Genre-busting Prague Sounds festival reveals 2024 bill

The Prague Sounds music festival, which takes place in November and was previously called Strings of Autumn, prides itself on mixing up genres. This year it will feature jazz great Branford Marsalis alongside rather less well-known names in the fields of hip-hop, modern classical and electronic music. I spoke to programmer Guy Borg at an event this week unveiling the 2024 Prague Sounds.

Branford Marsalis is your biggest name and he’s playing at the Grand Hall at Lucerna. What does it mean to you to have such a major artist as part of your festival?

“Well, throughout the history of the festival we’ve been lucky enough to have some of the great legends of jazz, actually usually in concert at Lucerna, in the Grand Hall. For example, Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter.

“We’re delighted that we were able to secure Branford Marsalis this year. Although of a slightly younger generation than the two I just mentioned, he is nonetheless one of the biggest names in jazz saxophone.

“It’s not always easy to get artists of that stature to come and play in Prague at our festival.

“It takes some patience and some work, but we’re very happy that it came off this year.”

What’s your approach to programming? Is it the case that when you have a couple of jazz artists you start thinking, Now we need an underground electronic guy, or some hip-hop?

“I would say it’s not quite that systematic, although we’re very conscious of trying to maintain a balance in the programme. We don’t want to go overboard with any particular genre.

Guy Borg | Photo: Prague Sounds festival

“But on the other hand we don’t want have any kind of quotas or set standards for what belongs in the programme.

“Usually we’re looking beyond genres for a certain feeling and a certain, of course, quality and style in the music.

“We feel that even though we do have a wide range of music represented, from electronica to jazz to hip-hop to contemporary classical music, we pride ourselves on the fact that each of the concerts in the programme sort of shines a light on the other ones.

“And we hope that our audience will have the overall experience that thinking in terms of separate genres is not always the best way to perceive music.”

I consider myself somebody who has a reasonable knowledge of music. This year again I see all these names at the festival that I don’t know. How are you confident when you book somebody that the Prague audience will turn out for these people? Do you do any kind of research?

“That’s a really good question and especially here in Prague it’s a risk that we take every time.

“Usually if we feel that an artist doesn’t have an audience in this country but we’re excited about them and we feel that the Prague audience should be exposed to their music then we’re always prepared to back that artist – even though, as I say, that carries a certain risk.

“But we’re quite confident in our ability to introduce these artists to the audience.

“And time has shown over the years that we have a curious and exploratory audience.”

And they trust you after all these years.

“That’s another point. We’ve been going for 28 years so I think we have built up some trust and I think there are members of our audience who will take a gamble on something they may not otherwise have wanted to go and see.”

Who are you personally most looking forward to seeing live in the city during Prague Sounds?

“For me personally McKinley Dickson, the young American rapper who’s playing at Kasárna Karlín. An artist who’s practically unknown here, although he has made a name for himself in the States and the UK.

“Last year, you may remember, we had the British rapper Kofi Stone at Kasárna and this is going to be a similar kind of concert.

“I listen to a lot of music, obviously, because of my job and when I heard McKinley Dickson’s last album, which is called Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, it really knocked me out.

“In the contemporary hip-hop scene it really feels to me like a breath of fresh air and something I was pleasantly surprised by.

“The record is full of personality and wit and intelligence, taking on all kinds of influences, including jazz and old school hip-hop, and McKinley himself is a very charismatic and intriguing character.”

Are there any other names that you would urge people who haven’t maybe heard of them to take a punt on?

“I think another Czech debutant is definitely worth recommending, and that’s the American vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, who for my money are the preeminent vocal ensemble performing modern classical music.

“We’re very happy that they’re going to be premiering in the Czech Republic a piece called Partita for Eight Voices, which was written by the great young composer Caroline Shaw, who, some of our audience may remember, appeared at the festival in 2021.

“So there’s some nice consistency there. This is an ensemble that some people here may not be aware of, as you say, but they are I think right at the top of their game, not only in terms of their technical ability, but also in terms of the programming.

“It’s a chance for the audience to hear some very ground-breaking modern music in an intimate setting, at the X10 theatre.”

Since this interview was recorded, one venue referred to, Kasárna Karlín, has been forced to close; it is not clear whether the concert mentioned will actually take place there in November.

Author: Ian Willoughby
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