Back for its fifth year, Pop-Kultur Festival recently took over the historical Kulturbrauerei for three days of music, film and commissioned performances. This year’s line-up was populated with old favorites and newcomers alike, in addition to several site-specific artworks. Though most of the headliners had their heyday many years ago, the fest was replete with up-and-comers and benefitted from the numerous intimate venues spread across the Kulturbrauerei campus.
The festival’s programming pulled from an eclectic array of genres, continents, and eras. This gave the occasional impression that audiences had no idea whom they were seeing, as when a crowd talked over a set from Gillian Gilbert, a founding member of New Order and celebrated multi-instrumentalist. Headliners like Mykki Blanco and CocoRosie made heartfelt cases for continued relevance, though they seemed conspicuously locked in the past. Still others, like Anna Calvi, Shabazz Palaces and Deerhoof proved they had the creative stamina to move audiences in 2019.
But the most transcendent moments came from an international cast of fresh-faced artists, spanning numerous styles and sensibilities. Bulgarian-German songsmith Lisa Morgenstern brought a unique collaboration with the Bulgarian Voices to the Palais stage. Incorporating her signature contemplative piano and moody electronics, Morgenstern arranged an hour-long set with the ten-piece Bulgarian choir. Sounding like a futuristic monastic order, the group cycled through passages of equal parts deep-bass drone and traditional choral music.
The next day, Zimbabwean rapper Awa Khiwe played to a small gathering in the Alte-Kantine. Representing the Berlin-based African Beats & Pieces label, Khiwe brought a sleepy late-night crowd to its feet and undoubtedly converted some new fans with her high-octane flow and hyphy production.
Polish noise collective BNNT chose Pop-Kultur as the site for their final show after more than a decade thrashing around Central Europe. Their satanic costumes, pounding drums and overdriven sitar no doubt made as many acolytes as they scared away.
While the festival was a success musically, it was plagued by calls for a boycott for the third straight year. Since 2017, Pop-Kultur has received minor funding from the Israeli Embassy in Berlin. As a result, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, or PACBI, has organized a boycott of the festival. In past years, they were joined by prominent figures like Brian Eno and Roger Waters calling explicitly for fans to skip the festivities. The campaign also led to headlining acts like Richard Dawson, John Maus and Young Fathers dropping off the bill. But 2019 marked the first year with no cancellations. The average festival-goer seemed totally unaware of the festival’s political controversy, signaling that its silence on the issue appears to be working.