28th of October 1969, Amougies, Belgium
Actuel Festival, known as the First European Festival, banned in France, because of the authorities fearing a disturbance of public order, had cancelled, finds refuge in Belgium in the small town of Amougies, a week before its opening.
So-called erotic year, 1969 has become legendary. Peace and Love.
In the era of major upheavals, it was the year of the "pop" festivals : Woodstock (United States), Wight (Great Britain) and Amougies (Belgium). Gathering of hippies for some, sociological phenomenon for others. Against the backdrop of Vietnam War rejection, the upheavals of racial riots and the fallout from May 1968.
Amougies - 24th to 28th of October 69 - 48 groups of progressive rock, pop, avant-garde and free jazz - mainly British - but also from United States and all over Europe - meet under a tent, as part of Actuel Festival organised by BYG Records.
Frank Zappa and Pierre Lattes assume the role of masters of ceremonies. Zappa plays with a number of groups, especially on Friday alongside Aynsley Dunbar Retallation.
In such a small village, the logistical challenge is considerable : welcoming, accommodating, and feeding the 50,000 spectators expected, arriving by car, bus, moped or bicycle. Knowing that there will be twice at the long-awaited festival.
Many people will be afraid of possible overflows but it will not be so on the promised land of Amougies.
Originally planned in Paris (Pelouse de Reuilly)
Relocated near Paris (Parc Saint-Cloud)
Late October 1969
Get the vibe or relive Actuel Festival through Jean Paul Margnac's eyes and his vintage ektachrome shots
Cross the small streets of Amougies and meet modern Diogenes, Aguigui Mouna, at 'Café de la Fanfare', haranguing people and encouraging them to think about their human condition.
Go on the stage alongside virtuosos of improvisation such as Steve Lacey, Alan Silva, Don Cherry, John Surman, Chris MacGregor.
You will also recognise Aynsley Dunbar and John Moorshead performing with Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, as well as Dave Reeves of Colosseum, mastering his Epiphone bass guitar.
Under this Barnum, there have been moments of grace which remain etched in memories of all who were there.
Interview of BYG co-founder, Jean-Luc Young
-How did you come up with the idea of organising Actuel Festival?
J-L Y: We started to think about it at the very beginning of BYG in 1967. With Jean [Karakos] we always had in mind to do something like that. Then, in 1969, timing was perfect. Establishing Actuel Festival was a direct reaction to what was exploding around us.
-How did you build the line-up?
J-L Y: It’s all about musicians of that time. They were fed up playing in the USA, due to reprimands and things they couldn’t do. They needed to express themselves and knew we wanted to listen to their challenging musical ideas. The musicians made money at the Pan African Festival in Algiers [July 1969], which allowed them to travel to France [Archie Shepp, Dave Burrell, Alan Silva, Clifford Thornton, Sunny Murray among others]. Jacques Bisceglia who photographed the Pan African for Actuel magazine brought them all back to Paris - he played a very important role. We were happy they showed up here - it was going well. They formed the core’s line-up. Then we integrated BYG’s artists.
-Why was it so difficult to find a location?
J-L Y: From the start, we felt it was going to be a huge pain. In France, negotiations with the authorities were extremely complicated. They were afraid of all these new things and when politicians promised it was going to happen, they withdrew at last minute. It was emergency situations 24 hours a day. But we never gave up. We were losing money because we were setting up the scenes etc. We had to take it all down and put it all back together each time.
-How did you manage last-minute logistics in Amougies?
J-L Y: We managed this with the help of lots of people, very willing. Everyone pitched in, providers, festival goers, locals. A circus lent us the big tent intended for the stage and we rented the rest in Belgium. Several small companies took care of the sound. We also set up a hospital under one of the tents which could also have served as a stage, with real doctors and others who claimed to be (laugh).
Jean and I were determined, we were all determined to do it - a collective symbiosis was created around us - this is where it really started.
I remember; I had to go back and forth between France and Belgium in a very dodgy helicopter to settle last administrative obligations and I saw all these cars, thousands, all bounded for Amougies - TV in France was reporting on this red line, formed by the rear of the cars that lit up in the night - it was madness.
-Between 20/50,000 people were expected at the opening, but it was much more, some said it was almost 100,000 festival goers who went to the scene. Do you know how many people were there?
J-L Y: More than 100,000. On the whole festival, I think 150,000 people came to Amougies. There were even babies who were born in the hospital!
-How were people like?
J-L Y: Mostly young people from all over Europe. At the time old people didn’t exist in our community because they didn’t want to hear or understand anything. They were terribly upset because of all the diversity, this was depressing.
At Amougies, everyone was different, many nationalities and cultures were represented but at the same time everyone was alike in terms of state of mind and good energies. Regarding the assholes, we fired them (laugh).
People who came to Amougies were mostly on the margins of society. This society with a lot of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. We were all united to fight this old fashion system, it had to stop.
To all of us, this was our common feature for sure.
-Were you aware that Aguigui Mouna was present and harangued people?
J-L Y: Yes, I met him. We talked and it didn’t go very well at the beginning. We didn’t understand each other. I didn’t get what he was defending - his words were depressing. To me, it went against the ambient positivity that we were experiencing. On his side, he didn’t really get why people like us organized this kind of event. Who knows why? Anyway, we quickly made peace and he enjoyed the festival until the very last moment.
-Can you describe the ambient atmosphere?
J-L Y: Fantastic, no negativity, huge, a cathedral, fabulous.
-how did the artists feel ?
J-L Y: They were all comfortable, very cool, relaxed, enjoying the present. You could see in their eyes they were going through something big. You know, these guys were living the same present, the same problems as everyone else, even worse. Amougies was a medicine.
It was special because everybody, artists, crowd, seemed to perfectly understand each other although everyone came from all over and didn’t even speak the same language.
-What artistic performance impressed you the most?
J-L Y: I cannot extract a single performance, to me every performance was gut-wrenching. it is the entire performance and the constant communion between musicians and people that impressed me the most.
-5 days of festival is a long time. How were your sleeping settlements? What about the crowd?
J-L Y: The crowd slept in the main stage tent and in the hospital, tents were huge! Farmers rented some rooms, often they gave them for free – or they found a space in the barns. Everyone got by, helped each other. On our side, we tried to accommodate the artists as best as we could. Jean and I found a solution to sleep comfortably enough with the locals. Everyone was sheltered.
And you know, there was only 3 / 4h per night of sound interruption; it didn’t give you so much time to sleep or get cold.
-Your best memory?
J-L Y: I remember a symbolic moment. With Jean we were at the corner of the stage and we saw the public touching the artists who were playing. This guys had never seen black people before and they were happy and stirred to discover them, to meet them. It was extraordinary. It touched us so much that Jean went to isolate himself. I joined him and I saw that he was crying, we started to cry together.
-Were you and Karakos satisfied? Was the festival you implemented lived up to your expectations?
We were glad we made it - we felt like we had accomplished something big. Despite all the hassle and the fact that we didn’t win financially, it was worth it. The music was amazing, the human experience unbelievable.
-Would you do it again? What would you like to change?
Yes, I would do it again. Literally the same way. I wouldn’t change a thing so I could relive exactly what happened. This perfect symbiosis that I had with Jean, this total harmony that we had with the artists, the crowd.
-Did this festival and the artists' booking which ensued made it easier for you to sign certain artists on BYG?
That’s why we won. Because of Amougies, we signed musicians on BYG that we would never have been able to sign in the past such as Soft Machine and Daevid Allen. Actuel Festival has accelerated the process.
Onboard Actuel Festival's stage through the eyes
of Guy Le Querrec with his black & white shots