WOMADelaide delighted more than 90,000 people who walked through the gates at Botanic Park as part of its 25th anniversary. With upwards of 400 artists from more than 30 countries to witness, WOMADelaide is always an epic weekend. Here are the acts we saw over a sprawling four days.
DAY ONE – FRIDAY MARCH 10
Warsaw Village Band
Breaking in the Foundation Stage are Warsaw Village Band, a troupe of Polish folk revivalists whose complex vocal harmonies and rhythms quickly evoke the traditions of an older communal, agrarian culture forgotten by time. Fittingly, they also provide us with our first crack of that time-honoured WOMADelaide game of “what obscure instrument is that?” In this case it’s the suka, a traditional Polish fiddle that plays off a more conventional violin to create a sound that fluctuates between a swarm of bees and the heart-wrenching moan of a newly bereaved widow. Briefly reintroduced to indie rock crowds by the Arcade Fire some years ago, the hand-cranked Hurdy Gurdy also makes a welcome appearance.
The pace lifts a few songs in, as the trumpet player take the spotlight, kneading the keys like he’s giving a neck massage that really gets in there. As is often the case with WOMAD, creeping sound issues saw an echo of the group issuing back from the Park Lands. In this instance however, it actually complemented the already-rich flurry of interwoven rhythms.
Towards Frome Road, Gawurra is making the most of his first set of the weekend, the Arnhem Land songwriter’s voice and Gupapuyngu lyrics propelled by the pleasantly metallic strum of a steel-stringed Maton. On Dolphin he sings of the aquatic mammal as a metaphor for leaving home, a watery motif he returns to later on Diving Down.
A different kind of mammal soon begins to stir as he’s joined in the next song by the hundreds of bats who call Botanic Park home (by day, at least). Their screeching of these freshly woken spectators is by no means a soothing sound, but Gawurra sails over their confused chatter. Meanwhile, a lady parks herself nearby and starts painting his portrait in water colours, not letting a precious second of waning sunlight go to waste. It’s all very sweet.
The most affecting moment comes from Black Little Bird, a contemplative number about “losing your friends, family, even your language, your culture”, which sees a handful of Gawurra’s friends and family from up north join in the singing from the crowd.
As always, the WOMAD program is awash with acts touted as adding a “contemporary edge” to a more traditional form of music. If, in the case of South African a capella trio The Soil, you guessed that meant the addition of some beatboxing, you’d be spot on. But the group’s mix of pop, jazz and much older oral traditions is far more fun than any hyper-polished viral YouTube video.
Hilltop Hoods collaborator and triple j favourite Montaigne is, on the face of it, the slickest pop act of night. With the idiosyncratic kitchen sink sing-alongs of her earlier material swept away in favour of a bright 80s pop sound on August’s debut LP Glorious Heights, the set boasted arena rock drums, synth bass and glossy post-disco strings.
It’s the voice of Jessica Cerro that prevents it all from becoming a washout of pop polish. Hers is a quite unique sound that struts over elastic melodies that stretch and snap back into place from syllable to syllable, tonight punctuated by David Byrne-like yelps. It’s the kind of voice that would make an ABBA deep cut sound bold and deeply personal (important note: ABBA are great generally).
Recent Hottest 100 hit Because I Love You attracts a huge response, and it’s not surprising to see one of the younger crowds of the weekend assemble for Cerro, who could later be spied braving selfie requests from teenage fans after slipping into the crowd for D.D Dumbo’s Sunday set.
DAY TWO – SATURDAY MARCH 11
“Our welsh ancestors have brought the rain,” jokes 9Bach singer Lisa Jên at the start of Day Two. “We’re sorry about that, we bring the rain wherever we come”. At least they were thoughtful enough to bring a set of music that neatly matches the combination of overcast gloom, occasional downpours and fleeting moments of golden light that would colour much of the weekend. The group sets Welsh language lyrics over moody adult contemporary rock not too far removed from In Rainbows-era Radiohead. Indeed at first the pairing of Jên’s voice and the pulsating bass sounds is so incongruous as to invite the possibility that the insistent wub-wub was bleeding over from another stage.
