Review: Open East Festival at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park


Originally published on The Upcoming on 28th July

Open East Festival is a one-off anniversary celebration of last year’s Olympic Games and also a chance to showcase the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park as it prepares to open its doors to the public. You can say what you like about the Olympics, but it certainly brings nations from all over the world together, and so it seemed fitting that this festival in London’s rejuvenated East End should have such a global outlook.

The astonishingly low ticket prices (£9.50 for adults, £6 for under 16s and under 5s went free) ensured that it was a melting pot of people representative of the rich diversity that makes London such a vibrant and colourful city. And the low prices certainly didn’t mean a compromise on quality or quantity, with a stellar line up of world music, a plethora of family activities, a food festival, a beer festival, an inflatable Stonehenge, an art car boot fair, circus acts and much more.

All of this was set amid the sprawling greenery of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which provided the perfect backdrop with its bisecting river, open grassy spaces, and beautiful landscaping, giving the sense that there was a real wilderness to explore with hidden gems around every corner.

The Real Food Festival had an Olympian selection from all four corners of the world: halloumi wraps from Greece, Polish sausages and beer, Indian dosas, Mexican burritos and of course classic British strawberries and cream. And the orderly queues meant that everyone could partake in the nation’s favourite pastime while they waited for their mouth-watering food that refreshingly was not at eye-watering prices.

The organisers did a great job of cramming every area with eclectic entertainment, for instance, the north bridge played host to some extreme sports in the form of BMX riders as well as having a poetry slam provided by the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

There were even spontaneous pop-up performances with one in particular standing out; between the north and south bridges a glamorous looking lady with a huge black golf brolly appeared, sitting nonchalantly and yet she seemed to stand out. Then another appeared, then another, until all of a sudden, you looked around and there were a dozen or more women all dressed to the nines with huge black umbrellas just dotted around the park. As if from nowhere, Michael Jackson’s iconic Billy Jean played across the tannoy and the women proceeded to do a sort of Mexican wave but in dance form. It was highly comical and brought whoops and cheers from the crowd.

It was the music that really stole the show. Having represented Columbia at the cultural Olympiad, Ondatropica returned and this time they brought distinguished guests with them, in the form of musical globetrotter Quantic and Frente Cumbiero. They played a lively and vivacious set of cumbia that had the crowds dancing. The rolling rhythms and infectious vocals were the perfect complement to a balmy summer’s day.

On the Bandstand the Hackney Colliery Band played a unique and lively set of big brass sounds that culminated in a Prodigy medley that was an absolute stroke of genius. Back on the Barbican stage the crowds were treated to an all-star line up of Malian music which was orchestrated by the masterful composer and keyboard player, Cheick Tidiane Seck, who played sweet songs between introducing some of the biggest talents in African and world music.

Vieux Farka Touré, son of the legendary Ali Farka Touré, was first to join Seck on stage with psychedelic heavy electric guitar playing of the highest order. But the biggest cheers were reserved for the talents of female singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara who positively illuminated the stage with her powerful voice and boundless energy. She was followed by icons of Malian music, Amadou and Mariam, who blessed the audience with grace and love with their soulful, bluesy set that felt very poignant as the grey skies finally started to pour.

Open East was a reminder of the best of British culture: diversity, inclusivity and warmth.


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