With 500 artists from 27 countries across 4 days of music, workshops, cooking demonstrations, and theatre, WOMADelaide strives to change what you know about festivals. Say goodbye to chips smeared into grass you’re trying to sit on, vomiting bogans or riffing guitars. This is about musical discovery. Set in the gorgeous surrounds of the Adelaide Botanical Gardens, each stage was dwarfed by mammoth trees which would reach over and provide shade to the patrons, whilst a gust of wind would send the leaves rustling, often on cue with the music.
A huge draw-card on the friday night, singer Mahmoud Ahmed, star of the Ethiopiques series from the Golden Age of 70’s Ethiopia, looked stately in a white robe, his incredible vocals snaked through the slinky jazzy music of his French band. Later Jamaican icons the Skatalites proclaimed they were the original ska band before playing an amusing cover of Burning Ring of Fire. Yet it’s a little like watching the Ramones crossed with Tijuana Brass, the legend status clashing a little with the kitsch. Speaking of Tijuana, the Nortec Collective were up next, a terrifying mix of traditional Mexican music combined with house and electronic beats. With a large television screen featuring uber cliched images of dodgy Mexicans as well as instructions to ‘shake it,’ they were simultaneously repellent and fascinating. Multiple viewings did nothing to clarify whether fight or flight was the appropriate response for this insane curio. Finally Azerbaijan singer Gochag Askarov and his quartet of traditional players effortlessly washed the Nortec out of our mouths. Their music was almost baroque, ancient traditions with lutes, fiddles, pipes and hand percussion that lulled us out into the Adelaide night.
One of the big surprises was Western Saharan vocalist and percussionist Mariem Hassan. Her live performances were explosive, flanked by two electric guitars playing a kind of traditional yet minimal desert funk. A few days later she conducted a dance workshop where they taught us the Ostrich Dance, and later still she demonstrated how to cook camel stew. Whilst the music was warm and soulful the insight she offered into the culture of the displaced Western Saharans was both moving and heartbreaking. Whilst Djan Djan offered some light breezy guitar, kora and tabla music, it was the solo Kora set from a third of the trio, Malian Mamadou Diabate that was the real highlight. Performing in the light rain on a tiny stage, his facial gestures as he worked his way around the ancient African harp were fascinating and the music like liquid.
Melbourne 19 piece Public Opinion Afro Orchestra barely fit on stage as the heavens opened up and the crowd went wild dancing in a frenzy to the hip hop and afrobeat grooves off their newly released monster Do Anything Go Anywhere. Later Dub Colossus, a fusion between UK Producer Nick Page (Temple of Sound) and a couple of Ethiopian singers, with big brass, and piano, wowed the crowd with everything from reggae to salsa, updating the Ethiopiques for this generation. And then France ska punk vaudeville lunatics Babylon Circus hit the stage, a band we would see three times in four days (including their club show in Melbourne), where they mix pop hooks and showmanship in a high energy melodic bast – check out their recent La Belle Etoille (Cartell) it’s a cracker.
Elsewhere Melbourne based Russian criminals VulgaGrad were typically seedy and a lot of fun, the contemporary Taiwanese dance company LAFA were simply astonishing with their use of silhouettes and a single table. Algerian popstar and oud exponent Kamel El Harrachi was passionate and gracious, Hungarian gypsy fusion ensemble Besh o droM, were like a new band with each song, Ray Lee’s Siren was an awe inspiring sound installation of spinning tones and Aboriginal Arnhem Land group Young Wagilak Group‘s enthusiasm and desire to share their culture was infectious.
And then there was Ravi Shankar. The 90 year old Indian maestro, performing with his daughter Anoushka to 20,000 seated fans. It’s like a ‘mini Woodstock’ he quipped, before launching into a series of long ragas. Ravi is music royalty and his music tonight was amongst the most amazing, soulful and beautiful Fragmented Frequencies has ever experienced. He’s here on the 20th of March. You have to go.
Photos from Carla Martins.