Building Bridges with Easterndaze

The festival that’s bringing Central and Eastern Europe music and art to Berlin

Words By Jonny Tiernan
Photos By Main Image: Holly & Gediminas by Juan Arturo García

Berlin is known to be a cultural melting pot, but the type of culture that tends to circulate within the city is often centralised, focusing on what is produced in Berlin or presented within the city. But the world is big and there is a lot to discover and explore – like the vibrant DIY enclaves of Central and Eastern Europe. Easterndaze has made it their mission to fill that void and to raise awareness about these alternative cultural scenes.

Originally conceived of a decade ago, the Easterndaze project started primarily as a way to counteract the bias towards the US and UK that was so prevalent in most mainstream music media. Back then, it was easier to find music from bands who hail from tiny and obscure US towns than from neighbouring Romanian or Polish cities. The project has since evolved to include a record label, a radio show, a festival in Berlin, and more. It provides representation and support for experimental and electronic artists and aims to both shine a light on lesser-known artists and build bridges between cultural epicentres.

We spoke with curator Lucia Udvardyova and producer Natalie Gravenor to find out more about the origins of Easterndaze, why it’s so important to promote the culture of Eastern Europe in Berlin, and what we can expect from the 2021 edition of Easterndaze x Berlin.

Lucia and Natalie, could you start by telling us about your background and your roles at Easterndaze?
Lucia: I started Easterndaze with a friend of mine, Peter Gonda, in 2010. We were both based in Prague, but originally from Slovakia, and we realised that we had no clue what was happening musically in our neighbouring countries. At that time, most music media was based primarily in Western Europe or the US, and predominantly wrote about acts from the US, UK, and so on. We just had no information about music happenings in Romania or Poland, so we decided to explore these scenes ourselves.

In the first year, we went to Romania, Poland, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, then we continued to Macedonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Baltics, and more. We were led more by gonzo curiosity than by some sort of journalistic assignment – we talked, hung out, attended gigs, threw an event in a school in Serbia that was shut down by local cops (I was actually DJing at the moment they walked into the classroom/venue), listened to an impromptu concert on the top of a Soviet monument in Varna, searched for a warehouse party in the middle of the winter in Lviv, travelled the whole day on a bus from Sarajevo to Banja Luka to talk to a musician who worked in an old people’s home that he would never be able to afford…

We wanted the project to be seen as a view from within, rather than with a voyeuristic gaze or exoticising fleeting interest. We made a little video with some footage from our travels that we hope reflects this.

We are also involved in our local music scenes as concert organisers, label owners, and musicians. Easterndaze has somehow grown – without much planning – into a label, Baba Vanga, a festival in Berlin, and radio shows on Cashmere Radio and Czech Radio Wave. I’ve also curated a two-month exhibition about the visual identity of music labels from the region as part of OFF Biennale in Budapest. Hopefully, a more diversified view of music scenes that transgresses Western-centric focuses has gradually evolved since we started. This is probably also thanks to social media, which wasn’t as prominent back when we started.

Natalie: I’m primarily involved in organizational aspects, such as the funding, working with venues, and other production aspects. My background is in cinema – festival organization, distribution, some production. The music film festival we organize, Soundwatch Berlin, often features documentaries and more experimental works from Central and Eastern Europe, and I have been curating programs to raise the visibility of music videos from the region for almost 20 years. When the possibility of collaborating with Easterndaze presented itself, I gladly came on board.

How would you describe Easterndaze x Berlin to someone who’s never attended?
Natalie: (Hopefully) welcoming; a place for discovering and engaging with new sounds.

Why do you feel it is important to promote Eastern European artists in Berlin?
Natalie: Although Berlin is closer to Prague or even Budapest or Bucharest than, say, Buenos Aires or Lagos, there is not as much interest in sounds coming from Eastern Europe as one would expect. Berlin (particularly the city’s eastern half) shares a historical and somewhat a cultural legacy, but maybe that’s what is complicating the relationship. Post-1989, Berlin promoted itself as a ‘turnstile’ to Eastern Europe, but fulfills that role less than Vienna, for example. Then about 10 years ago, the ‘branding’ of post-socialist countries (largely former Soviet republics) as the ‘New East’ generated some interest in musicians from the region. This certainly opened a few doors, but also catered to the spectre of Cold War clichés or an exoticisation rooted in even earlier times. We’re kind of walking a fine line between acknowledging the specific contexts in the region – often the collectives we invite play important roles in the communities they’re anchored in – and hopefully encouraging audiences to focus on aesthetic, communal experience.

What were the biggest challenges organising the event during COVID times?
Natalie: The uncertainty affected our ability to establish any timeline. And for the one project to be presented in physical space – the video ‘Forking’ by Holly Childs and Gediminas Zygus based on a track from their musical project, Hydrangea’s upcoming second album (released this fall) – it was hard to find a suitable venue. Many were either booked until 2022 or unable to plan at all. Now Bärenzwinger, an exhibition space in the former bear enclosure in Mitte, is hosting the piece in September. Because of the natural surroundings and possibility of using outdoor areas, Bärenzwinger interestingly complements ‘Forking’s aesthetic and thematic concerns, while also adhering to safety requirements. Otherwise, the communication with the project participants was already based online, as we all are far flung across Europe and even the rest of the world – that hasn’t changed much. What has changed is the oscillation between dread and a desire to maintain communities and possibly create some positive outcome from this time of transition.

