Long gone are the days when festivals had designated months to exist/co-exist across Europe - it’s a year-long round exercise in today’s music climate; which is how we found ourselves in the rather charming city of Ljubjana, capital of Slovenia, in winter.
Mid-to-large scale music festivals have entered the discerning music fan's consciousness in Western Europe, Nordic Countries - and increasingly Eastern European. But what of the smaller, boutique festivals in this part of Europe? These have been appearing on our radar in the last couple of years more and more so (festivals such as Tallinn Music Week), and also hello MENT Festival (not to be confused with Melt Festival in Germany).
There’s a music industry focus with conferences, panels, and the like with a view of nurturing talent from Eastern Europe; but also certainly enough acts playing for the average punter to go have have a good time. Arguably the secret weapon to MENT Festival is Ljubljana itself - a modest size city with less than the population of Nottingham, and a lot going for it. Here are five takeaways from our time there.
I’ll admit I was hooked-in with the outrageous blurb in the programme that describes КУКЛА as “Slavic gangsta geisha pop band”; who could resist that? Kukla Kesherović is the driving force behind КУКЛА (translated as “doll”) who also directs videos away from this project. This background in multimedia was evident in a live setting with a strong approach to visuals - a trippy projection keeping everyone on their toes while feeding brains.
КУКЛА of Slovenia transform into an all girl three-piece on stage, with the trio synchronising dance moves (in-between fiddling with electronic equipment onstage) to create further visual stimuli. The whole package is full of energy, joy, and simply… fun; and if there’s one thing I’ll take back from my time in Ljubljana it is КУКЛА. I cannot recommend enough - an act that I’d expect to translate well to a UK audience anytime soon. MIA meets Iceland’s dj. flugvél og geimskip - bold, innovative, playful, while creating a delightful world of earthy electronic soundscapes to climb into. Scary jaunty pop. ‘MITRALJEZ’ invaded my brain since that night and it won’t leave.
Organic Garden - and food/vegetarian food in general
A thing that vegetarians will have to contend with, or hear from others upon going to many countries outside of the UK, is “And just what are you going to eat?! Chips, crisps, and potatoes?”. Sometimes this is an outdated/ignorant statement, but sometimes it rings true (even in progressive countries). Ljubljana is, however, incredibly accommodating for (good) vegetarian and vegan food, with the festival also keen to add to this - I never knew a vegan wrap would be so satisfying after a few beers in between seeing acts.
A special mention has to go to Organic Garden, which has three ranges of vegan burger on offer that is honestly better than any animal burger I’ve ever had. You get a choice of red, yellow, or black burger and they come literally in… red, yellow, or black buns; and each beast is rammed full of delicious veg and sauces. So large it’s the kind of burger you need a full-on shower afterwards - even though it’s not greasy and gross at all, more just food gets everywhere. Other dishes such as soups, paninis, and cakes are on offer too, alongside quality (and strong) coffee that will have you marching around town. All for a good price - as are most things in Ljubljana despite the pound’s Gaga/Superbowl-esque freefall over the past year. Although we didn’t get to nearby Zaživ Vegan Bistro, it also sounds very fine.
To get to Ljubljana Castle on the south side of the city centre (near the above Organic Garden as it happens), you have to go up a cute Funicular railway - unless you fancied an uphill hike that is. It’s worth visiting purely for the spectacular views of the city - the city in a basin of sorts, as the Alps envelop the town in the distance.
The Tivoli Gardens also offer further picturesque interest, even if it was a little hard to walk around due to the huge snow thaw of the past week (temperatures having been consistently -10/15°C in the weeks before we arrived).
Many electronic acts get to that point post-release with that little conundrum of just-how-do-we-play-this-live-without-looking-like-we’re-bored-hunched-over-a-Macbook? Mieux of Austria fame get around that by simply playing as much as they can on-stage. The results are consequently hugely engrossing, warm yet incredibly loud electronics providing an organic delight - at times going for the hypnotic build-rise-build-rise formula, some tracks becoming a journey through genres. Somewhere between The Field and about a million other different acts such is the elective nature of them. If future-garage was still an acceptable term you may label them as that.
Now here’s a cultural success story that could not be told in the UK anymore you’d feel. Metelkova is an autonomous social centre - billed as Europe’s most successful squat that has existed in its current form since 1993. Before that it was a barracks, commissioned by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century and used by the Yugoslav National Army right up until Slovenia gained independence in 1991.
Today it hosts hundreds of events per year a million miles from the site's bloody history in the various somewhat-dilapidated but functional buildings, featuring a large courtyard in the centre. The emphasis is on diversity, tolerance, and inclusion, a “safe space” if you will - anti-racist and LGBT activities have featured since its inception. Art gallery, bars, artists studios, and gig/music nights all co-exist and has become the beating heart of creativity in the country. The closest comparison would be Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, but each have a different approach to their past and current existence in society.
The majority of shows at MENT were hosted in the various spaces here (including the aforementioned acts in this article); if nothing else it was super practical to have four venues within a stone’s throw of each other. Also featured is a gay club called TIFFANY that while not part of the festival, was a good lol to finish off our time in Ljubljana at. I just knew the festival would end with listening to Serbia's 2010 Eurovision entry with a hundred strangers.