Jelena Tondini: Organising a festival is a job that you live

Since its first edition in 2017, the Porto Etno Festival has brought together performers from all over the world, including big names from the world music and ethno scene, such as Acid Arab, Ketekalles, N.O.H.A. (Noise of Human Art), Maya Kamati, Boban Marković Orkestar, Divanhane, Baba Zula, and Esma’s Band.

This year Porto Etno will be held for the eighth time, and this edition of the festival will be a special one. During the last weekend in June, this year’s Greek representative on Eurosong, Marina Satti, will perform in Rijeka, along with the well-known Macedonian musician Kiril Džajkovski, who performed at the Student Day Festival in 2017. In addition to the big foreign names, the eighth edition of the Porto Etno Festival will also host the Folk Ensemble Tempet from Makarska and the indispensable Porto Etno Orchestra of Zoran Majstorović, which has been a part of the festival since its beginning.

The festival has been spreading its music taste more and more passionately. Additionally, Porto Etno has undergone visual changes and organisational improvements.

With the main organiser Jelena Tondini, we talked about the beginnings of the festival, as well as its transformation over the years and plans for the future. She has her favourites in this year’s line-up of performers, and she told us that new features are being introduced in the gastronomic part of the festival, which has proven to be extremely popular with the Rijeka audience so far, as well as with tourists who find themselves in the city during the summer months and hit “the right weekend” for a cultural uplift in the areas of music and gastronomy.

Jelena, the eighth edition of the Porto Etno Festival is just around the corner. To start with – for those not familiar with the festival’s early days, can you tell us more about how it all started?

It all started in 1996, when the City of Rijeka launched the event Etno Smotra (Etno Festival), which was a kind of celebration of diversity and a gathering place for national minorities. The event celebrated its 20th anniversary when Rijeka was awarded the European Capital of Culture title, which gave a boost to new ideas and a kick to the existing programs to develop into something bigger. This happened with Etno Smotra as well; in 2016, the city engaged Zoran Majstorović to create a quality music program for Etno Smotra to present music from different countries in addition to folklore nurtured by associations of national minorities. Zoran gathered the precursor of the Porto Etno Orchestra and invited several solo performers to perform with them. At the same time, in the then ECoC team, four Cultural Studies students (Ana Javor, Franka Blažić, Katarina Petrović, and Andrea Šikljan) presented the idea of organising a gastronomic event with national minorities. With the support of the ECoC, the girls created a program called Bakanalije – the Granny is not from around here, which took place on the same day as Zoran’s concert at the Croatian Cultural Centre Sušak.

At the after party in Tunel we already had the idea about the new festival. It took me only a few coffees with Zoran and proactive students to polish the idea and suggest a new festival, a kind of upgrade of Etno Smotra.

Tondini is grateful to the City which immediately provided her with full support and trust. I mean, how could they say no to me, there couldn’t have been a more ECoC-like program, Jelena laughs, recalling the ECoC 2020 program and the multicultural environment that was perfect for a multicultural festival.

The recipe was a guaranteed success: a traditional manifestation that needed a refresh after 20 years, a student initiative to involve young people in something that was almost “reserved” for the elderly, and the best musicians from Rijeka who had the opportunity to collaborate with world-famous artists. So, Porto Etno was born; its first edition took place in today’s Art Neighbourhood in 2017.

You have been a part of the festival team since its very beginning and its first editions. How has the dynamics of the festival changed over the years? What changes has the City undergone over that time, keeping in mind other events and trends in it over time?

Yes, a lot has changed, but some things have remained constant – for example, Zoran and I always take care of the festival as if it were our child. We have been joking for years that we are the mother and father of the Porto Etno Festival – one year we even had accreditations with “MOM” and “DAD” written on them. On a more serious note, we have been the only two constants in the organisation team from the beginning. Unfortunately, the girls from Cultural Studies continued on their own paths after graduation. The Rijeka 2020 organisation officially handed over management of the festival to the Croatian Cultural Centre in 2020 – even then, despite all the COVID restrictions in 2020, we managed to organise the festival. That was the best decision ever – every time something becomes difficult, I remember that we did everything in impossible conditions and that keeps us going. If you want to organise anything, especially programs that may be “distant, foreign, unknown” to people, you must be a little stubborn.

The festival itself hasn’t changed much, except that every year we are placing stronger and stronger emphasis on music to offer the audience in Rijeka unforgettable music journeys.

The Porto Etno Orchestra, playing with different solo performers, was the core of the festival in its early years. Little by little, each year we added more bands to the program – the festival program was richer, so we kept adding festival days.

Some pretty big names have already been announced for this year’s line-up, including Marina Satti, Greek representative on Eurosong, who will visit Rijeka for the first time. Was it difficult to get hold of the “big” performers? Is there anyone else who you would like to particularly mention, and do you believe there will be interest?

It has taken me two years to book Marina… It’s a process. Several things must coincide to book any artist for the festival, especially if we keep in mind that we are a small festival.

