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MENT festival is keeping the punk spirit of Ljubljana alive

01 March 2024, 10:30

The past and present of Slovenia collide at MENT, a festival where ambition is limitless, writes Sophie Leigh Walker.

In the city of Ljubljana, they build statues not of political leaders, but poets. Today Valentin Vodnik, the defender of the Slovenian language, surveys the market place; he stands impervious to the three centuries of the country’s upheaval

Empires have since risen and crumbled, earthquakes have erased and borne rejuvenation, and yet Vodnik is immovable. He elevated his mother tongue when educated Slovenes of the eighteenth century largely spoke German, dismissing their native language to be the vernacular of poor, illiterate farmers, unfit for polite society and incapable of expressing nuanced ideas. Vodnik, the eternal idealist, devoted his life to popularising and elevating his language, writing the first Slovenian books and curating its vocabulary. It was something different, something independent – and no less worthy. One of the poet’s verses is inscribed on his statue in bronze: “No daughter no son, to come after me, enough memory done, my songs sing of me."

To this day, his pride and protection are the inherited instincts which continue to set the Slovenian capital aglow. It’s the work of its artists who both preserve and further its story: their national poet Prešeren, whose monument stands in its central square, is described as being as ubiquitous in their culture as the air they breathe; their modernist architect, Jože Plečnik, transformed the provincial city into the symbolic capital of the Slovenian people. MENT Festival, one of the leading showcase festivals and music conferences in Central and Eastern Europe, carries this torch. It seeks to introduce us to musicians who are challenging western conventions, to invite us to discover the sounds which hold the promise of a vibrant tomorrow.

Slovenia lies at the crossroads of Austria, Italy and the Balkans, and even in the small vicinity of Ljubljana, this patchwork-quilt of cultures is palpable. The Baroque architecture in the Old Town recalls the influence of the Austro-Hungarian empire, while beyond the centre bold reminders of its socialist past under Yugoslavia can be found in its concrete, hard-line towers. MENT is just as stylistically diverse, with showcases elevating artists from as far as Estonia, Serbia and Ukraine pioneering music that overrides the comfort of predictability. Across four nights hemmed by the Kamnik Alps, you will fall in love over and over again.

Klub Gromka comfort 23 2 2024 Photo Matjaz Rust 16
Comfort by Matjaz Rust

Even after a decade of growth, MENT is still decidedly punk in spirit. Much of its venues are in the Metelkova Mesto, Ljubljana’s illegally occupied ‘second capital’ and epicentre of counterculture. The urban squat had been built from the skeleton of a military base, reclaimed by artists and activists who petitioned to use the site creatively, immune from tax or rent. Today, when it is not hosting MENT Festival, it’s home to concerts, alternative theatre performances and LGBT club nights; worlds built from scraps, rusty sculptures and cracked-tile mosaics

Entering each venue in Metelkova is an act of total transportation. Gala Hala, its largest club (although still remarkably small) is cast in deep red light built with shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy. There, I find the otherworldly Parisian duo UTO: their flair for avant-pop driven by trip-hop dream logic is strange and alluring, like a broadcast from a future we haven’t caught up with yet.

Leave that world, and enter another. As the February rain lashes down, Klub Gromka lets off steam; a snaking queue takes shelter under its metal frame. What are they waiting for? comfort. They are a Glaswegian electro-punk duo who speak fluently in the tongue of hip-hop in a way that recalls the raw bloodletting of Death Grips, a brother and sister embodying Gemini-like twinship onstage. Sean’s drumming is taut and dependable over the unstable and glitched-out electronics while Natalie is a fluid, totally kinetic force. Detailing her experiences as a trans woman with unflinching urgency, she encompasses triumph and pain at once – and she does so with the absolute conviction of someone who demands to be heard. Their song “Wild and Fragile” embodies these contradictions. The gentle thrill of harp-like strings is countered by drums that hit like a kick-in-teeth, spinning faster, faster, faster. And there she is, at the centre of it all, a thrashing ballerina: vulnerable, messy and unquestionably powerful.

