Folklore Summer in Zagreb.
Review of the 53rd Zagreb International Folklore Festival in 2019
The 53rd Zagreb International Folklore Festival was, without a doubt, the highlight of 2019’s summer for all its participants. Having taken over Zagreb for a week of July, the festival made the central squares loud with live music and singing. The vast programme, with a particular focus on the Gorski Kotar region of Croatia, managed not only to competently present the traditions along the historic trade route, but also to incorporate performers from all around the world. The mixture included folk groups from Bulgaria, China, Greece, Italy, Iran, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Apart from dance, music and singing performances, there were workshops led by foreign artists from Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador.
There were some extra features of the programme that made this folklore festival special for me. The presence of the workshops, which encouraged the audience to take ab active part in the dancing, was one of them. The other noteworthy feature was a theatre play performed in a Croatian local dialect by a group of elderly people who still speak it. I found it to be a great addition to the programme as it made the festival more inclusive of the complexity of the folklore. Dialects and folk stories tend to be left out of the European festival spotlight; thus it is encouraging to see something being done to the contrary.
One of the best features of the Zagreb Folklore Festival is the ‘democratisation of culture’ (d’Arcier 2015: 287). The festival offers easy access to the folklore scene without any obstacles that the institutions (e.g. ethnographic museums) seem to present for the city dwellers who pass by and never enter. The performances taking place on open-air stages within the city centre area drew people’s attention and invited the audience to learn about different cultures without any financial burden. Therefore, the festival contributes to the city’s ‘cultural capital’ (Szabó 2015: 48) by playing an educational role for the audience, whose ‘decoding capacity’ (Ibid: 48) improves with every attendance.
The cutest festival performances were the unplanned ones by children on the central square. We enjoyed watching them dance in unison with the folk performers. A little girl with a short bob-haircut was trying to make the skirt of her blue polka dot dress fly like the skirts of the Latvian female dancers. She was twirling round and round, mesmerised by her skirt. This all while a naughty little boy kept running around and then froze once he noticed the dancers and stood like that in the middle of the square until the performance was over.
This informal transmission of folk culture to the younger generation has always been an important function of traditional festivals. In our globalised world, it is encouraging to see that festivals still bear its core functionality even if it is in a different way due to its international dimension. Thus, the children present at the festival learn not only about their culture but also about the cultures from different places. They acquire knowledge, and even though it is on a surface level, it is still some knowledge about world differences.
This brings us to the realisation that a festival can serve as a means to ‘reinforce a sense of local identity’ (d’Arcier 2015: 287). There was a powerful scene at one of the performances that held place on the bigger stage at Gradec. Old Croatian ladies were singing beautifully on the stage and suddenly all the audience joined them, and at some moment, it felt like everyone around was singing in unison. Of course, I didn’t know the song, but it was an old Croatian song that all locals could identify with. There was a magic unity in the environment – a powerful pride in being Croatian.
Being an international festival, it aims at ‘forging new social connections’ (d’Arcier 2015: 287) and developing the intercultural exchange. Socialization plays an important role for the participants whose artistic practise benefits from performing in a new place in front of a new audience and also from seeing others perform. The most memorable cultural exchange seemed to take place at night in the yard of the student dormitory where all participants were accommodated. We became accustomed to falling asleep to loud live music and singing which wouldn’t stop until 5 a.m.
One night, we happened to join a Bulgarian group; we were naturally dragged into the circle of dancers where all we had to do was to keep up with the leader and her steps. One of the girls who joined was losing her flipflops in her attempt to keep up, which she did drop later but continued barefoot. We had another problem: the Croatian singing group next to us was getting louder, drawing out our music. That made us scream louder in order to keep the leadership of the Bulgarian group. The scream had no identifiable language as it all just turned into some international sounds.
All in all, the festival provides a platform for culture transmission, identities reinforcement, socialisation, and cultural exchange. In a time of a growing ‘festivalisation’ (Négrier 2015: 18) of culture, this example of a folklore festival stands its ground as one of positive, beneficial influence. Zagreb Folklore Festival brings visibility to the rich world of folklore and empowers the keepers of traditions. The festival has a unique artistic and cultural value due to its choice of less stylised dance groups with the preference for smaller village groups over folk dance companies.