Sometimes a good financial offer is not all it takes to sign the deal. Artists want to know who performed at previous editions, who we plan to bring this year, and will representatives from other festivals also come because they might also book them for their line-ups… Many pieces have to come together. To be quite honest, personal acquaintances with managers and artists have proven to be crucial.

If I hadn’t met Marina and her management at the festival in Veszprem, I might not have succeeded this year either. It is the same with others; this year we have Kiril Džajkovski, who is a really big name, a well-known name at various festivals, and he hasn’t performed in Rijeka since 2017. I met his manager at a conference – when the communication changes from “Dear Madame or Sir, I’m writing to you on behalf of the Porto Etno Festival blah blah blah” to “Hey! Hi, let’s do Kiril”, it’s easier, better and everything is possible; there are no problems at all, no matter how big the name is. Will there be interest? I honestly think that this year’s program is appealing to absolutely everyone, from the pop Eurovision audience, and picky music connoisseurs to those who just want to dance like crazy on some good electronic tunes. We have whatever one can wish for. All of that is, of course, accompanied by a gastronomic program.

Jelena Tondini and Marina Satti

Baby Lasagna, Croatia’s representative on this year’s Eurosong, also uses some traditional elements (crocheted tableware, rural area, rural customs, cows…) in his videos and live performances. Do you think that traditional elements infiltrate popular music and the mainstream more and more? How could this reflect on the festival and its future editions?

Yes, that has become a trend, which I like. I think that is a “European buzz” of a kind, which started to be more pronounced with Rosalia, I would say. She is mega-popular, and she earned that status with flamenco, which is ethnic music. Her first album achieved skyrocketing success, and the tunes on that album are, let’s be honest, an example of world music. In Greece, there is Marina Satti, in Portugal Cláudia Pascoal… Croatia has a problem with these traditional elements. Both in music and videos, we somehow prefer concrete, asphalt, and electric guitars, rather than tambourines, cows, and lace tablecloths. Therefore, Lasagna positively surprised me – in our context, he was brave enough to choose a direction which, truth to be told, our youth secretly loves should we judge by the Croatian YT trending, where on top you can regularly find Serbian trap artists who offer the aesthetics of the Balkan baroque, primarily in videos, and sometimes in music. When it comes to traditional elements in popular music, that is not a new thing. Artists often search for inspiration in that treasury box – some do it more interestingly, some less, but those elements can be found around. There is (at least) one ethnic song at every Dora and at least a few at every Eurosong. Sometimes the artist’s concept comes down to making such music all the time, as Marina Satti does, and sometimes it is just a one-time decor. In any case, these traditional elements and inspirations exist among us. Klapa vocal group is perhaps our best example of how tradition entered the mainstream and how klapa vocal groups became the Croatian version of boy bands. By the way, klapa singing is also on a UNESCO heritage list. Still, it is present in our popular culture to such an extent that only a few people perceive it as something from the UNESCO list alongside Istrian scale, Zagorje popevka, bećarac, or ojkanje. It became standard Croatian pop.

The world is filled with ethnic elements we are not even aware of although they are around all the time – numerous African and Latin American rhythms and various percussion sounds are an indispensable part of electronic music. The same applies to the Middle East rhythms and melodies which we don’t even perceive as a product of traditional music.

All of that has become pop. When it comes to the artists for future festival line-ups, rest assured: our wish list grows with every YT scroll and with every look we take at the line-ups of other world music festivals. I think we will always be able to put together a line-up that includes more authentic as well as pop, rock, and electro variants of traditional music. 

Zoran Majstorović (orchestra) has been with you almost since the beginning. Could you reflect on your cooperation? How much value does it bring to the festival?

As I have already said, Zoran is the father of the festival – without him and the orchestra, this would not be the Porto Etno that we have, and there are several reasons why I say that. Zoran’s knowledge of the world music scene was the driver for the entire festival in our earliest days when the backbone of the entire musical program was our orchestra, which performed with solo performers from different parts of the world. So, during our early years, we already had performers from Italy to Somalia performing at our festival. As far as I’m aware, I don’t think there is any other festival that has its orchestra, which makes us completely different. Zoran gathered probably the best musicians in our region to form our orchestra, and this gave us flexibility and enabled us to reach some completely new levels. All that gives our audience a chance to enjoy in exclusive performances such as the one with the Teofilović brothers, who performed with an entire orchestra of this type for the first time in their career. Furthermore, this is an incredible opportunity for musicians to “network” and create new material. I think that this kind of mutuality is what attracts some more prominent names, who do not just do “business as usual” but are true artists – offers like this one are an opportunity for them to make an artistic breakthrough.

Do you expect to notice some changes among the audience compared to previous years? Did you aim at a “wider” audience?

