Some prefer to dance in their own filth at Meredith, dodge vomiting teenagers at Falls or navigate the concrete metropolis of the Big Day Out, but Fragmented Frequencies believes the best place to experience music is the gorgeous surrounds of Adelaide’s Botanical gardens. Womadelaide, now a four day event is a feat of endurance, yet the diversity of acts temper the struggle, and everyday is akin to being a kid in a candy store, discovering all manner of weird and wonderful artists from numerous far away lands.
One band that we already knew thanks to their Bride of Zar album of last year was Rango, a Sudanese Egyptian ensemble who’s incredibly tactile trance music is also designed to cleanse the listener. I was curious to see how they’d be able to translate their music live, yet they did it through the strength of their personalities alone. And they seemed to be everywhere throughout the festival, playing in some capacity every day until we knew all their tunes and unique dances by heart.
In later days we attended their workshop, rattled their tin cans, they cooked us Voodoo Chicken and performed for us in the taste the world tent. These guys had an absolute ball, not only picking pretty young girls out of the crowd to dance with, but also enjoying the opportunity to share their unique culture. If any band summed up the spirit of Womadelaide it was Rango.
Next up were Mongolian throat singing outfit Hanggai. What their Introducing album of a few years ago doesn’t warn you about is their extreme bottom end. These guys used to be a punk band, and you can tell. Combine this with the fact that they’re producing these almost folk shanties, which all seem to be dedicated to drinking and it’s hard not to get swept up in Hanggai fever, particularly when for audience participation they make us sing along and hold up our beers at crucial points of a song. In fact the next time they played to close the following night, they offered the beer song twice in the same set and the crowd went wild.
Next up was one of the most incredible workshops of the festival. At the media launch earlier in the day we’d been blessed by a performance by an intriguing Ukrainian trio DakhaBrakha. Their tunes sounded like nothing else. Music haunted by ages of tradition, highly percussive, yet updated with modern elements. It was hard to know what to make of them. During their workshop they spoke of the origins of their music, of peasants singing in the fields, then they’d sing these traditional, incredibly powerful, weary songs. It was spine tingling.
We got right to the front for Syrian wedding singer and techno god Omar Souleyman, one of the most anticipated performances for us. With banging Arabic inflected electronics from one of the most incredible synth players around, Omar would patrol the stage, revving up the crowd. It quickly became apparent that the more you give the more you get, so we screamed and danced to the point of exhaustion as Omar howled and sang. It was an incredible set and one of the true highlights of the festival. It’s a shame he only played once.
The night finished with Faiz Ali Faiz, where we sat way back on the hill and let the incredible music of the Pakistani qawwali singer and his ensemble filter through the large oaks in a series of sustained crescendos. The interplay between the vocals and the instrumentation was remarkable. And it was an amazing and inspiring way to draw the evening to a close. We left during the performance and as we walked away from the park the music merged with the street sounds and carried us home. Beautiful.
The next day offered up another great workshop, this time last night’s hero Omar Souleyman. Whilst Omar spoke about his early development as a singer, attention quickly turned to the amazing synth sound of Rizan Sa’id. His ability to hold the whole performance together, his percussion and melody last night were incredible, demonstrating that despite being trapped behind a synth he was one of the most innovative and skilled instrumentalists at the festival. He told us that despite using a regular Korg synth, whilst at his recording studio in Syria he had developed a unique patch comprising of numerous traditional instruments sounds that he now sells to other Arabic musicians. He then proceeded to demonstrate the sounds of these instruments one by one. At this point my life path was mapped out. I have to buy a Korg and call Rizan up.
Next up Turkish percussionist Yasar Akpence performed with his gypsy ensemble Harem’de. His band, and in particular the clarinettist and kancun player had some incredible interplays and Akpence in particular played without ego, only demonstrating his mastery over the darbuka midway through the show with an extended solo. At one point I attempted to mimic the rhythms of his two backup percussionists. I lasted 30 seconds. They sat their happily pounding away for about 45 minutes.
Another workshop, this time from Columbian UK fusion ensemble Sidestepper, who captivated us with a history of Cumbia music, taking us through various trends, singing traditional songs and taking questions from the crowd. We never managed to see a performance of this band and its one of the biggest regrets I have from this years Womadelaide, where the programmers had the uncanny knack of scheduling the interesting bands at the same time, but leaving you plenty of room to catch Angus and Julia Stone or Ash ‘Dr Rock’ Grunwald.
