It was when I was sitting on the stone steps of the Municipal amphitheatre of Prastio village that I began to contemplate how festivals have increasingly been making their presence felt around the island. Pursuing this theme, I went through The Cyprus Weekly archives and eventually counted 33 festivals held during the months of July to September. That would make what? Approximately three per week?
Attending the 12th Animafest in August, the moon looked down at us as we stared at a screen which presented us with animation shorts from around the world. In the split second that I looked at the olive grove thriving to my right, the warmth of my surroundings encapsulated how such events are taken for granted as people linger on the doom and gloom of the current economic crunch.
That morning, while setting up tent beside the sea to accommodate my evening’s endeavours, the people I came across were eagerly anticipating the evening’s screenings but also grasping the opportunity to make the most of the locale.
In retrospect, I recall the first Urban Soul Festival that pioneered in the moat of Nicosia in 2006, an initiative that was then unheard of locally. There weren’t any festivals independently organised in the capital then, let alone the presence of any happening attempting to bring forward the alternative local art scene.
Just like when I found myself in the moat in Nicosia more than a decade ago, I encountered people on a common ground and under a mutual pretext. But as you’ll probably agree, bumping into people on this small island is nothing out of the ordinary. Cyprus being so small, it’s common practice to erratically meet people and indulge in the mere chit-chat; within this specific festival realm however, we shared much more that a mere encounter.
The Pantheon Urban Soul had initially strived to bring music and arts closer to the public, in an open space with no charge, a need manifested by Roots Crew. Fifteen years ago, these local musicians had found a niche in the market. They satisfied a profound need for people to have access to what was going on locally, aside the grand, commercialised and very much state orientated events that were established at the time. These included the Paphos Aphrodite Festival, the Kypria Festival and other smaller versions of state funded initiatives which took form more to maintain traditional cultural happenings, with artistic acts known to most at the forefront, i.e the Wine Festival in Limassol or other village festivals.
That’s not to say that there weren’t any others contemplating the idea of alternative approaches. The Paradise Jazz Festival, established in 1999 to infuse the local music scene with an impressive array of Jazz musicians from all over the world, gave jazz enthusiasts an opportunity to hear musicians from leading jazz conservatoires. Set across the road from the sea shore, and within the foothills of Pomos in a simple, homey and unconventional location, Socratis, the founder of the Festival, managed to tap into the local beauty and the potential to intertwine it - and therefore enhance it - with local and international musical acts.
But this initiative was cut off from the rest of the world. It was only when summer was at its peak that one recalled the need to attend the festival. After all, for years, it has maintained a pioneering identity and certainly thrived in bringing quality, alternative notions of a very specific type of music to local audiences.
With time, organisers began to come to terms with the right ingredients for these cultural productions to bear fruit. As the Pantheon Urban Soul persisted in finding means to continue, other like minded initiatives began to extend their notions. The Fly Away Festival was one of them, although their recipe enabled them to survive on the financial support of sponsors, but also the financial contribution of participating local artists. As opposed to Pantheon’s free ‘first come, first served’ participation basis, the Fly Away Festival began to charge artists to set up their stalls in exchange for the entrance paying audience who would gather in the festival.
Although financial difficulties stood as a barrier with regard to quality and substance, festivals with a strong social message - such as the Rainbow Festival in support of multiculturalism - followed suit.
Yet the knack of things wasn’t quite in place yet. As organisers sought to find the right financial recipe, there was a group of individuals working on the ‘Moving Culture’ initiative, which awarded participants a qualification on cultural management.
At a crucial time, the aim of the project was the acquisition of knowledge in the field of cultural project management through job shadowing, internships and further education, as well as to develop the network of local cultural actors in Cyprus. The aspiration, in the long run, was to support professionals on the Cypriot cultural scene.
This went beyond festival realms and dug into the nitty-gritty of organising simple events, whether it was alternative theatre productions, live music and DJ events, markets or communal activities. The reality was that only through evaluating and perfectionising smaller acts, could any bigger event enforce its substance.
An analysis of this initiative by UNDO Contemporary Arts in Nicosia in 2008 concluded that there was a great need for qualified project orientated cultural managers and that this problem was apparent not only in the lack of project management instruments, but also in the networking of the scene on a national and international level.
The team put together for this project endorsed change locally and were active not just in the capital but Limassol and Larnaca.
Henceforward, citizen-led initiatives, usually set by people of a certain age and below, were evolving into local institutions. By 2010, I would venture to say that a new ‘era’ had begun.
Louvana Diskoi was one of the first to propose festival realms that embraced the potential of local venues and introduced varying forms of local and international quality alternative music festivals with alternative artistic ventures. This year alone, Louvana’s third attempt at the Fengaros Festival in Lofou had to turn away festival goers - unheard of locally – because it was sold out.
Under their wing, they also institutionalised the Nicosia Loop Festival, this time in an urban setting, yet using premises set in the older part of town (Nicosia). It’s perhaps fundamental that both these festivals employ international, established names which work alongside local artists. One of the reasons why the Fengaros Festival sold out may merely be the fact that Thanasis Papaconstantinou was one of the leading acts.
There’s no denying that this sort of recipe sparks interest. But this cannot be the sole rationalisation. Fengaros excelled in spreading its festival throughout Lofou village.
Live acts, of varying artistic fields, were performed in existing locales but also on rooftops, streets and courtyards, subtly bringing audiences to a local inland realm that may have been left unexplored had the festival not called audiences to experience it. Just as the Animafest did.
Simultaneously, the Afro Banana Republic Festival, since 2011, based itself on prototypes of European Community Festivals; large, non-corporate, music and arts annual festivals that usually rely on community members to work together in the planning and operation.
Standing, perhaps, at the very forefront of alternative culture, the festival put a stamp on the importance of location and thus concept. Its second edition took place in the suburbs of Ayia Trimithia village in the Nicosia district in 2012, and this year, following its urge to creatively use abandoned urban spaces, it hosted its annual event in the Athalassa Forest on the outskirts of Nicosia.
This new component in the local festival scene brought challenges for artists, whose creations now serve a bigger purpose. As the organisers rightly put forward, creations in festivals needed to be impact-full, have reason and add some meaning to the audience’s experience in order to present work that does not conform to the stereotypical venues festivals are usually hosted in.
Whereas festivals had forever seemed to maintain a somewhat typical appeal, audiences now have the opportunity to choose what to endorse in within a festival, people now have the opportunity to wander around, to discover, to explore, to negotiate within themselves and take control of their own experiences.
There were others of course, such as the Xorko.com festival in Paphos for instance, but what’s of essence is that it’s through these very personal experiences that one can appreciate how far the scene has come along and internalise what is handed out.
The wind blowing at any of these festivals triggers much more than one’s appreciation for the arts, because, once on location, audiences become a family. A family interested in what other family members have prompted to introduce, under the title of a festival.
Whether this has to do with documentaries, animation shorts, music, theatre or any of the odd festival tags we’ve seen this year - The Fish Festival in Ayia Napa, the Hackathon Festival orchestrated for tech enthusiast, or the Laughing Festival - Cyprus has established the potential to seduce us through its existing potential.
Within the beauty of Cyprus’ rural setting, audiences get a taste of some of the things we take for granted; Cyprus’ nature, Cyprus’ hospitality, Cyprus’ small sized nature which undeniably contributes to making us a Cyprus family but also the opportunities we get to getting to know what goes on in and beyond this little island, under the most ideal circumstances.