Rotterdam Unlimited, The Netherlands
Tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat-tat. The drums are coming.
Tat-tat-tat-tat ta-t-t-tat. I can’t see them but I know there’s drumming.
The noise, reverberating through the streets of Rotterdam, heralds the start of the largest festival in the Netherlands – Rotterdam Unlimited.
Heard before they’re seen, three brass bands are coming through the city, from different directions, to converge in the centre.
Crowds on the footpaths, in the streets, in windows, watch on and cheer the energetic musicians and dancers that make up the troupes. This is about the music but it could well be the story of Rotterdam itself.
The second-largest city in the Netherlands is one of the most multicultural in Europe. Centuries as a major port brought new people in every day – many of them from the old Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.
With them they brought their culture, their fashion, their music and their passion for good times.
The symbol today of these people – whether they’re first-generation or not – marching with their music and fashion and passion from all corners of Rotterdam to join together in the middle is powerful.
“So the first message is celebrate,” the festival’s director, Guus Dutrieux, tells me.
“Celebrate the diversity of our society. All those colours, celebrate that. Don’t use it against each other – celebrate the beauty of our cultures together and the interaction between those cultures.”
“Rotterdam is more than 50 per cent not from here. So it’s a very diverse city and I think that’s the reason this event is in this city because in Rotterdam being a diverse city is something we’re proud of.”
Celebrate, the people of Rotterdam will do. The drummers are just the prelude and it’s the next day when I catch up with Guus to talk about the message behind Rotterdam Unlimited.
Today hosts the centrepiece of the weekend’s activities – the carnival parade through the city’s main streets.
One after another, the floats make their way past the crowds on the side of the road.
Large open trucks with bands playing or DJ’s pumping out tracks; lines of dancers moving in time with the music and each other; heavily-costumed individuals walking at their own pace and blowing kisses to the crowd; queens of the parade with mobile thrones and handmaidens to escort them along the route.
There’s so much colour and movement everywhere you look. Each float – and there must be about 40 or so of them in total – has its own music, its own dancers, its own theme, its own helpers and its own queen.
They all pass by the onlookers, twirling the dresses that deserve to be twirled, blowing kisses to those who show attention, never stopping their dance routines.
The concept and the style of the parade comes from the Dutch Antilles, the Caribbean Islands colonised in the 1700s and you can feel the liberal energy and sexuality associated with public celebrations in that part of the world.
There, the local people work on their carnival preparations all year. Here in Rotterdam, it’s slightly different.
“We hire a place to build them and in eight weeks they have to do it,” festival director Guus Dutrieux says.
“Some people do it in three nights and some people work on it for two months. And with the costumes, it’s a process where as soon as the parade is over, the costumes are broken down and the same material is used to make the costumes for next year.”
It’s not fair to compare Rotterdam Unlimited’s street parade to the carnival of Rio de Janeiro. But that, in my opinion, is a good thing.
All along the parade route, it is never too busy. You can walk easily and find a spot to watch with no trouble at all. Bars and cafes are open for refreshments and stalls on the footpath have no queues for food and drink.
In many parts along the parade, the line between crowd and participants blur and you’ll find spectators dancing in a float for a minute or being hugged by a queen for a photo. Perhaps another symbol of Rotterdam’s celebration of assimilation.
When the parade finishes, the other music takes over.
The festival officially goes for several days and the main street in front of Rotterdam’s Town Hall is closed off for the duration with a large stage built at one end. Each evening, there are free concerts with the headliners this year, 80s party funksters Kool & the Gang.
There are also smaller ticketed concerts, poetry readings and art events. The drums, the parade, and the street concerts dominate the weekend but much more is happening than you realise at first.
“The public changes,” Guus Dutrieux explains.
“When the parade is over, the families go and the concert people come in. Because they come for Machel Montano or tomorrow for Kool & the Gang. Last night we had Sergio Mendes – totally different public. It’s a public that spends money for a high-quality concert in a high-quality venue.”
“You have high arts and low arts and we are trying to bring them together because society is changing so when is something high art and when is something community art?”
“And that’s getting more vague because society is getting more vague. The Western influences are going down and other influences are going up so we have to recalculate what is art and we are trying to open the discussion with our event.”
It’s an interesting discussion. One that may be hard to have above the noise of the drums and with the distraction of the costumes. But one that makes the potential for this festival… unlimited.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Rotterdam Marketing but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.