Top 10: music festivals

These music festivals from around the globe are distinctive both for the atmosphere and the destinations that form their backdrop.
The Municipal House Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre in Prague. Diane Macdonald / Getty Images
The Municipal House Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre in Prague. Diane Macdonald / Getty Images
Music festivals have become modern pilgrimages, attracting visitors from all over the world to celebrate the music and culture of a particular place. While unwashed youths cavorting in muddy fields grab the headlines, there are hundreds of festivals in many musical genres around the world. That means there's something to suit everyone. From classical music to electronic, small gatherings to huge events, these festivals take in the range of different happenings on offer around the globe. They may not be the most famous in the world, but they are some of the most distinctive. Whether it be the unique setting, the eclectic line-up or the remarkable atmosphere, they deserve to be considered among the best.

1 The Festival Internacional de Benicàssim, Costa del Azahar, Spain

Each day of this festival, which takes place in the sweltering Spanish summer, starts in the evening and finishes early in the morning. The nocturnal programme combined with a young crowd spurs the party atmosphere. The first festival was in 1995 and, over the last few years, it has developed a reputation as one of the best festivals mixing rock, pop and electronic music. More than 50,000 people attend each day. This year's line-up includes Bob Dylan, The Stone Roses, New Order and Florence and The Machine, who will perform at the beach resort of Benicàssim on Spain's east coast.

Unlike the more well-known Costa Blanca to the south, the coastline - sandy beaches backed by orange and lemon orchards and mountains - remains unspoilt by high-rise tourist developments. You can catch a train from Valencia, Barcelona, Alicante and Madrid. Valencia is the nearest and has a special bus service from the airport.

The Festival Internacional de Benicàssim ( takes place from July 12 to 15. Tickets cost?686 (Dh901) per person.

2 Helsinki Festival, Helsinki, Finland

More than 100,000 people come to the Finnish capital to attend the country's largest arts festival during the midnight sun of late summer. It began in 1968, inspired by the Edinburgh Festival, with a programme that includes a wide variety of music, theatre, dance and films across the city. Helsinki is a watery realm of bays and inlets with a busy port at its centre. It is modern and fashionable with casually cool inhabitants who revel in - as well as help to define - the festival's cosmopolitan atmosphere.

This year's highlights include Wagner's Tristan andIsolde, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, directed by Peter Sellars and with video art by Bill Viola; Cirque Éloize, a Canadian circus arts group; and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, the world's oldest orchestra that is still performing. Another big event is the Night of the Arts, when anyone can perform in the city's streets and parks. For one night of the year, culture takes over the city, literally.

Helsinki Festival (00358 9 6126 5100, takes place from August 17 to September 2. Ticket prices vary depending on the event, but about two-thirds of the performances are free.

3 Exit Festival, Novi Sad, Serbia


The Exit Festival began in 2000 as a protest against Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia. The next year it moved to its current venue, the Petrovaradin Fortress, on the banks of the Danube overlooking the town of Novi Sad.

It's an atmospheric setting. Hundreds of tunnels beneath the 17th-century fortress allow quick access to different stages, while the hefty stone walls create excellent acoustics. Dance music acts dominate the line-up, but the festival always has a smattering of illustrious headline acts, which this year include New Order and Guns N' Roses. The festival starts each evening and runs into the early morning to avoid the summer heat, when temperatures go up to 37°C.

Exit Festival ( takes place from July 12 to 15. Tickets cost $150 (Dh552) per person, plus $40 (Dh147) for camping.

4 Taico Club, Yabuhara, Japan

Alongside Summer Sonic and Fuji Rock, Japan has lots of smaller events, which can hold their own amid the behemoth rock festivals. Taico Club is one such event that takes place at the Yabuhara ski resort in Nagano Prefecture, about a four-hour train ride from Tokyo. The snow-tipped mountains make a beautiful location for a festival. Numbers are limited to 7,000, which keeps the atmosphere intimate and relaxed.

Highlights this year include Pépé Bradock, Animal Collective and Josh Wink. But this festival is not really about headline acts: it's about enjoying eclectic music in spectacular natural surroundings. For an alternative, try the Greenroom Festival (, on May 19 and 20 in the spectacular industrial space of Odaibashi international ferry terminal in Yokohama port.

Taico Club (, June 2-3. Tickets cost ¥12,000 (Dh546) per person.

5 Saint Louis Jazz Festival, Saint Louis, Senegal

Jazz - often described as the US's only original art form - would not exist without the hideous traffic from across the Atlantic from the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is apt that one of the finest jazz festivals in the world now takes place on the West African coast.

The town of Saint Louis in the north of Senegal near the border with Mauritania is a former capital of the French colony. The old town sits on a thin spit of land near the mouth of the Senegal River. Its slender streets, lined with colonial-era houses with wooden balconies, are an evocative setting for jazz performances. The festival, now in its 20th year, has a consistently good line-up, which this year includes Kenny Baron, Mina Agossi and Ablaye Cissoko.