Taking the time to translate the themes of each song, Jên explains the meaning of Anian, a Welsh word for one’s nature or ‘vibe’ that “has no direct English translation [and] is becoming lost”. Apparently the song was written by actor Rhys Ifans, a fact not mentioned onstage but one that I am totally on board with. A beautiful, unexpected moment arrives when former Tiddas member Lou Bennett and Darwin based singer Shellie Morris are invited onstage to perform a handful of songs including Plentin (child), a track inspired by Archie Roach’s Took The Children Away.
Lamine Sonko & The African Intelligence
Afrobeat acts like Seun Kuti, Femi Kuti and the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra have been clear favourites in previous years, so it’s no surprise that the kick up the backside provided by POAO member Lamine Sonko and his African Intelligence ensemble was warmly welcomed by the crowd. With a few ska flavours thrown into the mix, Sonko turned the crowd into a sea of clapping hands as he led a mass dance-along to the chant of “Africa! Africa!”
Later in the day Blue King Brown vocalist Nattali Rize delivers a brand of fierce, politically charged reggae rock very similar to her main gig, but no one’s complaining. Bandmate Salvador Persico joins her onstage for a track, and although a distractingly bass-heavy mix is initially uncomfortable, soon the group kicks into overdrive with drums, bass and organ interlocked as Rize leads a chant of “Generations will rise, governments will fall!” It’s a vague sort of sentiment that at other Adelaide Festival events may provoke a wave of pearl-clutching in the audience, but here the crowd laps it up.
Inna Modja is a Malian songwriter, activist and actress who despite commanding the smaller Moreton Bay stage, instantly sets herself apart as an obvious highlight of the weekend. Whether dancing across the stage or bobbing over a sampler while triggering chopped up samples of her own voice, Modja quickly compelled the initially seated crowd to spring to their feet with tracks from her recent album Hotel Bamako.
Her first visit to Australia, Modja responded ecstatically to the reception, dedicating My People to the ones in front of her (“I give my life with no fear, I do it for my people,” she says, “You are my people!”). Although touching on sobering themes like fresh water access and gender, the music is nothing but upbeat and irrepressible, with her guitarist frequently stealing the show as he swapped over to tap out rapid rhythms on a small drum slung over his shoulder. Modja finishes with a tribute to childhood hero and 2015 WOMADelaide headliner Neneh Cherry, whose 1989 classic Buffalo Stance sees Modja disappear into the dancing crowd.
The Waifs meanwhile are offering one big love-in at the Foundation stage, with the camaraderie between bandmates extending to create a rosy rapport with the audience, one that clearly benefitted from years of groundwork. Diligently working through their back catalogue, the band finished with a highly potent dose of early 2000s Australian folk pop in their hits London Still, Lighthouse and Bridal Train.
Their final song sees the rhythm section leave to allow guitarist Josh Cunningham to pluck a banjo as sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Thompson sing cheek to cheek, sharing a mic and swaying back and forth with fingers entwined. Despite the massive crowd, the atmosphere was almost familial between the band and their horde of fans (plus anyone who happened to turn on triple j in 2003).
The Manganiyar Classroom
Rajasthan troupe The Manganiyar Classroom prove an adorable set-piece, attracting large audiences on both Friday and Saturday nights. With a stage filled with rows of desks, the performance follows the premise of a teacher attempting to control a group of young male students raised in the Manganiyar musical tradition, who would much rather channel their culture and sing than learn. In a shocking twist, the teacher soon learns the error of his ways and begins to use the music of their heritage to teach. Plotwise it’s got all the makings of an inspirational Oscar-baiter without any of the dull montages, and as a means to showcase the performances and energy of the all-jumping, all-singing, all-dancing schoolboys it is very effective. I do hope they get off to bed soon though.
DAY THREE – SUNDAY MARCH 12
Hot 8 Brass Band
A few years back, WOMADelaide was treated to the party brass of Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and this year saw the return of American brass in the form of New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band. Famous for their upbeat interpretations of soul hits, Hot 8 brought the New Orleans flavour with not only covers but originals as well.
