Sitting amongst the beautiful surrounds of Adelaide’s Botanic Park, WOMADelaide brings together the world’s finest artists and performers belonging to traditional styles of music. From Australia to Zimbabwe, Soulshine was there to capture the Adelaide hub of the World of Music Arts and Dance.
Brought together in 1980 by Peter Gabriel along with cohorts Thomas Brooman and Bob Hooton, the concept of WOMAD has stood as a celebration of the music the world has to offer. Twelve years on from that date, Adelaide, South Australia was added as a location for the concept, the festival and the music. In 2009, the 16th Womadelaide festival thrust itself upon Adelaide’s Botanic park; a sprawling field of lush, green grass and endless varieties of trees, from ancient Moreton Bay Figs to the traditional gum. This time around, Adelaide was host to some very happy festival going circumstance. The climate was looked after by an extraordinarily friendly 26 degree weekend, with a tidy, dust-suppressing week of rain leading into the festival. Considering the ravenous heat and persistent dust cloud were the major criticisms of festivals past, WOMADelaide organizers Arts Projects Australia had their jobs made easy. In fact, their job seemed to have been made too easy, with one of the most professionally run festivals I’ve been to, with ease of entry, ease of exit and sublime timetabling…and we haven’t even started on the music.
You’d be forgiven for trawling through the line-up prior to the festival and coming up with nothing but question marks. Outside of the World Music community, many of these names mean very little at first glance. Names like Tony Allen don’t seem to click, however a brief glance at the festival program reveals him (alongside Fela Kuti) as a key credit to the invention of afrobeat. The festival line-up is very strongly rooted in this genre, with Rokia Traore and the aforementioned Tony Allen spearheading a contingent including the Black Jesus Experience and Fela Kuti’s son, Sean Kuti & Egypt 80 (an apparent twist on Fela’s Africa 70.) Included amongst all this is traditional music hailing from every corner of the planet. Mongolia and China are represented by Sa Dingding, East Timor by Ego Lemos and India by U Shrivinas & U Rajesh. This makes a stroll around the Botanic Park an absolute feast of multicultural blending, with almost any style of music imaginable delivered by a group of individuals with world-class talent and skill. The thick, green grass is cool between the toes and lush enough to be comfortably encompassed in on seating. Above most stages are a handful of wide-reaching trees that shower you in a very welcome shade from South Australia’s ravenously biting sun (even at 24, the sun has enough bite to raise it by a degrees.) The venue is as much a part of this festival as its unique program of phenomenal musicians all timetabled to perfection, allowing ease of transition from one musician to the next, making it very difficult to miss someone you came to see.
The festival’s Friday night kicks off at 6pm, allowing an afternoon of browsing through an uncharacteristically vibrant Adelaide City, as is the case this time of year with the Adelaide Fringe Festival. A couple of pubs visited and a meal had leads us to the festival gates where Australian genre-mashing rock-man Dan Sultan powers his way through his hour long set, from his own tracks to a cover of Kev Carmody’s ‘This Land is Mine.’ Dinner at sunset with the backing noises of the Black Jesus Experience leads into a viewing of Australian/Fijian stage fillers The Andi & George Band. With the recent departure of front-man George Bishop, the ‘Andi Band’ and the surrounding fifteen members play an up-tempo rosily vibed performance marred by what seems to be an unnecessarily huge number of on-stage performers. There’s still a lot of fun to be had, but one can’t shake the feeling that two blokes on bongo’s and three mostly silent backing singers are bordering on overkill. The evening rolls on through an introduction to Afrobeat by the famous Tony Allen and his band before an overwhelming musical experience courtesy of the extravagant Sa Dingding. Dressed in huge, over-the-top costumes and surrounded by two traditional dancers making use of fans, flags and cloth to inspire ornate visuals amongst the aural centerpiece of the leading lady. With modern electronic grooves behind her and traditional Chinese vocals, the audience seems to be divided by its reaction. Sa Dingding’s voice either pierces the skulls of attendees, making them flee a few songs in, or absolutely mesmerizes with her haunting vocal control. Either way, it’s a stunning example of the extremities of the human vocal chords.
The Womadelaide festival doesn’t play host to on-site camping, so buses, parking lots, trams and footpaths accommodate around 20,000 festival attendees going home to their hostels, hotels and homes in anticipation of WOMAD Day Two – a full-day of music culminating in the much anticipated Sean Kuti & Egypt 80.
The festival starts off at twelve, but a sleep-in and lethargic breakfast from the departing party in Gawler (an hour from the festival site) gets us there in time for the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the Kora,’ Seckou Keita SKQ. Backed by lively, traditional West African instrumentation, Seckou Keita is a master of his 21-string lap top pseudo-guitar. His fingers blur as he inexplicably creates a densely layered, majestic aural texture amongst drums and vocals. Following this, the festival takes a starkly downbeat turn for Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, fronted by two sisters with haunting vocals and a traditional English folk backing. Singing songs of drunken debauchery, the sister’s relax the throngs of seated festival goers, their beautiful performance marred only by some sound issues in which they are at times barely audible. A few hours later, American guitar virtuoso, Kaki King (introduced as the world’s greatest guitarist under 5’1”) takes to Stage 3, supported for the first time in Australia by a three-piece. Ranging from classical demonstrations of skill to band pieces like latest single ‘Pull Me Out Alive,’ she entrances the crowd with gorgeous sounds and talent. Her sound is sometimes tarnished by an apparent need to demonstrate her extremely impressive skill on the guitar, but that’s as much of the performance as the dense atmospheric sounds she creates alongside her band. The festival blows through a very solid set by The Audreys fronted by the ever-so-sensual Tasha Coates. It’s a great way to see of the daylight, but with such stunning musical surrounds, it’s hard to say that this cemented itself as a highlight.
