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Berlin’s best summer music festivals within city limits

Traditional outdoor festivals are not a comfortable way to experience live music. Here are some options for those of us who don’t fancy sleeping in the mud.

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Les Amazones d’Afrique storm the HKW for 2019’s edition of Wassermusik.

Woodstock took place 50 years ago this August in the rural area of Bethel, New York. It wasn’t the first modern music festival, but it certainly did cement the notion that watching dozens of bands from 500 meters away over the course of a rainy weekend was actually a viable way to appreciate live music. While camping can be a great way to retreat from civilization, it shouldn’t have to entail uncivilised public peeing or women getting molested. Luckily, a well-curated music programme is possible within city limits, meaning you don’t have to sacrifice the comfort of your own bed or the benefits of plumbing.

Whereas Woodstock billed itself as “An Aquarian Exposition”, Wassermusik has a more general aquatic theme. Situated at HKW’s open-air rooftop venue adjacent to the river Spree, the festival has chosen “Black Atlantic Revisited” as its theme this year, inspired by Paul Gilroy’s writings on the African diaspora. There are concerts every weekend throughout July, by the likes of Tropicália originator Gilberto Gil from Brazil and the supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique (photo), which counts Afrobeat diva Angélique Kidjo among its contributing members. For the festival she will not join them onstage but rather give her own solo performance.

Those Amazons span various West African countries, but the wonder women of Heroines of Sound are even more international – although perhaps less so than Jeff Bezos’ empire. For 2019, the festival welcomes German multimedia artist Antye Greie as guest co-curator. She’s also been commissioned to premiere a new work, in addition to her appearance with The Lappetites. Elsewhere, you can hear Tatiana Heuman from Argentina, Judit Varga from Hungary and numerous other electronic musicians performing over three days, plus plenty of chances to get some fresh air on the terrace out back.

Sax as a weapon? A l’arme! aims to subvert the militaristic origins of “avant-garde” with an international lineup of jazz, noise and experimental musicians across four days. This year’s lineup includes American players like Colin Stetson and Matana Roberts as well as Anguish – the trio gathering members of hiphop group Dälek, krautrock legends Faust and Swedish free-jazz ensemble Fire! Orchestra. Expect sonic ambushes like exclamation marks in the middle of a sentence.

Viewing pop music as true means of cultural dialogue is Pop-Kultur. Publicly-funded by the EU, Germany and Berlin, it offers three days and 15 stages of international, national and locally based talent such as British singer-songwriter Anna Calvi – doing a stripped-down set – American rapper Mykki Blanco, Canadian dream-pop artist Magic Island and German indie-rocker Ilgen-Nur. The latter two are premiering works especially commissioned by the festival.

Or are you pop-phobic? In that case, Berlin Atonal has got you covered. They don’t even use the word “music” in their marketing. Instead, the festival promises five days dedicated to the crossover of “sonic and visual art” in a brutalist, industrial atmosphere. Highlights include the gloomy Australian band HTRK, British DJ/producer Nkisi and – returning to Berlin after repatriating to the U.S.A. last year – the medieval-minded UCC Harlo. As a coda, enjoy the ringing in your ears on the way home.

Wassermusik Jul 5-27 Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Tiergarten | Heroines of Sound Jul 12-14 Radialsystem, Friedrichshain | A l’arme! Jul 31–Aug 3 Radialsystem, Friedrichshain | Pop-Kultur Aug 21-23 Kulturbrauerei, Prenzlauer Berg | Berlin Atonal Aug 28–Sep 1 Kraftwerk, Mitte