Now in its 18th year the multi genre Colours of Ostrava Festival is the biggest international music festival in the Czech Republic. It covers all major genres on its 24 stages, including avant-garde and world music, but also has theatre, film and discussions. Rupert Parker went to see
Ostrava, the third largest city in the Czech Republic, has only recently figured on the tourist map with good reason. It was the country’s steel heart, sitting on a rich coal seam, which fuelled the roaring blast furnaces, clouds of belching smoke issuing from its factory chimneys. In its industrial heyday, this must have been a grim place – it was so bad that women were prohibited from wearing long skirts as they disturbed the layer of grime covering the streets.
Those days are now over as the last coal was mined here in 1994 and the chimneys no longer spew smoke. The rusting architecture, however, is still standing, particularly visible in the Lower Vítkovice area, an industrial wasteland in the centre of the city. Mining, coke production and iron smelting all took place in this labyrinth of iron towers, twisting pipes and conveyors. It’s now the venue for the Colours of Ostrava Festival which spreads its 24 stages across the site including one in a converted gasometer.
The festival has been an annual event since 2002 but only moved here in 2012. To get an overview, I take the vertical lift half way up the side of Blast Furnace Number 1, also known as ‘Bolt Tower’. After this, it’s stairs and gantries to the top, with the whole festival laid out below. On the horizon I can see the city’s one remaining steelworks and the mountains beyond. There’s no doubt this is a stunning venue, a suitable sci-fi site for the post industrial age.
The music isn’t bad either and organisation is excellent. The atmosphere is comfortably laid back and prices are kept low, particularly the beer which, at just over a pound a pint, is excellent value. Everything happens on time, the sound is good and there’s none of the aggression which you sometimes encounter at other festivals.
What I like is the mix of genres. I start with Small Islands, Big Songs, a collective of indigenous musicians from Indonesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Taiwan and Madagascar. There’s interactive back projection, filmed in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the acoustic vibe works well just before sunset.
Moonlight Benjamin from Haiti mixes voodoo with French guitars. She sings in her native creole and her performance is suitably idiosyncratic. On the same stage the seven piece BCUC, from South Africa, churn out a high energy punk funk with vocalist Kgomotso Mokone going wild in a mix of Zulu, Sotho and English.
There’s a more gentile atmosphere with French vocal group San Salvador. They weave their hypnotic layers of Occitan polyphony accompanied only by shifting patterns of percussion. Calypso Rose is the legendary ‘Calypso Queen’, from the Caribbean island of Tobago. Almost 80 years old, she’s still asking for a young man from the audience to take home, and she charms the crowd.
Mariza, the Fado singer from Portugal never fails to disappoint although for the festival crowd she chooses her more upbeat numbers. There are still a couple of those heart rending Portuguese blues but she’s plainly in a joyful mood. The Sons of Kemet XL version has three drummers backing the duo of saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and Theon Cross on tuba. The groove is straight out of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler and it’s great to see the mainly young audience digging it.
The most intimate venue is the Cylinders Gong Stage, inside a converted gasometer, all seated. It’s the perfect space to appreciate the classical Kronos Quartet and the jazz of Paolo Fresu, Mathias Eick and Youn Sun Nah. Indeed it insulates you from the mayhem outside and you get to sit down and relax.
On the big stage, Florence and the Machine go down a storm. The Cure are top of the bill and dutifully turn out their greatest hits set over two hours or so. Robert Smith can still charm and they exude a slick professionalism, songs following songs, with little banter to the crowd.
Since the festival is walking distance from my hotel and the main events occur in the evenings I have most of the day free to explore the city and its surroundings. You can actually go down a mine in Landek Park, although you don’t go very far underground. What’s surprising is that, in spite of its industrial history, the city has a green heart with many parks.
Sailing down the Oder River on an inflatable, I see a glut of bird life including herons flying above and even a young deer on its banks The Beskydy Mountains are nearby, perfect for easy hiking trips, and a popular outing is to take the chair lift up the Pustevny hill. At the top they’ve built an impressive wooden skywalk with views from its large glass platform into Poland and Slovakia. If you’re feeling brave, take a white knuckle scooter ride back down, screeching through the curves.
The next Colours of Ostrava Festival will take place on 15-18 July 2020.
The Harmony Club Hotel is only a half hour walk from the festival site.
North Moravia and Silesia has information about the region.
Czech Tourism has information about the country.
Ryanair flies direct from London Stansted to Ostrava.
The Stansted Express is the fastest way to the airport from central London.
Wizz Air flies direct from London Luton to Katowice, a two hour transfer in Poland.
Thameslink is the fastest way to the airport from central London.