’ve found a cafe with a view of a sunny, busy street in the center and a stream of people walking and chewing their breakfast, while a river of cars is passing them. After a short creative meeting, we pulled our suitcases to a bench near a church, to record a short Instagram video clip and connect two events that have only us both as a commonality: a theater festival happening in the forest of Fruska gora in Serbia and an international festival of body percussionists in Hamburg, that we come back to for the first time. “Hajde” (Serbian for “Come on/let’s do it”, the name of the festival in the forest), the leitmotif of the day arose from the video clip: dare again to come to Hamburg and figure out what is awaiting for you in the big world and small community of people that share your passion for body music, movement, making music in groups, improvising and happy moment in which you find the right and only possible musical solution for the time that is now. People you know, but changed after a year of their lives, that you meet them again; happiness because of the reunion and the suspense you feel before the four precious days that have changed your life last year.

The concert, the traditional opener of the festival, was the performance of two Danish artists: Peter Stavrum Nielsen and Rune Thorsteinsson. They both have impressive biographies: the first is a drummer that performed with STOMP for over a decade, the second a multi instrumentalist, performer and composer, and together they created the Body Rhythm Factory, awarded with the YAM Award for the best music production for children and youth in 2013. On stage they are very natural and incredibly funny: while Thorsteinsson plays Spanish motifs on an upright piano without the front cover, occasionally playing on strings with his fingers, Stavrum stomps with fantastic agility, claps, turns, moans, groans, sings, beat-boxes, really turning his whole body into an instrument and firecracker of sounds, and then brings the audience into climax playing on rubber piggies of different sizes (and pitches) and rubber rooster he tunes changing the opening of his beak. At the same time completely bizarre and hilariously funny, as if John Klees has been crossbred with Franz Liszt! Than gentle, melancholic melodies of Thorsteinsson in Danish, while Stavrum plays on the aquarium splashing and decanting water and spreading the body music to the body of the whole world.


In front of the club in the yard, we whisper, not to disturb the inhabitants of the buildings around us, but carried away by the energy of the reunion, constantly trying to hush down the others and being too noisy ourselves, laughing like children on a school break. It is still dusk, although it is 10 PM, so we need to get used to the north and different understanding of the daylight. We come back to the Bewegungswelten Studios while chit chatting, the place that will be our home for the next four days, and also the center of our small world.

“Rhythm Choreographies” and “Rhythm Pedagogy” are workshops led by Santi Serratosa, a Spanish drummer, pedagogue and (body) percussionist. Easily, by playing games, he develops rhythmical  matrix connected with movements that are performed in one circle, where left and right “neighbors” are partners, or in two circles, the inside and the outside one, where we change partners, as circles are rotated in opposite directions. Rhythmical patterns and movements are complex, based on dissociation, movement and changing of sides. When we learn and develop choreography, Serratosa plays modern dance music (that is not good to my ears), but it goes very nicely with this rhythmical dance and we all accept it with humor. At the end of the workshop, talking, we learn that this is orientated for work with youth. The point is to make a safe environment (they recognize), so the unfamiliar elements (body percussion and movement) and the familiar one (dance music) blend into a movement that takes all the attention, while engaging in communication and going out of the comfort zone – a meditation in movement, where participants are present here and now, which happens very seldom in everyday life.

Next, we are in the hands of a master, an Austrian living in New York, Max Pollack, a man that communicates with the same ease with thousands of people in the audience in Minnesota, playing side by side with symphony orchestra, and with about 40 participants of the workshop in the biggest studio. His workshop “Odd meters and clave” is focused on Cuban music, and the emphasis is on the feet and stomping (since he is a tap dancer) and clapping in a very particular way (clave are wooden sticks of African origin). We learn rhythmical patterns characteristic for cascara and tumba as well, building a rhythmical orchestra that pulses in rhythm of ten beats. Like a mantra, it erases the border of the beginning and end of the phrase as you stop counting and start simply being, while moving, dancing and playing music. We sing „Un golpecito, na’ mas“ (just one little beat, nothing more), a tribute to Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, a drummer from Cuba that played with musicians like Santana. His creation is strongly rooted in Cuban heritage on which he bases his own expression. What is contemporary in this musical model is that one beat more, and it makes it very unusual to comprehend and perform, with all syncopation Cuban music already has. After three hours workshop it seems to me I know less than I knew before, but being discouraged can be cured by resting.


But, alas, not yet! The rest will come after the Open stage party, where we present our project Rikataka, the new Balkan rhythm with the Macedonian folk song Teach me, mother, scold me (Uči me, majko, karaj me). The trait we can offer to this versatile international  group of people is Balkan folk music with its odd rhythms. In the West, odd rhythms are performed as in the language of jazz, never with an accent and the temperament of the people from the Balkans. An hour before the Open stage (and 15 minutes after the last workshop for the day) we have a first (and the last) rehearsal with Zarina Kogay and Alex Ostapenko for a piece we will perform together. They have made an arrangement as a tribute to the work of Peter Stavrum Nielsen, and we’ve made some tunes. On the Open stage there are various artists: Martina Jordan, that sings an ancient Swedish song combining it with the ancient Turkish rhythm, Usul, of 60 measures (which reminds me of Indian rhythm loops that are kilometers in length), Sophie Boucher performs a part from a fantastic music theater show Soleo, that tells a tale by movement and music of a contemporary man’s life, work on an assembly line in a factory; Mattias Wyss and Corinne Schmidiger from Switzerland perform their musical arrangement of Box from Deejay Young, jazzy and pop, light, but about not putting people in boxes and classifications, and Swedish duo Peter Lagergren and Conny Jansson dance, sing and make us laugh until we cry with their seriousness. Anselmo Luisi does a mixture of comedia dell’ arte, clowning, beat boxing and body percussion performance, telling a story while performing all the characters. The specially emotional moment is when two sisters, musicians, Celina Bostic and Sarah Lazaki perform for the first time the cannon Bostic has written – again a little workshop, right on the stage! The variety of ideas and approaches are made even with the overwhelmingly benevolent applause of the audience.


