Cultural Olympiad: what does it even mean? Much of the press coverage of the arty side of the 2012 Olympics – culminating at the moment with the London 2012 Festival – has involved head-scratching about what the hell it actually is. In Birmingham for its ‘launch’ last Thursday, Channel 4 News’ culture editor Matthew Cain stuck the knife into the London 2012 festival, showing up its lack of public exposure by interviewing mystified locals.
It wasn’t exactly a scientific survey, but there is no doubt that in its size and sheer amorphousness, the Cultural Olympiad has failed to resonate as an idea with the public. Yet that doesn’t make the enterprise a dud. Many of the festival’s constituent parts have been big hits with strong ticket sales across many art forms, from the Globe to Globe season at The Globe to Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend, which passed off successfully over the weekend.
Arguably the best has yet to come. On 21 and 22 July, the weekend before the Games opens, six stages across the city – from Battersea Park in the west to the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in the east – host musicians from every single Olympic nation, all 205 of them. This is the BT River of Music festival, a free global music gathering unique in its scope and ambition. If Radio 1’s Hackney Weekend last weekend embodied indigenous London music in the 21st century, then BT River of Music represents the city’s status as a global cultural capital.
David Jones is a director at Serious, the jazz and world music promoter behind the festival. For him the River of Music billing, “reflects the cultural diversity of London,” as represented by artists like Khyam Allami, an Iraqi-born Londoner who is a master oud (Middle Eastern lute) player. But programming the River of Music has not been as simple a task as scouting around London’s many international communities. From Monaco to tiny Pacific islands, finding artists from the smallest competing nations has been an Olympian task in itself. Programmers have had to think creatively to get around the problem. At the Oceania (politically correct for Australasia) Stage in Greenwich, the festival will bring together musicians from every competing Pacific island to create a super-group, Sing Sing (pictured).
BT River of Music isn’t just an exercise in musical box-ticking though. There are, says David Jones, “myriad special collaborations, with artists reaching across a culture or a conflict zone.” On the Trafalgar Square stage, Bosnian singer Amira brings together musicians from previously warring Balkan countries, while in Battersea Park Chinese singer Gong Linna has invited a Taiwanese musician to perform with her (organisers think this is a first).
Sport is great and all, but the arts – and music especially – is a superior medium for bringing people and cultures together. So forget about the woolliness of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival – events like BT River of Music represent the true spirit of the Olympics. Let’s hope that the weather holds a little better than that other river-based event earlier in the summer.