We didn’t know anything about Tanya Tagak but the program described her as an Inuit throat singer. We figured it could go either way. We sat down at the beautiful Morton Bay stage and proceeded to be mesmerised by her simultaneously sensuous and animalistic performance. Joined by a guy on incredibly subtle electronics and another playing tastefully restrained scratchy violin, Tagak writhed around the stage, often on the ground, her body surging with the impact of each utterance like she was possessed. Her sounds were highly percussive, quite repetitive, though she would move from the guttural to real singing to howling like a wounded dog with ease. The performance was remarkable; a real improvised experimental work, something unique for Womadelaide, which may account for the large number of walkouts. Yet it also had real soul, an emotional integrity, which at times is something unique for improvised music. When she finished the crowd rose as one and refused to let her leave. The look on her face was complete surprise.
Two days later we attended her workshop and fell in love. It was the most intimate, open and revealing workshop of the festival. “Sometimes when I’m singing I feel like I’m underwater,” she offered. She described her family background, how she had taught herself to throat sing, and how she felt people had exploited her singing in the past. But it was when she was asked if she’d be interested in collaborating with Australian indigenous artists that we freaked. “I’d need to get to know the land first,” she offered, “go out there, see some animals, perhaps kill one and eat it.” An amazing soul who’s able to balance beauty and brutality effortlessly. I bought her album, where she works with Buck 65 and Mike Patton of all people.
Pandit Rajendra Prasanna is a North Indian Flute player who offered up some age old Hindustani and classical ragas on his traditional flute. He was joined by a series of musicians and their virtuosity and discipline was clear. However so too were their egos, which would occasionally prevent the ensemble from reaching the heights of say Faiz Ali Faiz the previous evening. That said this is improvised music that has existed for centuries with little change or concession to modernity and the customs and egos come with it. Prasanna’s sheer ease of playing the Shehnai (Indian Oboe) also was nothing short of astounding.
Sunday began with an intimate solo show from Afro Celt Sound system kora player N’Faly Kouyate. The beauty of the kora managed to overcome some of the technical glitches, which appeared to rattle Kouyate at first, however in the end he just shrugged his shoulders and ignored it. Kouyate’s playing is very song orientated, unlike say Mamadou Diabate of last year, creating simple gentle runs of notes and singing over the top. It was fascinating to note this different approach to one of Africa’s’ most iconic instruments
Brazil’s Os Mutantates came onto the big stage for their only performance at the festival with large beatific grins. It was surprising to see that the lead singer Sergio Dias looks uncannily like Paul McCartney. Their music with numerous changes and vocal oddities was enjoyable but probably 40 odd years too late. There was no power, no urgency, and no revolution in their music. But there was fun and good humour, a kind a relaxed goodwill that emanated from them. Between songs the band would rib Dias about his obsession with Julia Gillard. It was nice, but unfortunately I was drawn like a moth to flame to another incredibly unique band that was playing at the same time…
Cruelly Ukrainian trio DakhaBrakha elected to make their show seated. With cello, floor tom and accordion and sitting in a line across the stage, they’re one of the strangest most subdued metal bands around. But their music is dark, filled with intense sorrow, vulnerability, but also extreme anger. They’re a band who delight in the slow build, the percussion comes softly from a long way away before erupting into a series of intense flurries under those intense at times stern Ukrainian field vocals. Describing them as metal is probably a bit cheeky, perhaps gothic is a little better, they’re folk music but not like anything you’ve ever seen. In their vocals they imitated birds, screamed, but also offered up some of the softest, most heartbreakingly beautiful falsetto you’ve ever heard. Their set built a trance like effect in the listener, no one spoke, barely anyone moved. The Towards the end of the performance they said, “This song is good for dance. Get up!” So we did and the tune built into a dance party and everyone went crazy. It was incredible. I had no idea what I had just seen. I returned the next day and saw the exact same performance. I still have no idea what this is. But it’s amazing.
Hopelessly disorientated it took a while to stumble over to Ethiopian born Sydney based Dereb the Ambassador, who’s ethio jazz provided some soothing tonic to the intensity of DakhaBrakha. All of which may explain why I then managed to misplace my photographers camera and spent the next hour missing Tanya Tagaq’s set attempting to retrace my steps before finally the Womadelaide gods smiled down and someone handed it into lost property. “You wouldn’t believe it, someone just handed in $130,” offered the lost and found lady as I attempted to kiss her head. “It can only happen at Womadelaide.”