Stara Elektrarna Hypen Dash 22 2 2024 Photo Tina Stariha 4
Hyphen Dash by Tina Stariha

Though MENT is a nocturnal festival, in the daytime, you can travel to Kino Šiška on the city’s brutalist outskirts to the former cinema turned ‘Centre of Urban Culture’. There, you will find conferences drawing speakers from all over the world who are invited to demystify subjects such as DIY distribution or launching a record label, down to offer insights into the thriving European metal scene – but they all gesture towards questions of the future and how we go about writing it. In Ljubljana, the architect Jože Plečnik taught us a lesson about knowledge. The main entrance to his National and University Library, one of the city’s most striking buildings in its grandeur, is not immediately obvious: its door, with each of its two handles decorated with a head of Pegasus, is down an unassuming side street. It’s a canny metaphor that enlightenment rewards unorthodox thinking. MENT encourages those creative left-turns and provokes collaboration to further the potential of its talent.

Ljubljana doesn’t neglect its past. So many elements of the city, and this festival, are built with the spirit of reinvention. On Friday night, a tram lifts you up to the castle offering panoramic views of the city. There is a rabbit warren of venues to be explored in this sprawling fortress where, in one space, I discovered the inimitable Portuguese artist Ana Lua Caiano who fuses tradition with grab-you-by-the-collar electronics to disrupt the meaning of dance music, and in another, the trance-driven futurism of Czech duo AXONTORR.

Likewise, Stara Elektrarna was once a power station which has now become the city’s leading contemporary performing arts venues; the now-defunct equipment is still exhibited in the foyer. With its lofty ceilings and enormous capacity, I imagined it would be easy to find space, but when I see Hyphen Dash, the audience is rapt and spilling down the sides trying to get in. The Ukrainian trio carry a presence that is almost hypnotic. They think and move with a single mind. Though their foundations are in experimental jazz with grooves which unravel like a daydream, there is also friction and volatility, painting in bold strokes of electronica, hip-hop and prog-rock. It evokes the nature of their name: unifying different entities.

In their music, they don’t say a word. But then a clinical AI voice announces: “This is what jazz sounds like after two years of Russian invasion.” Hyphen Dash unleash something on the far side of human limit – this is the sound of something that has snapped. The staccato drums hail down like artillery, the guitar wails, and all that raw-nerved electric calls to mind the weight of dubstep. “We are here to play music but also to remind you of this war going on,” they say. “Thank you for your support of our country. It’s important for us, and it’s important for us to stay alive – literally.”

Stara Elektrarna Nejc Pipp 22 2 2024 Photo Tina Stariha 7
Nejc Pipp by Tina Stariha

Slovenia’s own Nejc Pipp follows, and the entire youth scene of the city follows. His band feel like his friends, the architects of this inky twilight of RnB you could so easily get lost in, setting the scene before he strolls out in all black, hands in the pockets of his tailored trousers. It’s as if you’ve caught him not performing, but thinking out loud. His voice carries a lush musicality which feels as satisfying, as sleepy, as a long stretch in the morning; saxophones drift like smoke in the air. Of course, he doesn’t speak English to his home crowd aside from a bashful request to “go easy on us” – so when he and his band welcome a dance troupe to take the floor, it comes as a surprise. They move as if they are powerless to some force of energy in his music, an orb pulling them this way and that, and the whole thing is completely mesmeric. When was the last time you saw something like that at a show as small as this?

The city’s young people are at the forefront of what makes it so vibrant. I visit Christoph Steidl Porenta, the goldsmith and only master silversmith in Slovenia at his studio. In some ways, his studio is like stepping back in time: his works are the result of inherited, carefully-preserved craftsmanship which he learned from a Benedictine abbey in Würzburg, Germany. His designs evoke the country’s lore, drawing on both the mystical and the divine. Dragons are a motif in Steidl Porenta’s work: they are a symbol of power, courage and wisdom in Slovenian culture and adorn the ends of one of the city’s central bridges. His latest piece, soon to be exhibited, is a bracelet of a dragon in which its chains cuff your wrist – it’s a staggering work of depth and detail and the product of a life devoted to its craft. I wonder if, in the modern age, he ever worries that this practice is being neglected to the past, but in his studio, there are three apprentices – all young women. “I think we live in a time where the young people want to work again with their hands,” he says, “to return to something real.”

The city of Ljubljana, is more artistically rich today than it has ever been. The festival is but one piece of a wider mosaic of art and culture Slovenia has to offer. This place is small in scale, but its ambition is limitless. You might have thought you’ve seen and heard it all, but MENT invites you to fall in love again with the spirit of discovery.

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