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Bilbao BBK Live is a testament to the strength of collectivism

14 July 2023, 15:00

In the hills high above Bilbao, a man ascends, carrying an axe. His purpose? Splitting a car into two pieces.

Accompanied by a marching band dressed in traditional Basque clothing, he walks to a wrecked car, rips off the passenger door, steps in and starts to hammer it down. In no more than five minutes, he has turned the vehicle upside down, and hacked the other side into two.

The original Basque tradition of the Aizkolari - “woodchoppers” - usually involves a large tree trunk, and happens in a regional competition rather than at a music festival. Yet this one-time performance doesn’t feel out of place as accompaniment to the seventeenth edition of Bilbao BBK Live – a festival that places international headliners alongside Spanish music and tradition, triumphing as a social and cultural catalyst in Bilbao and beyond.

Kobetamendi – "Mount Cobeta" in the Basque tongue – is the national park where the festival takes place. Nature is within reach and it takes no longer than a 20 min bus ride, or 40 min walk from Bilbao’s city centre to the festival. The road overlooks the city of Bilbao, and in case you ever wondered what the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage would be like, this is a good chance to try it out - the road is part of the famous mediaeval trail. Camping is also available on its neighbour Mount Arraiz, with free shuttles back and forth to the festival, and yoga classes in the morning.

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Although BBK takes place during the first week of July, the music kicks off even before the festival begins. As the stages are being prepared to welcome this year's headliners Arctic Monkeys, Pavement, Florence + The Machine, Phoenix, Idles and The Chemical Brothers, the north of the Basque country is flush with a series of free events running throughout June. Offering gigs in locations with limited access to the capital city’s cultural events, the initiative actively seeks not to single out Bilbao, but share its musical wealth with its neighbours, supporting local talent in a culturally enriching programme dedicated to the region.

Long-lasting development and sustainability are key commitments: BBK was the first European festival to receive the B Corp certification for meeting high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. The festival is paperless; free drinking water is available everywhere on site; there’s an established protocol against sexist aggressions; and a diverse line-up that seamlessly intertwines international with regional and national bands.

It's there I discover Spanish rock with Madrid-based band La Paloma. Formed during the pandemic, their music seems to ask how early 2000s Meet Me In The Bathroom-era indie rock would sound if sung in Spanish. And the answer is: great.

BBK is an old friend to them. “This is actually the first festival I ever went to, fifteen years ago, to see The Prodigy”, frontman Nico Yubero tells me. Same for Lucas Rojo, who formed the band with him: “This was the first festival my mum allowed me go to alone with my friends when I was fifteen - the headlines were Radiohead and The Cure”. On an early Saturday evening, La Paloma lifts the crowd, who dance and sing along to their situational lyrics and catchy guitar riffs, bringing a breath of life into rock tradition often believed to be dead.

It’s merely a coincidence that Nico and Lucas both attended BBK years before they met each other and formed a rock band together. Guitar music has been well catered at the festival, which over the course of nearly two decades, is responsible for bringing R.E.M., Primal Scream, The Strokes, Gorillaz, Pixies, Supergrass and Suede to the north of Spain.


Speaking of indie music, this year we get to hear a 2023 version of Stephen Malkmus adapting the opening line of Pavement’s Cut Your Hair into “Darling I don’t care if you cut your hair” - in lieu of the original - and a cheerful and more-than-usual talkative Alex Turner slowing down AM’s 505 under a massive disco ball, while thanking the “beautiful audience” for a great night; the Glastonbury gig is water under the bridge.

The festival has eleven stages, and each one of them reveals a different approach of curation. Some of the highlights are hidden in the forest, where the Basoa and Lasai stages are dedicated to electronic music lovers. The latter, under the premise of not exceeding 100 beats per minute, brings avant-garde DJs such as Andalusian-born GAZZI to slow tempo sets, while the Basoa stage delivers a 360 degree sound-system - seven sound towers placed in a circle - that keeping music going until sunrise, under the command of HAAi, Violet, ANZ and Call Super.

The festival’s international names escape Eurocentrism, inviting Sahara desert’s favourite psych-rockers Tinariwen, Puerto Rican queer reggaetown artist Villano Antillano, and Colombian romantic rapper Nanpa Básico, playing for the first time ever in Spain. “I come from a really poor part of Colombia," Básico tells me, "in which most people are never given the opportunity to leave the neighbourhood, leave alone the country. It feels like a miracle for me, being, playing at this festival."

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Back in town, the Bereziak project puts on music in four different stages at the city centre, running in parallel to the festival, and offering free gigs to the local community. From there, you can stop at bars in the Casco Viejo, to try the local pintxos; or check out what’s on at the Guggenheim; or just get lost in the little streets.

Bilbao BBK Live stands out as a festival that doesn't walk alone. It gives back the space that it borrows to the city by providing exceptional music from all over the world, and leading on meaningful environmental and cultural initiatives in its community. A testament to the strength of collectivism, it doesn’t abide by rules of the world we live in, but sets the grounds to a new one in which we would rather be. Bilbao BBK Live showcases that music allied with sustainability brings good news for the future.

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