A quiet beer out of the way sees an encounter with roving artist, The Green Man; a performer dressed entirely in green that apparently has no act and no purpose other than to cause mischief. On spotting an unopened bottle of green tea at a table, he proceeds to drink it in one go, completing to a somber look of pity. He rectifies this by taking a beer off an adjacent table to replace the green tea. He fetches someone’s cup of tea to replace said beer, takes $15 out of the wallet of a lady going through her bag, placing it on the original table and thus completing the cycle…almost. He leaves the area in disarray on his little green scooter, the tables a wake of disorder and confusion as everyone tries to figure out exactly what beverage belongs to whom. It was an uncanny as anything and saw the Green man extremely lucky not to have a little fist-shaped smudge mark in his face paint.
Headlining Saturday night comes Sean Kuti & Egypt 80, a fine example of Afrobeat that is as impressive as it is hideously repetitive. Throughout their one and a half hour set, only six songs are played, including a twenty minute intro without the appearance of Sean Kuti. Kuti makes it to the stage in a very impressive matching shirt and pants combo before grinding, shaking, yelling and storytelling to appropriate musical timing. He passionately talks about the global economic crisis at one stage before (equally as passionately) talking about various sizes of the female rear-end. The highlight is his charismatic manner, and while the typical afrobeat backing is enjoyable at first, it grows tired extremely quickly, crossing through irritating before becoming slightly amusing while some instrumentalists jazz up their repetitive beat by walking completely out of range of their microphones. Finishing to a massive response, the night is completed either by the somber sounds of U Shrinivas & U Ravesh, the DJ beats of Russ Jones, or the chatter of the walk back to various methods of transport.
Sunday afternoon could be taken through two routes – the upbeat or the soothing. Follow the funky undertones of the Black Jesus Experience with the upbeat gypsy sounds of Paprika Balkanicus, before trying out the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, the genre-merging Ska Cubano and the world famous Neil Finn. Alternatively, cruise through former member of Yothu Yindi, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the cruisy Ego Lemos and Kora extraordinaire, Seckou Keita SKQ. We took a bit of both, the highlight of the afternoon, the day, and indeed, the festival, being none other than Crowded House front-man Neil Finn.
Joined by his two sons Elroy and Liam, Neil Finn played a set that crossed all eras; through Split Enz and Crowded House favorites to Liam’s ‘Second Chance’ it was incredibly pleasing and all-encompassing. The Finn’s were in great spirits, joking on-stage and delivering some traditional three-piece rock unseen for the weekend. Favourites like ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ impressed and stirred the squinting sunset crowd into song, whilst the aforementioned track of Liam’s saw Neil take a back seat on bass guitar. All on stage were visibly enjoying the performance and opportunity to play as a family, the rest being an incredibly impressive, well-rounded set of music.
Sunday night played out as a mish-mash of musical and theatrical stylings. Mr. Percival knock-off Mihirangi played her unique style of looped traditional tunes and beats before a walk down to the Speaker’s Corner for ‘Strange Fruit,’ a theatrical performance suspended four metres in the air on strange, flexible poles. During this walk, sounds from the All-Star Gala flood across the plains as Neil Finn sings ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ to the backing of a multicultural mix of instrumentation that was sorely missed. ‘Strange Fruit’ is a bizarre and beautiful array of movement and theatrics, a creepy soundtrack setting the stage for six performers rocking back and forth on a pole, crossing over each other, reaching out to each other and distorting their bodies in all manners of bizarre positions. It’s a fantastic, laidback way to lead in to the hallmark of the festival, the stunning Rokia Traore.
Rokia Traore delivers more of the same afrobeat repetition with a booming vocal style and big-band stylings. With incredible movements and a very impressive dancer introduced towards the end of the set, her ninety minutes ends quickly to rapturous applause and a mass exodus from the festival grounds to round out Womadelaide 2009.
WOMADelaide has always been known for a brilliant array of diverse artists from all corners of the globe marred by South Australian heat and a venue which rapidly becomes unbearably dusty with the huge amounts of traffic (almost 25,000 people attended on Sunday) and dry climate. In 2009, these concerns were taken care of by some good old acts of god, with rain and mild temperatures looking after festival goers to the point where as good as nothing negative can be said of the festival. It is phenomenally well-organised to the point where almost nothing can go wrong. Band’s play well-timed sets and will often play twice or more so that it’s impossible to miss someone you came to see. It’s run like a well-oiled machine, and with a line-up so diverse and exciting there are just too many reasons to make it along to this festival to list. It has a strong festival atmosphere and very little alcohol or party culture (which is either a negative or positive depending on who you talk to.) As far as music goes, it is entirely unique on the Australian festival calendar and has a little bit of something for anyone with an aurally open mind. If you plan to drink yourself into a St John’s ambulance booth, WOMADelaide isn’t the place…but if you plan to have a relaxed weekend of top music and beautiful surrounds, then it’s exactly what you’re looking for.