Rotterdam Unlimited: Interview with Guus Dutrieux

I speak with the director of the Rotterdam Unlimited Festival to find out what goes on behind the scenes and why he thinks it’s so important for the city.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Guus Dutrieux
Rotterdam Unlimited Festival Director

The Rotterdam Unlimited festival is the largest street party in the Netherlands. Imagine thousands of people parading down the city’s main streets, dressed in elaborate costumes and dance moves to match. Well, that’s just one of the festival’s events.

The director of the annual Rotterdam Unlimited Festival is Guus Dutrieux. Luckily he doesn’t haven’t to make any of the costumes (or learn any of the dance moves). But he’s got a big job because the way the festival looks these days is a combination of several smaller events. It means lots of different elements for him to organise – from the parade, to the free outdoor concerts, to the poetry readings.

Rotterdam Unlimited, Rotterdam Street Parade and Carnival, Netherlands

If you’d like to get a better picture of what the festival is, I have written a story here about what it’s like to go to Rotterdam Unlimited.

But if you’ve already checked out that story and are interested to know more, you can listen to this interview with Guus Dutrieux about the origin of Rotterdam Unlimited and why he thinks it’s so important to the city and the country. The interview was conducted by myself, Kash Bhattacharya and Sofia Vasconcelos. There is a transcript below.

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I know you’ve combined a few festivals into one to make Rotterdam Unlimited so what’s the idea behind it all?

It’s a fusion between Dunya Festival and Summer Carnival. And Summer Carnival started 30 years ago, it came from Dutch Antilles. To be honest, first Dutch people brought Carnival to Dutch Antilles and transformed it into the Caribbean Carnival and when they came in this direction 30 years ago they brought along their cultural history, their cultural tradition. And first it was the Antillen Carnival, just for Antillen people, and slowly more groups joined it – people from Bolivia, people from Brazil, people from Cape Verde and so on and now it’s a multicultural carnival.

So it’s aimed at all the cultures here in Rotterdam but what are you trying to say to the people, the citizens here? What’s the message from the festival?

So the first message is celebrate. Celebrate the diversity of our society because all metropols today are very diverse in cultures. 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. That’s the main thing.

And secondly it’s celebration to have fun. It’s the biggest party of parties in Holland – just celebrate it.

Rotterdam Unlimited, Rotterdam Street Parade and Carnival, Netherlands

Do you think outside of the festival, on normal days, Rotterdam has a strong multicultural element? Is this just an extension of what the city always is?

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. And our festivals for decades now have been enjoying each other’s cultures. So that’s the reason why it takes place here – it’s not a problem, we are proud of it.

There’s a lot of colour out there, a lot of activity, a lot of fun, a lot of energy out there. What do you think the people who come along to see it are looking for beyond the message of celebration you talked about?

Most people are just here for fun. In the evening they come for the concerts and during the day for the street parade for fun to celebrate to enjoy themselves. That’s what they do. The people in the parade are showing themselves and they are proud and being proud is the reason for them to do it and for the people who come to watch it, everyone loves South American music and everyone loves those beautiful people dancing in their costumes in the parade.

Rotterdam Unlimited, Rotterdam Street Parade and Carnival, Netherlands

What’s your favourite part of the whole thing?

Well, to be honest, the total concept. Doing poetry, doing this carnival, bringing in music from different cultures, using three days of celebrating what we are in a way that people are having fun and enjoyment from each other and, at the end, if everything goes ok and nothing happens – because one million people in three days is a lot – then I’m happy.

What about the preparations? I imagine it’s a big job so can you tell me a bit about how long you work in advance and so on?

We are now making plans for 2016 and 2017. It’s a whole year process in getting finance and holding the position you have nationally and now we are trying to make in a European event like, for example, Edinburgh is. In a decade for now we want to be at the same European level with Rotterdam Unlimited so it’s a process with a team of eight people working on it the whole year round.

The people and their floats, some of them are working on it for a long time, aren’t they?

Well, in Dutch Antilles they work on it all year round – in a slow tempo, though. But we have to do it in eight weeks. We hire a place to build them and in eight weeks they have to do it. 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.

Rotterdam Unlimited, Rotterdam Street Parade and Carnival, Netherlands

What would be your message be to people who see festivals as just about the music and entertainment?

Well, to be honest, these two days of events are just the two days that everybody sees but we work with the groups all year round. We started ‘Brass School’ where the youngsters can learn how to play brass and we are trying to get artists to a higher level. We are working together with the Notting Hill Carnival – steel pan in Notting Hill with brass over here – projects together so they can come to a higher level in doing their performance, the quality of it. So the whole year round we work with those communities to get the level of active cultural participation in our society. So the event can only be successful if it’s anchored in the society so that’s what we do the whole year round.

There have been a lot of children out today – it seems like the kind of festival that can be very family-friendly.

The public changes. 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. And 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.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Rotterdam Marketing but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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