Hot 8 Brass Band
The rain was coming down quite hard when they hit the stage, but a decent crowd was present to lap up the New Orleans funk (mixed with a hip hop edge) of the collective, who, despite a sad history with four of their members losing their lives, are all about bringing the party when on stage. Cover hits such as The Temptations’ Papa was a Rolling Stone got the crowd moving. But it was the track that put them in the record bags of DJs around the world, and signed to the UK’s Tru Thoughts label, that was the highlight: their radical interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing.
As they left the stage, the sunshine returned briefly. Was this a sign that the band might return to the stage? They did. The sound desk wasn’t quite ready for them, but a few minutes later the mics were on and they performed what was to be this year’s WOMAD anthem: The Specials’ Ghost Town.
Rain did little to dampen Sunday spirits
New York’s Sinkane is definitely an artist (and band) to watch. Led by the beautifully voiced frontman Ahmed Gallab, Sinkane’s set burned with danceable grooves and spacey psych energy. Roping in a couple of local brass players to join the six-piece – complete with a talented singer to accompany Gallab up the front – they began with the catchy U’Huh while latest single Telephone was also played early and sounded better in the live environment than on record.
Sinkane performs on the Friday night
The brilliant DFA-like underground hit How We Be was the set’s highlight as the crowd built steadily throughout their set, and they danced the evening away to one of the most joyous contemporary music sets witnessed at WOMAD in a few years. Gallab, who looked like a dashing Steve Zissou in a red beanie and blue outfit, told the crowd the band was about spreading love and positivity when they play and that’s exactly what they delivered. Set of the day. If you didn’t catch this band, make sure you hunt down their recent record, Life & Livin’ it.
The Philip Glass Ensemble
Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the landmark experimental film Koyaanisqatsi is as groundbreaking as the film itself. As Godfrey Reggio’s non-narrative experimental classic juxtaposes shots of nature with man-made progress and destruction, Glass’ soundtrack contrasts beautiful ambient pieces with relentless and abrasive minimal classical. It is a landmark score that has influenced not only modern classical but ambient, techno and what is unglamorously known as IDM (Intelligent Dance Music).
Philip Glass Ensemble
The Philip Glass Ensemble (sans Glass) performed this ground-breaking score live with a giant screen showing the film in real time. Opening with shots of ancient cave paintings, the ensemble played the funeral march-like tones of the opening self-titled number with its deep ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ chants before the pulsating Resource drove the soundtrack into abrasive territory before calming down once more. Despite some sound bleed from other stages and chatter around the audience, the hypnotic pull of the score and film could not be conquered; it roped you in and kept you transfixed for 90 minutes. An almost meditative experience.
Cie Carabosse, the fire installation that captivated thousands of festival-goers
DAY FOUR – MONDAY MARCH 13
Taking over stage 2 in the mild afternoon sun is the Piyut Ensemble from Israel. The 14-piece crew’s style draws on ancient Jewish poetry and synagogue melodies. It’s impossible to nail down the sound to one region in the world, as this feels distinctly worldly, even other-worldly at its hypnotic heights.
They wind through a series of songs ideal for a lie down in the Monday sun, with layers of singing, instrumentation and clapping, so much clapping. Flutes, drums and a capella rhythms come one after the other and intermingle as the audience is drenched in a sort of shamanic calm.
After noting the ancient significance of their songs, and like so many of the festival’s acts, calling for peace between nations, Piyut Ensemble’s performance comes to a close. Though not before appropriating the audience’s applause into one last, clap driven number.
Eager beavers take their places early to get a good spot for the sure-to-be foot-stomping set from A.B. Original. The final act to be added to the WOMAD lineup, A.B. Original have penetrated the national consciousness with their timely and brash denunciations of perpetual Aboriginal disadvantage and a series of catchy collaborations and covers with some of Australia’s musical best. The varied crowd is given a (justified) parental advisory warning and told these are “strong words for weak times” before Briggs and Trials burst onto the stage.
