A Day or Eight of Music

A music festival on an island in Budapest masters the art of keeping people entertained for more than a week

Mali performers Amadou & Mariam at Sziget, mixing Afro-beat and folk | Photo courtesy of Sziget Festival

An eight-day music festival? For those unfamiliar with the annual Sziget (pronounced see-get) festival in Budapest, the prospect of a week-long party may seem daunting. To the tens of thousands who go each August, the reality is heavenly.

This is a challenge for those who are used to the typical two- and three-day events in Austria, like the recent Frequency Festival. What does one do for all that time (while living out of a tent, no less) on an island in the Danube within earshot of stage after stage after stage of nearly every possible genre of music?

“Party!” as Paul from Ireland sums it up. He had arrived on Monday, pitched a tent at the tip of the island next to the beach, and was planning on leaving the following Monday after the music was over. Although some manage to ride the high of the substance of their choice for the entire duration of the festival, others like Sophie from France, prefer to take it easy.

“Many of the French people here are partying all the time,” she said, amused, “As for me, I like the cultural events and activities offered.” And being able to remember it afterwards.

So what is a typical day at Sziget? Almost impossible to say. The days and nights never really seemed to connect for many here. People can be found sleeping at any time of the day or night – that, and someone drinking a Dreher, this year’s Hungarian beer provider.

For the sake of convention, let’s start at noon. Some festival-goers are still sleeping wherever and in whatever position they arrived in. The constant din of sound checks doesn’t seem to stir them from their slumber. Over at the Afro-Latin & Reggae Stage, the “bright-and-early” crowd is participating in a yoga class; a few are lounging on pillows at a hookah bar, and browsing through hand-bags and hand-made jewelry on sale. Later on, African dance lessons will surely attract a group of decidedly female participants.

Walking down the main artery of the two-kilometer long island, the sounds and smells of the festival abound… not to mention the people as well. Budapest restaurateurs offer hearty traditional staples of the Hungarian palate like goulash, but also more modern options like veggie wraps and tofu dishes.

Countless other stands offer activities that tempt the passer-by, making a walk down the main road much longer than anticipated. At one, folks are seated at picnic tables sculpting their next masterpieces in clay. More stands offer information about animal-protection, substance abuse, and civil rights. Further along, six groups of artists are in the long process of remodeling old Trabants into works of art. At about that time, you look skyward and take in the sensation of watching some brave soul plummet and fling around on a bungee chord.

At another table, even braver souls are tackling the ins-and-outs of the ever-elusive Hungarian language, Magyar. A lady approaches you and asks you which of the following words is the most beautiful: gyöngy, láng, anya, ősz, kard, csók, vér, szív, sir, pillangó. The words sound nothing like any language you know, but you seem to like the first one and the last one, words for pearl and butterfly. As it turns out, the Hungarian poet Desző Kosztolányi assembled this list in the early 20th century, a reminder that we are indeed in Hungary, and that any efforts to learn the language are much appreciated; it just starts with a köszönöm, the word for thanks.

Another noticeable feature of the festival is the number of lines. Whether it is charging your phone at the electrical outlet stand, withdrawing money from the ATM, using the sanitary facilities, refilling your empty bottles from the spigot, or buying a beer, you are bound to have to wait. The good thing is that such times are ideal for meeting other folks at the festival.

One place indelibly linked to the festival is not on the festival island itself. A gigantic hypermarché Auchan happens to be located ten minutes by foot from the festival area, and is another must-see for supplies and less expensive victuals than in the festival. The parking lot outside also takes on a festival atmosphere with folks sitting around two Roman sarcophagi from the nearby archaeological site of Aquincum, having a picnic (with more beer), taking a nap, and plotting how to smuggle alcoholic beverages past the bridge security.

Returning to the festival, you look for the music. Passing by the jazz stage, a quartet of saxophones blows through John Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament”. At the white Party Arena tent, Birdy Nam Nam, a quartet of DJs from Paris before a backdrop of light patterns. There is a definite French presence on the international crowd. Judging from the throngs filing through the entry gate, you get the feeling that every one of them is here.

Then to the World Music Stage for Amadou & Mariam, a pair of blind musicians from Mali. Amadou’s pulsating licks on the guitar and Mariam’s canorous voice are backed up by phenomenal musicians, performing a sound influenced by the successful forger of global musical styles and recent collaborator Manu Chao. Their lively set preluded the longer show they will perform when they bring their infectuous sound to Vienna’s Konzerthaus on Nov. 21.

As soon as the African groove ends, the Barcelona beat begins in the A38 stage with Muchachito Bombo Infierno. The troupe of former buskers produce a pulsating rhythmic sound through the dancing crowd, while a painter on the stage decks a man-size canvas with music-inspired imagery.

As the night nears dawn and the musicians pack their bags, the revelers continue to resist sleep, dancing on picnic tables at Dalmat Bar opposite the World Music Stage, packing into the numerous tents with countless DJs, or curling up on a mat in the chill-out tent for the night.

It is hard to believe that all this can be crammed into a day; but maybe it was two days, or even eight – a wealth of entertainment and possibility, the mind gives up keeping track and just enjoys.

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