Due to the ease and price of flying in to Charles-de-Gaulle Aéroport, we arrive and enjoy the 3 and a half hour TGV journey to Rennes, a city that tries its darndest to be anything but like Paris. Rennes stands as the underdog of Brittany, broken away with no real connection to any other major cities via motorway or adjacency, just the TGV.
This set of circumstances somewhat sums up the nature of Les Trans Musicales de Rennes (Les Trans to the punters), as the festival has a penchant for cherry-picking the lesser known, independent acts from France and across the world. The festival started as a “Fuck you” to the music industry, glitz and glamour of the Paris scene some 38 years ago.
Since then, the maverick booker Jean-Louis Brossard, has been culminating an annual lineup of artists that few others can replicate. The festival began as a showcase for the newest, most innovative and progressive talent from all over the world and the festival has honourably kept that spirit since.
For that is the reasoning and logic as to why, four decades on, Trans Musicales has remained an institution in Europe’s ever-changing festival calendar. Where else does an up-and-coming act on the very verge of their potential breakthrough get the chance to play in front of 8,000 people, when back at home, they may perform to 200. And the range of acts is truly something to behold, you may stumble from one stage to another, taking in small-town French krautrock to South Korean doo-wop, shameless pop to a posse of 15 female rappers from Iceland. This is the essence of Les Trans.
And while Monsieur Brossard must take credit for keep on keeping on, the Rennes public who swarm here each year to see a sold-out schedule of artists that few, including ‘in-the-know’ industry pen-pushers, have ever heard of – that is something to cherish. A mindset of discovery, exploration and trust in new music that is seldom seen. This is even despite having few local acts to reel in the townsfolk. How might something similar fare in Ireland?
A huge nod must be given to the local and national French authorities who pump money in to the festival in order to promote the French acts that do appear on the lineup to an international audience of festival bookers and journos. A happy partnership for punters, organisers, government and performers alike.
The festival itself is based in Parc D’Expo, a huge exhibition park located 25 minutes from Rennes city center. Shuttle buses reliably go to and from the city at 15 minute intervals. The layout of Parc D’Expo sees several large warehouses situated side by side. The festival can run anywhere from 5pm to 7am over the course of the 3 days (Thursday – Saturday).
Each hall holds anywhere from 2,000-4,000 people, with the biggest of these, Hall 9, holding around 8,000 people.
Unfortunately, after arriving later than expected on the TGV from Paris. We were to miss a young French act that quickly stood out on the schedule, the act in question were named Vagina Town. Worth a visit for the name alone, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, the first act on our list for Les Trans 2017 was Anna Meredith, a multi-instrumentalist from London who is a former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
She begins with a very moody, long and drawn-out instrumental intro. She’s flanked by tuba, cello, guitar and drums – an interesting sonic lineup. To begin with, the whole show is confused and lumbered. The tuba is inconsistent and overbearing, the vocals are fraught with strained notes and many of the layers being presented simply don’t sit well for the audience. This is evident in her song Taken, a track that seems to be building to something, yet it never quite arrives, when the end does arrive, it’s a welcome one. The crowd give the act due time in the hope that a more examined approach comes forth.
Her electronic adventures continue with Nautilius, a brooding ascent much like Taken before it. Then comes The Vapours, another confused track that introduces Guitar Hero levels of shredding as the guitar riffs soar with effect after effect. When the track does come in to it’s own, you can certainly appreciate the musicality on show, but unfortunately, stepping aside from that, it’s frankly not all that enjoyable to listen to, and isn’t that kind of the point? Not the best start.
Thankfully, swooping in to bring us our first impressive set of the festival is Dublin lad, but London based rapper, Rejjie Snow. Rejjie first appeared around the Dublin scene as Lecs Luther a few years ago, releasing some really fresh tracks that made a lot of people take notice. Since the reinvention, Rejjie Snow has been making some serious waves. Not least on this night when Hall 3 is packed to the brim with some 4,000 people cramming in to see the man from Drumcondra. Right from the offset, his set is packed-full of energy, he moves around the stage with a clear swagger, the “I got all the weed” chant from D.R.U.G.S. gets the crowd chanting from the off. The flow and beats are laid-back and breezy, backed by a tight band that lie perfectly just below the main track. Such is the energy of the opening few tracks, Rejjie is forced to ask the crowd for an inhaler – “anyone out there have an inhaler, I’m about to pass out … I’m gonna keep going”.
Unfortunately, either the French crowds English is poor or the sizeable crowd is blessed with fine lungs. The fact that a rapper would ask for an inhaler, when all others would be too concerned to uphold that stage persona, is what endears Rejjie Snow to his fans. No matter the subject or how uncool it may seem, he still chooses to rap and talk about what he wants, in the way he wants – this creates his own, very specific style. He finishes off with Blakkst Skn, the thumping tempo sets the scene and the crowd move up a level. He leaves the stage, they simply adore him. One of the most talked-about artists all weekend, and he’s an Irishman. Grand.