The set kicks off with a Ngarrindjeri welcome dance and some scratching from DJ Total Eclipse before swinging into a bumping rendition of chart-stopping track Blackout. A.B. Original continue alternating between banter with the crowd and confronting dissections of issues surrounding Aboriginal deaths in custody, ice addiction and the debate around changing Australia Day’s date.
Trials tells the crowd the group is lucky to have garnered “heaps of mates” in their time, and Briggs jokes they have precisely four of them, as local Adelaide brothers Six Four, singer Caiti Baker, and the ever-loved Dan Sultan progressively join the crew onstage.
Normally content with celebrating all the world’s cultures, the WOMAD crowd takes this opportunity to join with A.B. Original to condemn Australia’s ongoing divide between white and black lives, and collectively scream for our nation to change the date.
Over on the Zoo Stage, Aziza Brahim, a Sahrawi singer based in Barcelona, takes the audience on their own journey through a captivating blend of Western European and Western Saharan traditions. Known as an advocate for Sahrawi independence from the dominion of Morrocco, Brahim’s performance isn’t sewn with cries for independence, but rather a celebration of her own culture.
She is ice-cool, backed by a set of three guitars and two drummers. Her powerful and delicate vocals lilt and tumble over a backing that swings between shades of blues, rock, folk and jazz. Brahim sometimes drums as she sings too, and a particular highlight of the set is a percussive battle between her two drummers.
The crowd is demure, and mostly seated, save a dedicated few folks occasionally standing front and centre, and others waving the flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Brahim eventually brings most people to their feet in the final up-tempo numbers as the sun sets and the night envelopes Botanic Park and WOMAD for the final time this year.
Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro
Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro’s fiery brand of tango bursts into life to see out Stage 3’s acts for another year. Specialising in tango but eschewing all of the cushy romanticised stereotypes the genre has become famous for, Fierro is a brutal onslaught of a performance. Intense to the point of melodrama, this show is a thunderous exercise in discordant carnal angst.
Strings and squeezeboxes guide the show, with four bandoneon accordion players at the front of the stage, backed by three violins, a double bass, violin cello, piano and vocals. It’s heavy going right from the outset, with those bandoneon players hammering their accordions down on their knees while red and white lights flash over the stage.
A somewhat apocalyptic vibe takes hold as the band rolls through songs that wouldn’t be out of place at the climax of an old-school monster movie. Some audience members, who might have been expecting more melody than melodrama, just can’t stick it, and shift off to the other stages, but others, intent on soaking up the spectacle stick it out to the end.
In keeping with WOMAD’s tradition of bringing back acts that once were massive and are now embedded in the canon of late 20th century pop culture, The Specials are to assume the Foundation Stage and take us all back to the good old days, before the ghost town.
The crowd is big and full of anticipation for the festival-crowning ska kings. There seems to be a slight delay, and up front punters start the odd slow clap and “we want The Specials!” chants to heighten the suspense. Fedoras dot the crowd, marking the most ardent fans of this group. Then boom, here they are, in all their ska-soaked glory, The Specials.
Kicking off proceedings with Ghost Town, The Specials bring their inimitable groove to thousands of onlookers whose hips begin to swing. The hits keep coming as we roll through Friday Night, Saturday Morning and onto Man at C&A, imminent nuclear attack warning included, and onward further into their celebrated back catalogue. A Message to You Rudy comes later in the set, and there’s hardly a foot not twisting away in the crowd.
Lynval Golding on bass and vocals steals much of the show. His cute asides match the crowd’s mood, and he takes heart in a few political statements as the show goes on. Horace Panter slays on guitar, too, while the horn, chorus and keys add that extra Special mood to the set. Singer Terry Hall is strong too, but seems perturbed by some goings on in the crowd, singling out what the audience presumes is an unruly punter for a quick spray.
As WOMAD winds to its finish for one more year, The Specials close their set out with You’re Wondering Now, which appropriately tells the crowd, “you’re wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end.”
WOMADelaide 2017 took place in Botanic Park from March 10 until March 13
Reviews written by Walter Marsh, John Dexter and David Knight
Photography: Andreas Heuer & Kristy DeLaine – AKPhotography