Porto Etno has been known as one of the few festivals that gathers audiences ranging from 7 to 97 years old, primarily due to its gastronomic program – that part of the festival is interesting to everyone, especially in a city that lacks ethnic restaurants, so we offer a unique opportunity for visitors to taste special dishes literally from all around the globe in one place. Our music program is, of course, also important – it also has its audience, although somewhat older than 7. We do give our best to create a program that would be interesting to different groups every year. I believe we will manage to offer such a program this year, as well. Our line-up this year ranges from the performance of a folklore ensemble and some extraordinary vocalists who might be performing ethno tunes for the first time to the Roma music that always makes us dance, with some Eurosong tunes on the side, and all of that seasoned with a little bit of electronic music… I think that is a good recipe – everyone can choose something they like.   

You are a musician yourself! How do you manage to organise a festival while attending to other obligations and duties?

Organising a festival is not an 8-to-4 job. You have to live it to be successful. I often say that it is a pure privilege to be able to do something I love privately for a living. For me, music has always been the most important thing in life and to be able to work as the music festival organiser is truly my dream come true. I think only a few other people have such a privilege. That’s why I don’t have an issue with balancing my obligations – I don’t see it as an obligation or a task that I have to do because I am paid for it. Instead, I really enjoy it and live for it. I listen to such music at home, and my hobby is to create my own music. I contemplate and combine, and I keep getting new ideas. My boss told me to stop coming up with ideas because I would burn out being spread thin. But I cannot help it. I believe that the task of the public cultural sector – the Croatian Cultural Centre is a public (city) institution – is to think and come up with ways how to improve and enrich the lives of the citizens. Our tasks are to offer them unforgettable moments, and top-notch performances, and bring world-class performers to our small city. I think that the Croatian Cultural Centre does a really good job in that aspect not only through Porto Etno but through other programs it implements as well.

Are you perhaps bringing some of your role models or colleagues, maybe even your favourite performers to the festival?

All performers are my favourite ones because I really do listen to all of them, and I know their every song. I often hum some of those songs to myself when I go bananas in my office or at home… I have a personal story with almost every performer this year. I have danced to Kiril at parties so many times that I lost track of it – he is always on my playlist when I am DJing at a party, and I have fond memories from his concert at the Carnival party in 2013. I simply adore Marina Satti – I have been her fan since a festival organiser from Cyprus told me at a conference in Novi Sad: “Hey, you are crazy about Maya Kamaty (who performed in Rijeka last year), so you will love this!” and sent me a link to MIROLOI. I almost fainted from delight. Afterward, I listened to everything from Marina I could find. For the past few days, I have been listening to her performance of a traditional song To Margoudi on repeat. I think that my neighbours must think that I am not quite normal. Hahahahaha! And now that she came out with the Eurosong song – sorry, Lasagna, you are ours, but Marina has owned it. I became friends with girls from FA Tempet at a conference and we have been like two peas in a pod ever since. Even though there are kilometres between us, we are always in contact, exchanging ideas for our festivals, commenting on new releases… This year I am especially looking forward to our special feature which we have named Voices in Ethno. I think it will be more than a sweet treat – it will be a box full of sweet treats offering various “flavours”, a little something for everyone. However, I don’t want to spill the beans just yet and spoil the surprise. You will have to wait a little longer.

In addition to its music program, the Porto Etno Festival is also well-known for its gastronomic offer of dishes from all around of world, and presentations of folklore traditions and customs, folk costumes, folk songs… Will this year’s edition of the festival include all of that? Are there some special features and aspects that should be emphasized?

You are absolutely right; all those elements are essential for our festival. Let’s not forget that it all started with a folklore festival under the name of Etno Smotra, and the folklore will remain the backbone of the festival as long as we keep organising it. I think it is a nice program that encourages national minorities to continue with their work, and to gather younger generations in order to preserve their traditions.

Which part of the festival are you personally looking forward to the most? Why?

I am most excited about the last performance at the festival because I can relax only when the last band starts its performance. Before that I am stretched in all directions, I keep running around welcoming, seeing off, and coordinating everyone and everything. But, when the last performance started, I knew that everything was over, and only then I can have a beer and listen to music in peace. I have been comparing experiences with other organisers: no one actually listens to anything at their festivals, because everyone is under stress and there are always things to attend to as soon as possible.

Which performance are you personally looking forward to the most? Why?

Well, I shouldn’t be that biased, but I will be – Marina Satti. Chances are that I probably won’t watch her performance because she’s not the last performer. I can’t forgive myself for missing Rosalia in 2018. Back then she wasn’t as popular as today, so the requirements we had to meet in order to book her were more realistic – while we were arranging her performance at the festival, her album wasn’t even published yet. When it came out in 2018, she reached the stars, so when I asked for an offer to book her again in 2019, she already had different management that coldly turned me down, telling me: “Not this year”. The year after that she had massive hits with the biggest reggaeton names so it is most likely that we will never be able to book her again unless we find a hidden pot of gold underneath the Croatian Cultural Centre. I think the same could happen with Marina Satti because she has all the qualities to become a huge hit, which would also make her unattainable for our conditions. And if that happens, I will always be able to tell that we had her at the festival.

To conclude – a final thought about the festival?

Ethno is so much more than just folk costumes. 😉

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