Yuksek has a long history with Les Trans, he appeared on the bill back in 2007. At that time he was one of the spearheads of the French Touch renewal alongside acts such as SebastiAn and Justice. Since then, Yuksek has moved away from remixes and more towards production. In this instance, the translation from DJ to live act is stunning. Too many acts tag a live element onto their set and it feels like an afterthought, Yuksek you feel, has made it his business to make the live performance as cohesive and meaningful as possible. It’s certainly the best example of an act translating their dance set to a live set up on show at Les Trans this year. Sunrise is a laid-back treat, Golden Age the same.
Then, Yuksek brings crowd favourites and Rennes locals Her to the stage to perform their collaboration Sweet Addiction. Her performed last year (we reviewed them here) and are set to have a big year this year around Europe. He finishes with Tonight, a popular song from the heady Justice/Sebastian days. In this instance, Tonight is far removed from the original track released in 2011. This time around, it’s treated with much more consideration and care with his live-band adding another layer of brilliance to it. It’s a steady build, to an eventual explosion, with the whole crowd following in tow. A fine set.
Tiggs da Author is a rapper, singer, songwriter and producer from south London – via Tanzania – with some pretty lofty ambitions. Walking out on the Hall 9 stage, he immediately becomes one of the only artists to own the stage from the outset. To put it in to perspective, the Hall 9 stage is similar size to one of the biggest stages at any Irish festival. Think mainstage EP or Longitude, this is serious business and a big challenge for up-and-coming artists to dominate. Tiggs begins with his most popular song Georgia, a catchy up-tempo number. The 8,000+ crowd are immediately onside. A huge crowd chant of “Mr Jackson, your kitchen is on fire” adds a choral element to proceedings before he rounds off this storming set with Run and Swear Down. This guy is someone we’ll be hoping graces the Irish shores this summer.
No Zu, an eight-piece party ensemble from Melbourne took to the stage at 2am. Across the festival, bands are afforded decent set times, anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour+ sets. On this occasion, No Zu took the full hour on the festival’s largest stage and didn’t miss a beat. No Zu are that peculiar band you stumble across at a festival that soon become your favourite act of the festival. Everything is larger than life; their onstage presence, their futuristic attire – it’s like a band from another dimension. They’ve got that quirky, odd, bizarre sound with a pounding rhythm section that just makes it so easy to bop along for the whole set. Ui Yia Uia and Spirit Beat stand out as the best tracks during the set. With Irish festival bookers in attendance, we can only hope to so No Zu gracing an Irish stage in the wee AM hours – they’re primed and ready for it.
BCUC (standing for Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are a 6-piece tribal funk/soul band from South Africa. The collective itself is from Soweto which is on the outskirts of Johannesburg and their live-show draws a lot from home. This is not an act that is trying to conform for the world stage, this band are bringing South Africa to the world. On stage, the tracks tackle the everyday lives of townships with infectious rhythm to everything. The band is rooted in the combo of bass and traditional Soweto percussion – then lifted with zulu whistles. Flowing verses of rap by Luja and Hloni sit tidily together with the sweet and clear vocals of Kgomotso – the only woman in the band – and chants of all four vocals together bring the band to an almost religious high. The band take the Les Trans audience on an intriguing journey to the secret world of modern Africa.
They want to allay western assumptions and show the post-apartheid South Africa from a young, contemporary, different perspective. The band soon become one of the festival’s most talked about acts, no more is this evident than when Jean-Louis Brossard himself can be seen dancing at the side of the stage. Only for the band to bring him dead center to receive the adoration he so richly deserves, a touch of class from BCUC. The standout performance of the whole festival, for sure.
If BCUC were the most talked after the festival had ended for their stellar performance, then Reykjavíkurdætur (literally: the daughters of Reykjavik) were certainly the most talked about act before the festival. Reykjavíkurdætur are a collective of twenty Icelandic rapping ladies. At Les Trans, we could only count 15 but as you can imagine, it’s pretty hard to do a headcount when all members dart around the stage in the same clothes, mostly have bright blonde hair and none have instruments to carry in order to distinguish themselves. We first heard about this collective making waves last year in their own hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland at the Airwaves festival.
It’s hard to take your eyes off the stage as the group interchange between raps every few lines, each taking a portion of a given song. They all share 3-4 mics as the others roll around the floor, dance all over the stage or simply stand around near the back, chillin’. We’re told they rap about feminist issues, violence towards women and inequality in the world but you can excuse us for missing the details as the set is performed entirely in Icelandic. The army of rappers is made up of a plethora of ladies from Iceland, from DJ’s, producers, singers, rappers, designers and more. While they may not have had anyone singing back the lyrics, it’s certainly a set that will stand out in the memory.
And with that, we see the end to Les Trans 2016 – a true delight of the festival circuit in Europe – once again proving itself to be one of the forthright staples of new, exciting and emerging music across the globe.