WOMADelaide Review

Womad“Now we have rain!” exclaimed Ethiopiques talisman Francis Falceto as the skies digressed the first of many showers during our premier four day outdoor festival.

“Aren’t we lucky?”

Well, I’d have to disagree slightly with Francis there. And without using one those terrible cliché’s such as ‘rain failed to dampen the spirits’, I’d like to put a more honest spin upon the situation: it wasn’t ideal.

In fact, this was the vibe I got from the majority of the weekend, though let this take nothing away from the organisers who once again outdid themselves in delivering one of the most exquisite cultural events in the world. And this isn’t just a throw away statement placing Adelaide on the world map. We should be indescribably proud and indebted to the entire WOMADelaide production crew from the stall vendors to the band managers, volunteers, backstage crew and the tireless ground crew cleaning up after who managed to keep Botanic Park virtually spotless all long weekend. These people all run a tremendously tight shift, which when compared too many of the other major festivals that have hit town this year, really is more than just a cut above.

            But back to the point, I guess we’ve all come to expect an awful lot of WOMAD. Each year it treats us to an unbelievable smorgasbord of some of this city’s favourite indulgences; music, food, drink, dance, culture and the outdoors. While there’s not much that could’ve been done to alter the weather, I think that it’s important that something needs to be said about the nature of the festival and how it played out over the weekend. Let me explain.

            WOMADelaide is a festival which relies on the energy of its patrons and its performers to cultivate its atmosphere. Perhaps that is no different to other major events, but consider the fact that compared to other music festival for instance, where the aura of mainstream international acts often creates a massive buzz in itself you realise that people go to WOMAD for different reasons. They go to connect to artists, performers and events that are for the most part unfamiliar. You venture openly into the unknown to be convinced, so to speak, and to find the feelings amongst the artists who are always humbled to be a part of the event and consequently bring their A-game each chance they get. Now, the reason for the festivals growth over the years has been its ability to deliver on this crucial ingredient. No festival inspires like WOMAD. But for some reason this year, be it because of the weather, exhaustion from our packed February and March or some other indescribably cosmic forces, the buzz usually exclusive to Botanic Park was for the most part subdued.

            There were many moments that highlighted this to me, but two really stood out. The first came after time I’d spent chatting to regular patrons of the event, most of whom noted that something this year was different about the crowd. Nobody could quite put their finger on it, but on reflection people didn’t seem as ‘loose’ as they have been in the past. Take dancing as an example; the relationship where the energy of the band is exchanged with the energy of the crowd, creating a reciprocal flow lifting both parties to a heightened experience. Well, while applause was always loud and appreciative I found that many of the performers were really straining to get what they could from the audience. Ojos de Brujo’s lead performance on Sunday was perhaps the best example of this. Standing at the back of the crowd to take in the show, the majority of the audience was completely motionless and the band really noticed it. Maybe people were tired, maybe they just didn’t click with the music which of course does happen from time to time, but for whatever reason there really weren’t many people who got their mind, heart and body into it in unison.

Another example, and my second defining moment, came during the All Star Gala on Monday night when a significant section of the crowd left what has been in the past one of the highlights which WOMAD facilitates. Perhaps Ross Daly, by his own admission even, may not have been the right man to lead it all. “I don’t really like jam sessions,” was a standout thorn during his introduction to the performance. It was in these instances, of which there were noticeably more than ever before, that I found the romantic ideals which I have come to hold this event against were confronted and altered. But at the end of the day, there were many smiles, chai’s and great stories shared. And that’s what I really want to emphasise as I look forward to the next instalment of this flagship event.

To begin, the opening evening was beautiful. YAMATO started proceedings on the main stage with a cheeky and endearing show that was very hard to take your eyes away from. On display was not only their musical prowess, but an inclusive cultural experience. It was a pleasure to launch with them and wonderful to end with them on Monday also, and be reminded of the warm feeling WOMAD often leaves you with.

Fans of all musical genres had their pick of the litter once again, with The Skatalites a personal favourite not only for their show but for reproducing the enigmatic qualities that their proud history suggests. I wish, in hindsight I’d had something more significant to say to them other than ‘I’m a huge fan’ as they signed my notebook on Sunday, but what the hell! I gushed! And I’m more than pleased to admit it.

Saturday may have been something of a write off for some as the rain really set in, but I really want to make mention of the wonderful performances from Hungarian’s Besh o droM, The Nortec Collective, Mama Kin and Adelaide’s very own Vorn Doolette. Without describing at length what was so special about each performance, I shall surmise by saying that these artists captured me with what they offered. It was especially pleasing to see Vorn, who I have followed locally for many years, demonstrate a musical pedigree that compared with some of the more well known bands at the event. The guest performance shared with Mama Kin was especially a highlight for not only the crowd, but I’m sure for Vorn as well.

Now if there was one band I wish I could see again outside of the event it would be VulgarGrad, who slotted happily into the category of ‘surprise’, another WOMAD staple. The music sounded dirty enough in Russian without being able to understand what it was actually about. I was later told that they’d been singing about prostitutes by my girlfriend who speaks fluent Russian. “I’ll be your horse, you be my cowboy,” was her favourite lyric of the set and it just endeared me more to them.

After being romanced by Jeff Martin and his Armada in the afternoon, Sunday meandered its way to cider and chickpea salad before launching into possibly the highlight of the festival and a reminder for me of the spirit it so often fosters. I’d arrived to see Babylon Circus almost 20 minutes before their set but getting close to the stage was simply not an option. Buoyed by reports of a standout performance the evening before, I was expecting mayhem an in turn received complete anarchy. My mum used to tell me that French men just have a way of getting what they want (she tells me she spent a lot of time in Europe before I was born), and after witnessing what would have been close to 2500 people in the crowd jumping in unison I wouldn’t doubt what she says. They absolutely tore the stage apart. It was energetic, charismatic, passionate, cultural; just impossible not to enjoy.

I’d originally planned to spend Monday finally checking out more of the workshops, stalls and art about the place, but found myself drawn once again to the music. Tim Finn offered a nostalgic set to a crowd undoubtedly still touched by the masterworks of his career, before WOMAD’s patron Australian musician Xavier Rudd, accompanied by South African born Izintaba duo Tio and Andile gave every ounce of energy they could muster in what was undoubtedly the most joyous set of the four days. After almost two years away from the national music scene following the breakdown of his marriage, it was heart warming to see Rudd back sharing himself and his unwavering political views in front of a receptive audience.

I’m sure that many would remark that I’ve skipped over or plain missed a lot of things that happened during the four days. But that’s why WOMADelaide remains so prominent in the hearts and minds of those who attend it. In four days, you can get enough fodder to talk about it for almost the entire year you wait for it to return. And in spite of the fact that this year, I felt there was something lacking from the usual WOMAD experience, I shall still be eagerly awaiting March 2011 because at the end of the day, there is nothing else like WOMADelaide in Australia, no setting better suited than Botanic Park and no people better equipped to run the show than the people who spend their entire year in that office on King William Rd, whose work culminates for most, into a fenced off blissful oasis.

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