Saint Louis Jazz Festival (; 00 221 33 961 24 55), May 24 to 28. An eight-day tour with Palace Travel; 001 215 471 8555) costs US$1,690 (Dh6,208) per person.

6 Prague Spring International Music Festival, Prague, Czech Republic

This grand festival of classical music and opera was founded in 1946 to mark the first anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Now in its 67th year, it has hosted great musicians from Leonard Bernstein to Pierre Boulez, as well as many of the world's finest symphony orchestras. This year's programme is no exception, with performances from Leif Ove Andsnes, Paul Lewis, Mark Padmore Marianna Vasiljeva and Miroslav Sekera.

Prague is a patchwork of stunning architecture in a wide range of styles, from Gothic to cubist, and it has a rich and energetic culture of bars, cafes, museums and clubs. The festival's venues are suitably splendid, including the Rudolfinum Concert Hall, a Neo-Renaissance building on the banks of the Vltava River, and Municipal House, an Art Nouveau building in the city centre. The Prague Spring Competition, a contest to discover outstanding young musicians, runs alongside the main festival.

Prague Spring Festival (; 00 420 257 314 040) takes place from May 12 to June 3. Tickets cost from around Kc150 (Dh29) per concert, per person.

7 Bonnaroo, Tennessee, United States

In just 10 years, Bonnaroo has blossomed from a popular but unadvertised jam-band event to reach the top ranks of US music festivals. Over the years, it has embraced many genres and scenes, from funk to bluegrass to jazz to electronica. It's a winning formula, with attendances regularly topping 80,000 people. Despite this rampant eclecticism, the festival has retained a blissed-out, hippie atmosphere.

This laid-back aura is helped in part by the venue, a farm of more than three square kilometres less than 100km from Nashville. Since the 1920s, this city has been at the centre of the US music industry, particularly country music. Its wide streets lined with honky-tonk bars are the stuff of musical legend. This year's line-up is characteristically diverse and includes Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beach Boys, Bon Iver and The Roots, as part of a total of 150 performances on 10 stages over four days.

Bonnaroo (, June 7-10. Tickets cost $259.50 (Dh953) per person.

8 Rajasthan International Folk Festival, Jodhpur, India

The RIFF only began in 2007 but has quickly established itself as India's leading folk music festival. Every year it brings together more than 250 musicians from around the world. The emphasis, however, is upon musicians and performers from across India's largest state.

The programme thrives on unique collaborations between folk and classical musicians from different places. Last year, for example, Kathak dancers performed to folk and Sufi music from Manganiyar tradition of western Rajasthan. The festival's superb venue is the Mehrangarh Fort, an imposing 17th-century structure built on sheer sandstone cliffs more than 100m above the city. The festival dates are set to coincide with northern India's brightest full moon, which further adds to spiritual atmosphere.

Rajasthan International Folk Festival (; 00 91 141 236 9723), October 26-30. A 10-day tour with Original Travel (; 00 44 207 978 7333) costs from £2,700 (Dh15,924) per person, including accommodation, guides, transfers and domestic flights.

9 Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, Fes, Morocco

Musicians from all over the world come to Fes in the summer with the aim of encouraging greater understanding between faiths and cultures through music. Far from getting in the way, these noble intentions enhance the wonderful performances. Now in its 18th year, the festival brings together a varied 10-day programme of songs and rhythms from around the world in the surroundings of the city's medina.

The old town is a fine venue, a medieval city with imposing ramparts and thousands of narrow, winding streets crowded with shops, mosques and tanneries. It has the oldest university in the Arab and Muslim world and was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1981. This year's programme includes Archie Shepp, Joan Baez and Björk, but it is the wide range of superb, less-familiar musicians that are the highlight of the festival.

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music (; 00 212 535 74 05 35), June 8-16. Tickets costs 2,950 Moroccan dirhams (Dh1,277) per person.

10 Sauti za Busara, Zanzibar

Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, was once a busy trading hub for ivory and cloves. The labyrinthine alleys and whitewashed houses of Stone Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the capital Zanzibar Town, became a cultural crossroads with African, Indian and Arabian influences. It's hard to think of a better setting for a festival of East African music.

With a range of diverse acts from Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya performing traditional music and hip-hop, Sauti za Busari ("Sounds of Wisdom") does not disappoint. The line-up for the 10th festival is yet to be confirmed, but more than 200 musicians will perform in the Old Fort over four days.

Sauti za Busara (, February 14-17, 2013. An eight-day tour in Zanzibar with Songlines Music Travel (; 00 44 20 8505 2582) costs from £689 (Dh4,017) per person.

Published: April 28, 2012 04:00 AM


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