Stella Polaris Festival – A Reflection

Art & Culture

Having been offered an all-expenses paid trip to Copenhagen for the grand finale of the Stella Polaris festival (and it is grand; set as it is in the grounds of Frederiksberg Slot in Copenhagen, the former summer home of the Danish royal family); I was in a pretty buoyant mood as I queued to board the plane in sunny Manchester, but it was at that point that I realised that the passport in my hand may not cut the mustard, for it was my brother's.


Once I had processed just how the hell I had managed to get this far – I mean, they'd scanned the sodding thing at the check-in desk and printed me a boarding pass – I had literally seconds to make a decision.  Only two more people in front of me in the queue.  It was a toughie for my mind to process.  Do I just turn around, avoid an awkward moment of being rumbled, and go home?  The Ashes is on telly I guess.  But hang on, it isn't even that simple… surely there's a guaranteed awkward moment as I try and go through the departures security checks backwards?  Shall I just blag it?


I looked down once again at the passport photo of my brother…


He's wearing fucking glasses! 


Is that even allowed on a passport photo?!?  It must have been in 2004.  But given my lack of glasses, how am I gonna get away with this? 


Ah well, just blag it anyway.  Just imagine how class that moment would be when the girl at the desk says, "err, that's not you".  This could be the most exciting thing to happen to her working day – her working week perhaps.  And it's the right kind of aeroplane law-breaking as well.  It's not an attempted shoe-bombing – it's good clean fun.


But with a deft turn to my right, pretending to be re-packing my hand-luggage as I was walking through, I managed to get away with it!  I was jubilant for a moment, but then when I sat on the plane I realised that I could have made a massive mistake… surely to goodness passport control on the other side is gong to have a word but then again, the Danes are a fairly affable and easy-going lot.  Or is that just the Grolsch adverts and Jan Molby?  Is that enough evidence to gauge the affability of a nation?


You can imagine what an idiotic plane journey this was, pondering all that lot, but it's amazing how much time flies when you're cracking up manically in a confined space; so before I knew it, it was the moment of truth in Copenhagen arrivals, and miraculously, I got away with it again!  This was the bit I was most proud of, for these people were behind screens – that's the ultimate challenge for a passport-fugitive: outwitting someone in their own kiosk.


So then to the festival – this was bound to be a fine day after the trauma of the morning commute, not to mention how good it was last year.  Among the line up for the final Sunday was Leftfield (DJ set), App, Rob Da Bank, Pete Gooding, and local heros DJ Nicka (festival organiser), and Lulu Rouge (one of the best electronic acts I have ever seen – it is criminal they haven't made it big outside of Denmark).


But despite a musically credible line up, in more ways than one, this is no ordinary festival.  The real story for me about Stella Polaris is what happens beyond the music. 


Firstly, it doesn't matter who's on; if it's during the day, everyone sits down.  And this isn't because they don't like the music – this is just how it is – so you can see Leftfield playing to a crowd of people having a picnic.  30,000 of them.  But despite my historic enjoyment of losing the plot in a field at a festival, I actually think this works well.  It's certainly a more inclusive affair than the UK bread and butter – there are no festival-cliches stumbling about, hiding their sedated ketamine-eyes with ironic sunglasses – and hence, I haven't seen a more friendly and diverse festival crowd anywhere outside of Stella Polaris.


Secondly, it spans five different cities.  Copenhagen, Aalborg, Aarhus, Odense and Esbjerg all had their own day across the first two weeks in August.  It's estimated that 50-60,000 would have turned out across all the cities on all of the different days, but the reason why it is only an estimate leads onto the third point:


It's all free.  The festival takes place in public parks and no one pays a penny to see it, and they can come and go as they please.  Despite this, the event appeared to be run with the subtle precision of something that could be commercial.  Good sound system, good access to facilities, and not much queuing for reasonably-priced drinks (well, by Copenhagen's inflated standards anyway).


And the best thing about it?  It's state-funded.  Five different local authorities think it is for the greater good of their area to encourage a gathering of thousands of people to politely admire some electronic music.  There aren't many councils in the UK queuing up to welcome anything of this sort; in fact, as most of you will know, central government legislated against it with The Criminal Justice Act in the 90s, and went as far as outlining 'repetitive beats' as something that could automatically be a breach of the peace by definition.


