Yinka Olatunbosun

“Bonn Appetit!” So shall it be written for the sake of jazz-loving music enthusiasts in Bonn who feast annually on new offerings from creative jazz artists within and beyond the confines of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is arguably the most-densely populated German state.

In preparation for the 9th edition, the artistic director, JazzFestBonn, Peter Materna initiated discussions with the NRW Kulturesekretariat to invite six music journalists across the globe through the International Visitors’ Programme to witness and report on this unique cultural tradition. No doubt, it must have been a rigorous decision. The outcome was a list with Henning Bolte from Netherlands, Herbert Hopfl from Austria, Thomas Rees and Sebastian Scotney from UK, Patrick Spanko from Slovakia, Joe Woodard from USA and yours truly from Nigeria.

Undoubtedly, being the only black journalist to report on the event presents a peculiar modicum of pressure. First, it is mind-boggling to be caught in a concert venue where there is no African in the audience. Careful glances from some members of the audiences were expected. Secondly, the shows needed to be assessed with clear lenses devoid of cultural bias.

Interestingly, the concert pattern typifies the standard international performance routine which provides a “30-minute break” (this varies) between a production which in this case-double concerts. The break serves a dual function: it allows the stage to be rearranged for the next concert and for guests to dine and chat. At this last edition of Jazzfest Bonn, 24 concerts split into twin concerts on 12 evenings within three weeks were featured from April 26 till May 12.

For the international journalists, seats were always reserved throughout the three nights of concerts between May 3 and 5 while Bettina, the time-conscious bi-lingual guide took care of the media team. Every show was proceeded by a group lunch and early dinner, sometimes at luxury restaurants.

Jazzfest Bonn 2018’s theme of “Give and Take” is very metaphorical. The “Give and Take’’ motif ran through the duo and trio performances, audience-performers relations and the international visiting journalists drawn from different socio-cultural contexts who shared ideas and knowledge.

Every concert was indeed a blast in varying degrees with a few exceeding the timeline due to popular demand. Inga Luhning and Andre Nendza kicked off the show inside Beethoven Haus, Bonn with some creative pop jazz, using multiple instrumentations. Incidentally, they both donned the same outfit as shown in the picture for the programme note. That wasn’t the only catch. The semi-circle ceiling lights at the theatre was a perfect complement to the lush garden at the transparent-glass compartment behind the auditorium.

On the one hand, Inga’s sweet soulful voice echoed through the surround system which projected the self-made live recordings of her vocals which were to serve as her “howling’’ back-up vocals in subsequent lines. It was a sight to behold-one that obviously demands a powerful ability to multitask as a performer. On the other hand, Andre switched from percussion to bass and then guitar, relying on very unusual creative improvisations to give a perfect finish to each piece.

The second concert was iconic. Two major influencers in German jazz scene, pianist Julia Hulsmann and vibraphone virtuoso, Christopher Dell were seen together on stage at their first ever collaboration. A stunning showman, Dell is a gentleman off-stage but an incredible showstopper on stage, creating suspense within the performance space. Bringing such dramatic element to classical jazz may not be unusual in movie soundtrack productions but on a jazz music stage, in a duo with a mathematical pianist like Hulsmann- was nothing short of magical. The duo demonstrated individual energy and together, a melodic synergy.

A multi-racial jazz ensemble led by the 38-year old Lage Lund featured on the first phase of the second concert, held at Kulturzentrum Brotfabrik. It seemed like a slow-tempo start to the night but then the tempo was quickened with the Johnathan Blake’s percussions.

The 76-year old Belgian guitarist, Philip Catherine came on stage with a huge sense of humour alongside bass player, Martin Wind during the second concert for the night. Philip is a legendary jazz musician with an impressive touring history with the likes of Lou Bennett, Dexter Gordon and Chet Baker. His performance was punctuated by witty conversations with the audience.

He mused about not saying greetings before starting the concert and later made self-mocking jokes about his forgetful sense of time, claiming that he had checked his brain with his doctor.

“My doctor said that the left side of my brain is not right and on the right side of my brain, there is nothing left,” he said, causing a riotous outburst of laughter from the typically quiet audience who demanded for the concert to continue beyond the closing hour.

A pleasant surprise awaited everyone at the third concert night. The first phase of the concert featured Julia Biel on vocals, piano and guitar; Rob Updegraff on guitar; Idris Rahman on Bass and Ayo Salawu of Nigerian parentage on the drums. After the collective’s rock jazz warm delivery on stage, the break time was explored to track Salawu, who revealed that he left Nigeria for the UK at 12. In spite of his long sojourn away from Africa, his skills on the drum still retained certain African polyrhythmic elements which gave a nice polishing effect to Biel’s striking voice that evoked the memories of Amy Winehouse and Bilie Holiday. By the way, it was Biel’s first appearance in Bonn.

Wolfgang Haffner is one performer every music enthusiast must see in a lifetime either live on stage or through recorded performances online. His “Quartett” featured Roberto Di Gioia on piano; Christian Diener on Bass; and a second appearance for Christopher Dell on vibraphone while Wolfgang himself commanded an orgasmic response from the audience with the drums. That performance is simply beyond measurable words. For the want of an accurate description of Wolfgang’s die-hard antics with the drums, one can call it a waxing ecstasy.

The German jazz audience can clap for painfully-long minutes. They’d clap throughout the curtain call till the performing artists return on stage for parting shots. It’s unbelievable.

At an early dinner with Peter Laterna inside Beethoven Haus, he revealed the philosophy behind JazzFest Bonn, an initiative of the state government and the city of Bonn.

“The festival presents celebrated national and international artists in double concerts. It features young talented musicians and popular local performers’’, he said.

Materna, a jazz saxophonist and composer, was a touring musician before he had his first child. The Jazzfest Bonn came as a project to keep him active in contributing to Bonn’s cultural space, while making the city of Bonn a music destination. It must be noted that Bonn is the birthplace of the classical music composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven. And the best effort at immortalizing him is to make Bonn a global music destination.

There are a number of parallels between the jazz culture in Bonn and Lagos. One is that Jazz is not as popular as other music genres such as pop, hip-hop and R&B. It exists in an elitist circle but is currently drawing young audiences through the trends of jazz fusions. Also, jazz festivals in both cities are largely driven by private sponsorship as Materna would later reveal.

“The festival provides its own funding for 90 percent of its expenses. JazzFest Bonn have five principal sponsors: Deutsche Telekom AG, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Phoenix Reisen, Sparkasse KolnBonn and Bechtle,” he said.

Hence, 10 percent of the funding support for Jazzfest Bonn comes from the City of Bonn and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. One interesting discovery at the festival is that all the concerts were sold out. Even at that, Materna is not slowing down on marketing strategies for festival, which has become German’s appetizing cultural staple.