Later we watched a rather lacklustre performance from the Necks, who seemed to delight in little more than bashing the same notes over and over like they were attempting to hammer in nails. The next night began similarly for them, but midway through Tony Buck moved from jangling into a looped sound of what sounded like a key being cut and Chris Abrahams tinkered out a few keys and it was beautiful and subtle and perfect, proving that sometimes it takes both time and patience to mine the gold.
Monday was the hottest day thus far and as we sat beside the main stage to watch Rango again we were greeted by Papua New Guinea dance troupe Huri Duna replete in face paint and feathers drinking cider and dancing with the rest of the crowd to Rango. When we finally saw their performance, which had been periodically occurring beside stages throughout the festival it was by accident, simply an attempt to escape the booming excessive riffage of Ash Grunwald who by this stage we’d given the moniker Dr Rock. It was so loud and excessive that it seemed to permeate the entire festival. Finally we found ourselves on one of the smaller stages and witnessed one of the most amazing cultural exchanges I have ever experienced.
Huri Duna roared out in formation chanting to themselves sending the crowd scattering. They then organised themselves in front of the stage getting into lines, one man with a bow and arrow pretending to shoot people. “Down in front, I can’t see,” exclaimed one middle aged woman in a low rise seat, but the Huri Duna’s had other ideas, launching through the crowd again, changing formation and muttering to themselves. There seemed to be one person in charge, inspecting his troops, but there was a real wonky dads army feel to it all. Regardless you didn’t want to get too close in case they turned on you. “These guys have been dealing with crowd control for centuries,” offered my cohort, and he was right. I crept up close entranced by their soft singing. Suddenly on an unseen cue they all turned and lined up in front of me and a few other curious onlookers. With their painted faces and steely eyes they were especially fearsome and would be terrifying in battle. But then they played their hand drums down the line, plink, plonk, dunk, da, and all the fear was gone. That said if they had’ve screamed and charged I would’ve just evaporated. But no, they simply turned, and jumped out in unison then jogged back behind the stage like a football team. Absolutely mind blowing.
So after dosing ourselves up with more DakhaBrakha, the highlight of the festival, particularly this second performance with its searing heat, confused and bewildered we stumbled out beneath the iconic womadelaide flags, basking in the breeze as Horace Andy came to a nearby stage. It took a while for the DakhaBrakha to wear off, though soon we’d made our way in close, surrounded by grinning dancing people. Horace, ably backed up by Dub Asante was on fire, toasting away, rapid fire, and the music was tonic. We were wondering if this like the Afro Cuban Allstars and Os Mutantes was going to be a nostalgia set, but no it was warm, vital and a beautiful way for the afternoon to draw to a close. There is a reason why this man is a legend.
Amadou and Miriam are a couple of famous old ducks from Mali. They’re blessed with an ability to create gorgeous melodic tunes, having played at the last Olympics opening ceremony, they’ve also collaborated with the likes of Damon Albarn. They met decades ago at the Institute of the blind. Their most recent album Welcome to Mali is a cracker and they drew on much of this during their set. It would be interesting to know how much control they have over their music given they are both ostensibly blind, having to be led out onto stage. They wear bling and their show is filled with dancing girls and back up singers, bass guitar, drums, keys and it felt like too much. Last night I’d arrived just in time to see the end of their workshop where just the two of them played Welcome to Mali and it was incredible, really raw and really powerful. Much better than the glossed up hype machine than we witnessed the next day. As these thoughts bounced around our heads we drew back to the flags and sat on the grass, forced to acknowledge that with or without the gloss the tunes still sounded great, their songwriting and voices really broke through. Plus the old ducks were smiling happily the whole way through.
And in fact aside from the second performance where the Necks finally found their feet, we spent the rest of the night wandering around looking for and failing to find the spark that had ignited us earlier in the day.
Finally it was Faiz Ali Faiz in a sit down show on the main stage who closed the festival with more of that incredible Pakistani qawwali music that just soared across those open expanses, the huge pa sending both the music and us out into the night having not only survived another Womadelaide, but armed with the knowledge that we had witnessed some of he most incredible musical performances the world has to offer. Next year can’t come quick enough.