After my morning yoga, I start the second day with the workshop “Games, Improv and Beats” of Stavrum Nielsen, who is as funny and inventive with the participants as on stage. Firstly, he lets the participants meet and communicate in order to make the group made of people on different levels of knowledge and skills homogeneous – there are people here from 20 to 70 years old! I am fascinated by the social aspect of body music (the people and the community that is into it): no competition, just like a real Boal social theater, it includes every single one in the group making it possible for the person to offer and give what she/he can. I am sure that the spirit and way of thinking is also influenced by the great Fernando Barba, that was a founder of Barbatuques. By playing and adding a piece by piece, one small rhythmical element, we construct a sophisticated rhythmical sequence. I observe the less experienced participants and recognize the same surprise and enchantment in their facial and bodily expressions that were also mine, when I started to do body music. In the beginning of the workshop they were newborns, carefully making every step, sometimes ahead or after the beat, and now they are performing something that was an hour and a half ago so distant from them as the Earth from the Moon.


And now something Marko and I were waiting for impatiently ever since we found out about it: our performance on the Festival show, on the same stage with the workshop leaders, which are also Sarah Lazaki (one more performer of STOMP) and Ben Schuetz (the founder of the festival, a man of steady, floating energy, whose workshops are gentle and cuddling), Charles Raszl (member of the Barbatuques, a body percussionist rooted in Brazilian tradition and capoeira, that moves like he is dancing on air), Anna Llombart (a dancer and body percussionist from Spain, a burning fire on stage), singers from Holland gathered around Kees Kool, that were teaching vocal painting workshop, structured improvisation leaded by characteristic signs. In the backstage, I am very eager to go on stage, feeling impatient. When it is time to go in front of the audience I feel we are just where we belong: here we are not weird, freaks, hopping around, hitting ourselves and singing, but we are interesting because of artistic novelty. We perform “Brother and sister”, a Croatian folk song, and “Ergen dedo”, a song from Bulgaria. The musical arrangement of “Ergen dedo” is inspired by a workshop of  konnakol by Alex Ostapenko we attended last year – one more way this festival has intruded our hearts and minds and made us grow and develop. The last number is our own song. The audience claps enthusiastically, and Marko and me go off the stage with gratitude and warmth in our hearts.


The last workshop I attend is Taketina, lead by Esther Diethelm from Switzerland. The experience like no other, because it is led with an intention of throwing the contemporary individual out of the ego trip by – music. Dissociation of movement and attention, poly-rhythms, in the same time playing different rhythms with hands (claps), feet (stomp) and voice with accents on unusual places. Practically, this is how it is done: right hand of the co-leader Joachim Münster plays surdo drum and accents the base beat. Esther Diethelm plays the second rhythm on berimbau and assigns the melody as a call that participants answer to, trying to repeat it. The feet follow the surdo drum, the hands berimbau. It all sounds completely simple and easy while listening; but, when you participate, it becomes clear how complicated is the polyphony of three rhythm and melody lines of different beats and accents. After fifteen minutes we all are in a state of mild trance, because we stop thinking and let go to the intuitive repetition; we succeed, then we fail, and this roller coaster of learning repeats without a fault, following the capacity of our attention or rather our capability to let go. Because this is at the moment we quit controlling and decide to believe the impossible the synchronicity happens. Counting doesn’t help at all, neither does ratio, or just a little, but very fast it stops being capable of answering the task, because of the lack of capacity. After an hour and a half we all lay down into something that resembles yoga nidra at the end of a yoga class: the feeling is pretty much the same, we don’t need to explain, we just want to BE.


All the participants meet at The Final Jam, where we are split into four groups led by the teachers and the festival producers Ben Schuetz and Detlef von Boetticher that give different musical themes we play looping, and then the leaders change, the next one coming out of the group. All the leaders are inspired: some of them jump, moving through space of the big studio in a line, some sing, others do onomatopoeic sounds, texts, all of them using some form of body percussion. It is very challenging to be in front of the group and face your zest, enthusiasm, ideas and limitations, and the leader also needs to be aware of the capabilities of the participants, speed of reaction, the complexity of what we set as a musical theme, that group loops and doesn’t change until we set a different pattern, following every hint of the conductor and composer. We finish with appeasement, softly singing the Teacher’s song, one more of the rituals of the festival, a new song that is performed at the end of Festival show – and that closes every festival, being a constant reminder of all the experiences the next few days, still playing in the minds of the participants.

The next morning we are the last ones to leave Bewegungswelten Studios, the venue that hosts the festival every year. Andreas Klupp, the host in the studio and festival support in all possible ways, shares breakfast with us. Already tomorrow we have a performance at the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad, last in this season, in the place where the new artistic expressions have a place to manifest. I feel fortunate and full: the last four days have, again, changed my life; I feel support to believe in my own story, different from all the others, and also a confirmation that, even with great differences, the togetherness exists. And that in this world, people can, without too many words and ado, still understand each other, get along and live together.


Written and translated by Ana Vrbaški


Many thanks to Kristina Ivsic and Ben Schuetz for all suggestions and corrections in the text.

Body Rhythm Festival





Photographs by Georg Tedeschi


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