London to LOFTAS: Different Eyes And Open Hearts

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Since 2012, LOFTAS festival has been gracing the Lithuanian capital with its electrifying energy, stellar line-ups and all-around creative ebullience. Among the multitude of events, What’s Next in Music? presented its showcase promoting Lithuanian and European music. Over the course of three days, I discovered incredible talent in the showcase programme. But this did raise a question which quickly imposed itself as the through line of my trip: why doesn’t this music export as much as it could?

I landed in Vilnius on a Thursday afternoon, and after a little wander around town I headed to LOFTAS. The LOFTAS art factory is located in Naujamiestis (‘new city’). Five years back, this Vilnius district still suffered from a bad reputation; fast forward to today, it’s now a young and trendy neighbourhood. The building complex is a former USSR radio and music electronics factory transformed into an artistic hub and music venue. As you arrive, you’re greeted by a gigantic eyeball with a silver sclera and a red iris suspended between two buildings. The place is a maze, not so much due to labyrinthine layouts but rather the fact that new rooms seem to magically appear out of nowhere.

I asked a bartender for directions and confessed that I was lost. “That’s the point!” he told me. “You get drunk and you get lost!” With a strong DIY ethos, people in Vilnius are determined to use what they have and not waste any space. As proof, the Lukiškės prison, just a mile from LOFTAS, which used to house war criminals and murderers, and where you can now grab a few beers after band practice in one of the cells turned studios. A lot of performance venues in the city are underground – artistically as well as literally below street level. LOFTAS is a great opportunity for these emerging artists: ‘the festival takes young bands out of their basement bars and puts them on a big stage’ told me a Vilnius native. 

On the first night, I caught the ethno-pop quintet Tautumeitas. These Latvian Spice Girls aim to reconcile the traditional and the modern whilst honouring their roots. Folk tunes are recontextualised through beautiful vocal harmonisations and are brilliantly complimented by electronic palettes. The music’s vibrant Pagan soul shines through the hip-hop beats, with solstice songs like ‘Guli Guli’, ‘Ritual’, and set closer ‘Mežā’. The girls are multi-instrumentalists, not only singing but also playing violin, toms, recorder, accordion and melodica, creating a highly entertaining show both sonically and visually. Tautumeitas’ charming stage presence captivates spectators, men and women alike, yet their fan demographic is still very young, which made me wonder how older listeners and potential folk music traditionalists may react to their work. “We grew up listening to folk, playing it and soaking it up”, told me Aurēlija and Gabriēla after their set. “There is no right or wrong way to play it, this is just how we do it.” Between tradition and innovation, Tautumeitas pull off a delicate balancing act, as even some of the initially reluctant listeners started recognising the valuable platform their music provides for their heritage.  

[Photo Credit: Augustinas Rimkevičius]

Looking around LOFTAS, the crowd was pretty homogeneous. Most festivalgoers are young adults, between the ages of 16 and 25. Here and there, a few parents, sometimes with their kids in a stroller. I even saw a few frolicking dogs, completely unfazed by the roaring decibels, although the best sight of all was probably this little girl in a pink tutu belting out every word to a hardcore grunge song. Kids and grown-ups, bipeds and quadrupeds all happily rejoicing under the watchful red eye of LOFTAS. I met a few first timers, but most people I spoke to were regular attendees. Some come because it’s great, free entertainment, whilst some others attend to see specific artists they follow. Lithuanian rock band Gruodis performed to some of the most engrossed fans I’ve seen at the festival, with dozens of people singing and dancing along. The indie rock, grungy group delivered a delightfully deafening performance with great expressivity and communicative enthusiasm. On records, they sound rather smooth and well-behaved, but live, Gruodis’ music is so much bigger and rawer. Frontman Andrius’ vocals were particularly spine-tingling.

[Photo Credit: Augustinas Rimkevičius]

Unlike Gruodis who sing exclusively in Lithuanian, post-punk outfit Local Blood sing in English, which certainly contributes to their frequent likening to Joy Division. The comparison, although accurate, is a bit facile. Local Blood are undeniably influenced by the Salford band, but with codified genres like post-punk, I personally prefer leaning into the specific tropes of the style and enjoying the music for its tropes as well as for its idiosyncrasies. ‘My blood’, ‘Lovesong’ and ‘Pressure’ are just a few of the great, classic and effective post-punk, gothy songs that Local Blood performed at LOFTAS. They displayed great musicianship and I especially enjoyed Šarūnas’ vocals, reminiscent of Andrew Eldritch and Vokan Caner. “Everyone started out singing in English”, Šarūnas told me. “We sing in English because we grew up listening to Anglophonic bands, also because it can be a bit scary to sing in your own language – English is like a mask. But now most Lithuanian artists sing in Lithuanian.”