Easterndaze x Berlin compilation and zine

Can you tell us about your community radio takeover?
Lucia: Community radios from Central and Eastern Europe will connect through the Easterndaze x Berlin platform in an effort to encourage collaboration between these DIY mediums that play a crucial role in their respective artistic and community milieus (being implicitly political, especially in Poland and Hungary). The project’s participants are these community radios from Central or Eastern Europe: Radio Kapital from Warsaw, Lahmacun Radio from Budapest, and IDA Radio from Tallinn/Helsinki, hosted by Berlin’s Cashmere Radio. The project will encompass a week-long collaborative programming, including swapping shows and moderators. For example, a Cashmere Radio show would be moderated and presented – in a way remixed, or recontextualised – on Lahmacun by their own moderators. The week will culminate in a live broadcasting session and a panel talk about the issue of community radios on Friday, 23 April.

One aim is to connect Western Europe with culture in Eastern Europe – what challenges do artists in Eastern Europe face compared to in the West?
Lucia: I think it’s enough to look at the lineups of festivals and prominent clubs in Western Europe – how many Eastern European artists are really present? I guess it’s also difficult to get rid of this inferiority complex which we often inherently possess, though it’s not surprising, as anyone who’s done their share of au-pairing, cleaning, or simply being a Gastarbeiter in the West can attest. Then there’s the emulation and admiration of the West (shall we call it self-colonisation?) that somehow seems very 90s – a feature of the transition from communism/socialism to turbo-capitalism, though it has still somehow remained in place. Practically, for instance now during the pandemic, a lot of artists and cultural initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe didn’t get the support their Western counterparts received from their governments. It’s DIY or DIE yet again, but I guess we’ve gotten used to it by now 🙂

This year you collaborate with artists through multiple media channels – a zine, a compilation, video, radio. How have these varied formats further developed the Easterndaze concept?
Lucia: I’ve been involved in radio since 2008, and with Easterndaze we’ve run several shows on radios, including Resonance FM, Cashmere Radio, Radio Wave. Easterndaze has also transformed into a label, called Baba Vanga, so we feel close to the underground tape community as a result. This year, we are collaborating with two labels, Amek from Sofia and Vaagner from Berlin, on a split/collaborative tape and zine, symbolically called An Embrace.

Easterndaze has always been a multi-facetted, heterogeneous project which functions in a rhizomatic rather than linear fashion. Whether it’s a blog, radio show, exhibition, festival, concert, cassette, CD, video, it’s always been driven by curiosity and interest in music and the people behind it.

Natalie: Easterndaze as a journalistic endeavor has regularly featured music videos, and from the beginning of Easterndaze x Berlin we’ve included A/V projects. The first edition (and also subsequent ones) featured pairings of music and visuals. One highlight was an A/V collaboration between the Warsaw-based duo WIDT who juxtapose decidedly analogue elements, like VHS color-bleed aesthetics and quasi-Gregorian glossolalic vocals with digitally created soundscapes, and Christoph de Babalon, a fixture of Berlin’s breakcore scene. Their collaboration developed largely via Skype calls (back in 2016!) and blossomed into the ‘digital opera’, TEYAS, which was invited to several international festivals and we gladly presented at the second Easterndaze x Berlin edition in 2018.

Due to the pandemic, audiovisual media are more ubiquitous than ever, but for the 2021 edition we wanted to present forms beyond concert streams as substitutes for a live experience. Hydrangea’s video for ‘Forking’ (made in collaboration with media artists Metahaven and choreographer/dancer Angela Goh) on the surface operates like a music video, then additional layers, hidden meanings emerge within the work itself, and in dialogue with the Bärenzwinger space. The program of contemporary and historical music videos from Central and Eastern Europe will feature intriguing pairings of sound and image which also offer insights into historical, social, and cultural contexts.

Visuals can enhance live performance, or are even conceived simultaneously with the music. Music videos on YouTube are often an important means of discovering new sounds, so for us it makes sense to give space to the visual side and even investigate it in its own right.

Is building bridges and strengthening ties with Berlin a goal?
Natalie: Definitely. Building bridges to facilitate movement in both directions, so that Berlin also looks eastward.

Finally, what have been the stand-out moments for you since the launch of Easterndaze?
Lucia: As mentioned by Natalie, the TEYAS collaboration, which was born out of our first Easterndze x Berlin event, is one of the highlights. It was amazing to see them live for the first time – the meeting of creative minds that simply clicked. Another highlight was the collaboration between Budapest-based label/collective Exiles (that is worth checking out as they mostly release local contemporary electronics), Berlin-Budapest’s Technologie und das Unheimliche (a para-academic initiative focusing on topics like Hungarofuturism), and Total Black from Berlin, as well as the presentation of the Paradaiz collective from Bucharest that aims to subvert the prejudices regarding manele music in Romania. They played a DJ set from manele tapes and had a live band playing proto/manele hits at Arkaoda, which was somehow surreal. Otherwise, it’s humbling and an honour to work with and get to know amazing people, and not just in terms of the Berlin event, but also since the start of the whole project.

Hit up berlin.easterndaze.net for more info, attend the Easterndaze x Berlin event on Facebook, and follow the project on Instagram.