Insider’s guide

Meltdown 2019: Southbank’s co-curator Bengi Ünsal on the acts you need to see
By Finn Blythe | Music | 7 August 2019

Since 1993 Meltdown has established itself at the vanguard of artist-run festivals, with an unrivalled record of guest curators who are annually given carte blanche to shape the week-long event in their own image. From David Bowie, Nick Cave, Morrissey and Patti Smith to more recent iterations from Yoko Ono, M.I.A, David Byrne and Robert Smith, this year’s festival is in the capable hands of Nile Rodgers, who will be bringing a number of his favourite acts as well as the the iconic Studio 54 to London.

Working alongside guest curators to help them realise their vision is Bengi Ünsal, who joined the Southbank Centre in 2016 as Head of Contemporary Music. Prior to her London move, Ünsal had been the founding Director of Salon IKSV (part of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts), which she’d built from modest beginnings into the international hub of performing arts it is today. Since arriving in her current role, Ünsal has not only overseen three Meltdown festivals but introduced the hugely successful Concrete Lates. The monthly series provides a platform for experimental electronic music from across the world and was inaugurated with Boiler Room as part of Andreas Gursky’s 2018 Hayward retrospective, with a line-up of artists whose sound responded to the works.

Below Ünsal talks about her experience at Salon and how it prepared her for the role at Southbank, co-curating Meltdown with the likes of M.I.A, Robert Smith and Nile Rodgers as well as the acts she’s most excited about at this year’s festival.

On what she learned about successful festival programming from her time at Salon IKSV…

“Salon is part of Istanbul’s Foundation for Culture and Art, an institution that’s been around for 45 years and does the Istanbul Jazz Festival, Classical Festival, Film Festival, the Arts and Design Biennale as well as the Theatre Festival. It’s very multidisciplinary, so when the venue opened, which was just an empty two storey building, I thought it should be reflective of that. First you look at the context and then you look at what you have architecturally – the capacity was 500 standing and about 150 seated, so it was definitely the space for standing and seated gigs and not for classical music. We looked at what was happening in Istanbul and Turkey and what was missing and I found a niche that people were afraid to go into. Because it wasn’t a huge venue I had the chance to risk artists I believed in like John Grant and St. Vincent – artists that became huge two or three years later. What’s crucial is to find what’s missing, who are the audiences are who are we not serving and then what kind of music the architecture and venue is suitable for.”

On Meltdown’s niche…

“Before joining I always looked at Southbank Centre as the biggest arts institution in the UK. It’s a very accessible space, every member of the public can come and find something for themselves which makes it even more valuable. 30 percent of our budget is public money from the Arts Council so we have to be for everyone and our programming is shaped by that, too.”

On working with M.I.A, Robert Smith and Nile Rodgers…

“With each curator it’s a completely different experience. M.I.A is an amazing artist, I admire her a lot. She was super creative and gave real insight into her mind, a chance to go and sit with her in that imaginative, creative space which was a privilege. I got to spend a lot of time with her in preparation for the festival while with Robert Smith it was mostly on email. He’s an unbelievable person, he doesn’t sleep, he’s super professional, knows what he wants, very hands on and listens to a lot of new music. That was a completely different experience again, lots of 4am emailing. Before this year’s festival I had met Nile a couple of times but he’s super busy, not just touring extensively but recording an album, non-stop producing and acting as Chief Creative Advisor at Abbey Road. But he’s been here every day of the festival, introducing bands, getting involved. He’s so invested, and the audience love it.

On the acts she’s most looking forward to…

“It’s impossible to just pick five but what I’m most excited about is not just the acts but the diversity of genres and ages – Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein who composed the music to Stranger Things, Viagra Boys – a punk band from Stockholm, a seventies soul band with Durand Jones & the Indications. In the Royal Festival Hall I’m excited about SOPHIE, a Scottish songwriter, DJ and producer who lives in LA and has done stuff with Madonna Charlie XCX, Vince Staples, Let’s Eat Grandma, it’s like extra-sensory pop and she will be alone on stage. If there’s one show I’m desperate to see that people aren’t perhaps that familiar with its SOPHIE. I missed her at Heaven and Fabric so I’m really keen to see her.

Another 2019 UK festival exclusive is Brazilian pop-star Anitta, she’s quite pop and has a track with Madonna on Madame Butterfly, I’m intrigued to see her live. Other than that there’s a guy called Azekel, I know him through other acts he’s collaborated with Massive Attack and Gorillaz. He’s from Nigeria but he’s an East London based singer-songwriter and he draws a lot from soulful r’n’b. Nakhane, from South Africa, has this amazing angelic voice, I saw him at Great Escape in Brighton last year with Jimmy Somerville just losing it and praising him from the audience – it was amazing, he puts you under his spell. I wasn’t that familiar with Durand Jones & the Indications., it came from Nile so I checked it out and fell in love, basically. It’s seventies soul music. I also like Kero Kero Bonito because it’s a very funny kind of pop from Britain but they’re more popular in the US for some reason.

On Nile Rodgers’ Studio 54 recreation…

“Did you know Freak Out was written because Nile couldn’t get into Studio 54? Apparently, Grace Jones put his name on the list because she was doing a set at Studio 54 and was working with Nile at the time. They wouldn’t let him in for whatever reason and so the original lyrics to the song were more explicit before they were changed to freak out. He’s from that era and it was important for him to do a Studio 54 night so we are re-creating that night in the Queen Elizabeth foyer foyer (where we hold out monthly Concrete Lates club night) with dancers, lights and Studio 54 decor.

Meltdown 2019 is on until 11th August. For more information on performances, venues and tickets click here

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