Some artists even choose to not choose, like Joseph June. Opening the showcase on the first night, Joseph presented a varied set characterised by great vocals, humorous lyrics, and simultaneously deadpan and silly demeanour. He first played some songs off his album ‘SELF’, including the dancy bop ‘Vacuum’ which he performed for the 2023 Eurovision Lithuanian preselection. He then closed with some earlier work in Lithuanian. “We are such a small country we have to pride ourselves with singing in our language,” Joseph explained. But artists must also think of expanding their reach (hence the choice of English) at the risk of ‘betraying’ their national audience. “Lithuanian music is really underrated,” a festival attendee told me. “Because Lithuanian is a very old language, and bands use a lot of slang words,” her friend added. I also learned that it’s a Baltic language as opposed to a Slavic one like Russian, Polish or Czech, creating language barriers not only with English-speaking audiences but with their most direct neighbouring markets too. For a while I was actually struggling with some of the band names. “If your name is difficult to pronounce, you have to take that into account if you want to go international,” somebody said at one of the What’s Next in Music panel talks. It was undeniable, I felt it myself. But it made me wonder, how much great music does my laziness prevent me from discovering?


[Photo Credit: Augustinas Rimkevičius]

Thankfully there was no language barrier with Estonian supernatural sensation Kitty Florentine, who conveniently sings in English! Made up like a 20s movie star, Kitty accompanied her electro-pop tunes with captivating dance moves and started walking among the audience and making intense eye contact with people. Most were intimidated, which seemed to amuse her. At first, the audience was shy and parted like the Red Sea as Kitty stepped off the stage and onto the club floor. But it didn’t take long for her magnetism to bewitch us, and soon everyone was closing in on her. People, myself included, actively sought out her gaze. We actually did lock eyes for a split second and I found myself both very anxious and turned on. 

But perhaps the best way to avoid language issues is to avoid lyrics altogether! I was fascinated by Lithuanian percussionist and improviser Adas, whose show was not only an opportunity to hear great music, but witness it being created in real time. Despite the fragility and ephemerality of his act, there were no moments where it didn’t feel like Adas was in complete controlSeeing him prepare his transitions and seamlessly move between BPMs and atmospheres was mesmerising. 

In a similar vein, the electronic trio El Chico Fuendre and their 45-minute prepared improvisation. More than a show, this was a spiritual experience. Their perfect mastery of momentum ensured a highly organic shaping – it was like a flower blooming. From roaring guitars and Larsen-esque modular synth screeches to electronic insect chirps and quasi pinball sounds, El Chico Fuendre is one of the most interesting acts I’ve seen recently. 

[Photo Credit: Augustinas Rimkevičius]

Before leaving Vilnius, I took time to further explore the city. Besides the street art and the beautiful facades, I was struck by the numerous blue and yellow flags adorning every building. Despite the joyous atmosphere of LOFTAS, it was hard to forget about the war going on across the border. It reminded me of Ukrainian three-piece Love’n’joy, who punctuated their performance with meaningful messages, the most potent being perhaps the two-tone flag proudly hung across the drumkit. Members Anton and Lesik are co-founders of Musicians Defend Ukraine, a charity raising funds to buy equipment and provide humanitarian help for the musicians drafted in the armed forces. Every gig is an opportunity to promote their action. Playing tracks off their latest album ‘Half-home’, they gave a powerful performance full of defiance and hope. Love’n’joy is great music carrying an even greater message.

Language barriers and market divergences aside, I was also reminded of how different the general climate is in Lithuania. I was eating with one of the artists from the showcase, and halfway through lunch he received a phone call. He came back a few minutes later, looking slightly shaken. I asked if everything was alright. He said that it was the army calling about his compulsory service which he was yet to complete. 

I went to Vilnius for great music, but I found so much more. I flew back to London marked by this enveloping feeling of support and communion between European musicians, by their determination and generosity. The Lithuanian scene is a young one where artists only recently started feeling free to make the music they want, and where things get turned around quickly. It’s a market that deserves all our attention. Ačiū LOFTAS!

Words: Rebecca Galian Castello