Left – Kaurna Welcome. Photo – Charles Seja
WOMADelaide – the World Music Festival – is back in town again. This is a chance to relax, go back to nature and immerse in the cultures of the world through music, dance and art. It is the 25th anniversary of WOMADelaide. The program has never been so wide-ranging and the music curation so outstanding.
This is a festival that showcases the immense diversity of music, musical techniques, unique performance styles and fresh idioms that borrow from popular, folk and art music, sometimes pure traditional music but more often mixed within acoustic, electronic or mixed soundscapes.
Led by Steve Gadlabarti Goldsmith, the Kaurna Welcome kicked off the festival. I witnessed an annual ritual that embraces cultural diversity on what used to be Indigenous ceremonial grounds. Over the last four days, I have taken an extraordinary journey into the musics of the world.
This year there was a strong lineup of Australian Indigenous artists such as veteran Archie Roach, singer Gawurra and Electric Fields. There were also captivating collaborations between Welsh group 9Bach with guest artists Dr Lou Bennett and Shellie Molineris, and A.B. Original and Briggs, Trials and Caiti Baker. Each day I passed by the Giidanyba (Sky Beings) installation designed by artist Tyrone Sheather with music by Wiradjuri musician Shane Nelson. It made me reflect on the wisdom of Gumbaynggirr Dreaming culture and how precious nature and culture is.
The most politically charging message was delivered by A.B. Original – a group that rewrites Australian history through hip hop. Their performance attracted a huge dancing crowd. The famous single January 26 hit an ultimate high. If audience response was measured in decibels, then this would have been the loudest in this festival. It was evident how everyone present felt about the date of Australia Day. WOMADelaide’s audience may be of a democratic persuasion and well off but the power of the people should not be underestimated – history has demonstrated again and again how forced policies crumble under their own weight.
Burning issues were also raised by female singers from South America, Africa and Europe. Anna Tijoux was vocal about the injustice happening in Palestine, rapping in Spanish over a solid bass and plush brass. A star in her country Mali, Oumou Sangaré’s performance was inspiring. Although singing in Bambara, her voice and presence were imposing and speaking for equality.
The younger Inna Modja, also from Mali, combines a political voice through her hip hop sung in English, French and Bambara that relies on a blend of traditional instruments and electronica. She created great intimacy with the audience on the Morton Bay Stage. They jumped on their feet during the second song and were exhilarated throughout and especially when she came down to dance with them.
Aziza Brahim grew up in refugee camps. Her humanitarian work is powered up by a strong Saharan voice. The blues she sang accompanied by three guitars, drum kit and congas was such an unexpected sound!
Mercedes Peon brought to the stage revived Galician songs. They are songs of love and pain, songs of survival. Her resonant voice is punctuated by electronic beats and percussive expulsions. As she explained, her music is not traditional, but the melodies and lyrics are.
A voice for music education was given prominence by a teacher from Rajasthan and his boy artists. The Manganiyar Classroom was full of rough and shouting voices, but their purity and enthusiasm made up for the lack of professional refinement one would naturally look for in a festival act. And this is the point – at the most basic, music education is primarily about participation, not standards.
If this was too much to take, then there was always the option to pop to the food stalls to sample the culinary intricacies of world cuisines. Whether the artisan food stalls, a six-dish seated banquet in the Taste the World Restaurant furnished by Chef in Residence Poh, or observing and tasting some the cooking prowess of some stars as part of the Taste the World Series, taste buds were in for a tingling. Surprisingly, Organic Doughnuts from Byron Bay attracted the longest queue each night. Simple food is always a good idea. While waiting to get a traditional doughnut with cinnamon and sugar, the two girls waiting in front of me were saying how they have been doing more eating than listening to music. As for me, Govindas’ vegetarian koftas were the winner.
At the high-end music extreme were the Tangents and the Philip Glass Ensemble. The quintet works with layers of acoustic and electronic instrumentation through a highly improvisatory and experimental approach. Philip Glass’ music accompanied the screening of the 1982 environmental film KOYAANISQATSI by Godfrey Reggio.
Two performances that were eagerly expected by the press and music fans had an unexpected turn for me. Bebel Gilberto took centre stage on Sunday night. Her sophisticated style of bossa nova was beautifully refined albeit too calm for WOMADelaide. On a rainy night, the tempos were too slow and the instrumental solos too sparse to excite an audience that was expecting to tap into the vibrant rhythms of her father’s albums. In contrast, filmmaker Emir Kusturica and his 11-piece band gave a taste of what would have been a night in a Balkan restaurant or a wedding during the 1980s – a concoction of 80s restaurant music, Balkan tunes and 80s rock. In this case, the owner of the restaurant (Kusturica) is attempting to conduct the band, and he has had a few rakias already. In his typical crazy style, Kustirica started with the Russian anthem on a black screen (Putin will not like this). The performance contained obscenity, macho behaviour and the occasional musical cliché – the Pink Panther theme was particularly annoying. The only piece I enjoyed was a gypsy song from one of his films which was done up to standard, with varying tempos and intensifications and virtuosic solos and not interpolated by any musical vulgarities. From the perspective of a cultural insider, this is absolute kitsch and arrogant cultural mocking. Yet, the audience seemed to be very entertained and participated in yelling obscenities. Kusturica and his band certainly put on a show.
The Hot 8 Brass Band and La Mambanegra gave stellar performances and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Despite the jumble of hip hop, R&B and funk, it was clear that their instrumental improvisation was the highest standard from the get go. After all, the New Orleans band are descendants of jazz forefathers. The emotional climax of their performance was when they descended marched into the crowd while playing. It felt like we were in touch with the very spirit of their city. La Mambanegra presented modern salsa at its best interspersed with vibrant virtuoso solos, and funk and hip hop nuance. Their music transplanted everyone to the nightclubs of Cali.
There were also artists with a very distinctive sound. Javanese Senyawa’s experimental vocals and instrumentals are for me on the verge of noise, but some people were listening and appreciating this music. The percussion electronica of Xanga was very accessible and excitingly multilingual and multimodal. Orchestra Tipica Fernandez Fierro played Argentinian tango in such an overbearing and violent way that it was too harsh and painful to endure. Give me The Waifs any time!
To sooth the ear and get back to basics, each night finished on the Novatec stage with electronic dance music. This year the lineup featured international DJs: Rich Medina, Skratch Bastid, A Guy Called Gerald and Rahan. Skratch Bastid’s surprising transitions were invigorating.
Rahan’s house music mix is pungent and smooth. Novatek is all empty when he starts. He is cool and composed; he has been doing this for ages. The crowd arrives soon and starts dancing to the groove. He smokes his cigarette and drinks cider after cider. He does not speak to the audience. The music does the talking. His set intensifies. When he plays only the treble, I can hear the high-pitched song of the bats that are hanging up in the trees. I surrender to the beat and close my eyes. All sound and impressions merge. It all becomes one. One music.
Venue: Botanic Park, Adelaide
Dates: 10 – 13 March 2017