This got me thinking, surely the UK could learn something from this?  I asked Nicka Kirstejn, one of the main men behind it.  "I suppose that many cities in the UK do support culture," he says, "but the problem is probably that the funding goes to high brow arts like opera."  And he has a point.  Although the UK does ok when it comes to supporting the creative things we like in public places (and not just the high brow arts); as far as electronic music goes, there is still that stigma.  But events like this prove that Thatcher's 'repetitive beats' do not necessarily have to equal drugs and partying, and can actually be used as a focal point for something way more inclusive.


And then there are the other economic benefits of the state creating a public event with some backbone.  About a third of the income for Stella Polaris is provided by public funding, but much of the rest comes from sponsorship and corporate partnerships, so dare I say; it could actually be making a profit? 


Nicka's not having it.  "Nope – we are all hippies, so we just spend the money on making the event better and better," which was an entirely predictable answer.  Silly question really.


What tends not to change with the festival, however successful it has become down the years, is the emphasis on local talent.  It's quite amusing to see headline acts like Leftfield, and last year, Royksopp, being instructed to keep a lid on it and play Chill Out music to the masses, but then the moment it starts to get dark, Lulu Rouge are given the license to tear the place a new arsehole; and everyone gets up from their blankets and fold-up chairs and dances like it's 2am in Pacha. 


I can imagine the odd headliner being a bit miffed by this, but Leftfield certainly wasn't, as he played a Balearic style that would have slotted in nicely at Cafe Mambo.  He seemed more worried about the cricket score – in fact we both were, because we didn't know it.


Rob Da Bank was similarly reined in, playing a nice ambient Joy Division dub along the way (there just simply isn't enough Joy Division Chill Out); which was the complete antithesis of the urgency of his performance at the after party in town.  Despite his alignment with the Balearic/Chill Out world, he's quite the party DJ when it's called for.  I can safely say he'd have been the only man to play The Bucketheads – The Bomb at Sonar this year, and in the after party madness B2B with Pete Gooding in Copenhagen, he played Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name.  But then Gooding had him.  Rolando – Night At The Jaguar was the response.  Eat that son!


And just like at the festival itself, the stage was set for Lulu Rouge.  You would not believe what those guys can do with on-board effects.  As good as a DJM2000 is, I'm still astonished by how unique they make their performance sound from industry-standard kit.  Quite often they won't beat match… they'll just create this wall of manic sound and change gear into a completely different genre.  It's like a Balearic approach to building a set, but at peak-time club tempo.  The only other person I've seen do this is Tenaglia, but his punctuation comes from speaking on the mic more than it does from technical trickery.


So without rationalising it any more, the festival plus after party were mighty fine, and I would recommend Stella Polaris to anyone; but when the music stopped, it was back to psychological trauma for me: how do I get out of this country with someone else's passport?


My family has previous with the Copenhagen authorities.  Back in 1975, my Dad was thrown in the cells, straight off the boat, for not having enough money on his person to enter the country.  Pre-Grolsch adverts, the Danes were clearly less affable – you had to show your worth or you weren't getting in.  To be fair, when they first discovered he didn't have the money, they sent him back to England on a return boat; but like father like son, he decided the purpose of his visit to Copenhagen was too important to not at least try and blag it (in my case it was the prospect of Leftfield and some free booze, in his case it was meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time).  So he gets on another ferry with even less money in his pocket (and if I remember rightly, not even a ticket), gets caught again; and instead of being sent back to England, when the boat docked in Copenhagen they said to him, "we will take you to the jailhouse now".


I guess I was winning – at least I got in the country without being caught, although he would contest that he pulled off the most impossible of victories by managing to, first; be baled out of the cells by a kindly man with diplomatic contacts at the British Embassy, and second; obtain permission from the same man to marry his daughter.  I wonder what the opening gambit was in the reception area of a Danish jailhouse, when father met daughter's incarcerated-boyfriend for the very first time…


"Good journey?"


"Aye, not too bad."


Just to complete the circle, I almost wanted to be caught and imprisoned (my Dad would have been so proud), but alas that was not to be; because although the girl at the check-in desk noticed immediately that it was my brother's passport, she seemed to think that it was exceedingly funny that I'd managed to breach three layers of security in two different countries in order to get this far. 


"It's just as well it wasn't your sister," she said, in between her fits of laughter as she looked down at the passport.  She was intent that I deserved to be sent home without punishment, so phone calls were made and negotiation was done; and with a couple of nods and a couple of winks, I was escorted onto the flight.


Affable lot, those Danes.


Mike Boorman