Womadelaide is a yearly celebration of artistic innovation and cultural traditions from across the world, four days and nights of music and culture, with an overwhelming array of performances, workshops, and cooking demonstrations. With hundreds of performances set in Adelaide’ Botanical Gardens, there’ too much for one human to experience it all – try as you might. Over time the cross cultural jarring can become quite challenging, traveling from the Brooklyn party Bhangra beats of Red Barrrat to the devotional Persian traditions of the Mehr ensemble, with only a five minute and 200 metre break. As such over the course of the festival you chart programme your own festival, giving your self food breaks and rest periods to try and come to terms with what you’ve just experienced.
Whilst the likes of Awesome Tapes From Africa, agitated Reunion Island performer Danyel Waro, Mongolian throat singing rockers Hanggai, and Zimbabwe’ Mokoomba all offered some incredible performances, these were the highlights:
Asif Ali Khan
Sufi music to dance to.
From smooth meditative rhythms, with call and response Muslim poetry, to the building improvisations of spiritual nourishment this Pakastani Qawwali ensemble were awe inspiring. Asif is a student of the great Nusret Fateh Ali Khan, and he chants with such passion and control we were all spellbound. It was the tension and release, from the calm to the unrelenting, their incredible highly musical non language jibber, increased in tempo dramatically before settling back into calmness, often on the same vocal riff. This is music where language is irrelevant, we all felt it, the play off the tabla and the remarkable call and response.
Asif Ali Khan and his eight member ensemble spoke to us all, and we were a mixed bag.
As the disparate, at times outlandish, even garish gaggle of Womadelaide patrons sat breathlessly to watch the performance, and a peculiar group of crusty hippies and co built up on the side of the stage, I wondered what these well dressed and respected musicians thought of us. They did seem to be enjoying themselves.
Eventually we were all asked to show our appreciation by dancing and within a minuet we were all semi naked and free. The old hippies had taken over centre stage and we copied their enthusiasm and freedom. Thank you Prince Narrat.
A personal favorite of mine, Airileke brought back my time in Papua New Guinea but so much more.
Womadelaide gives us the unique experience of not just seeing a band, but getting to know a culture on so many different uniquely linked levels.
I first saw them on the Zoo Stage, which had a slight dung smell to it. It was a workshop. We were introduced to the log drums, amazed at the unique sound of the Pacific, and impressed by the way they worked together. But then came the dancing.
Male and female roles are fairly distinct in PNG and this was highlighted in the dances. We were so taken in by there enthusiasm we couldn’ help but participate. With the men thrusting their hips and the women shaking their shoulders, it was hilarious and slightly embarrassing, sweating and thrusting in the heat. They were so happy to see us copying them and they willed us on.
Next up was their conversation, where they were interviewed about their culture and their music. We learnt of their background and fight for freedom in West Papua and their passion to keep their traditional song, dance and language alive through their music.
Walking away inspired by the passion, I wondered how they would go performing on the big centre stage in two days. It seemed too long to wait.
But there was still a lot to learn about Airileke. It seemed with every song another drummer would have his turn at impressing us with either his singing or dancing or costume. We were eased from PNG, to West Papua, to Manus Island, through Melanesia to the Pacific Islands and Torres Straits, with influences from afro beat, Reggae, R&B, beats and roots. Again and again their tunes were powered by tight Pacific percussion, effortlessly linking the traditions with the aforementioned more contemporary styles. Even a young female guest sang poetic conscious R&B over a hip hop beat, as if to show there was nothing this group couldn’ do. These were new sounds, amalgamated with old customs; traditional costumes, and The Morning Star. Did I mention the penis gourd? Yep, they had it all.
Ancient pole dancing Indian style. This is serious stuff. You could tell by the expression on the kids faces. A slight nod of acknowledgement as they were rewarded with a cheer after mind boggling contortions on a pole or rope. Making athletic yoga on a pole is difficult to do with grace – well I imagine it would be. These kids start at age 5 and peak at 10. Their maneuvers where not simple but they possess great strength and courage enormous. The crowd seemed enthralled but slightly confused. Art or sport? Did it matter?
Femi Kuti and the Positive Force
I’m glad the now aging afrobeat torch bearer brought the positive force with him, but I didn’ see it at all in the conversations tent. Instead I saw a man burdened by age and fame. There were glimpses of spirit, fight and ideas. Such as his notion of helping all Africans believe poverty is not an African fight, but rather a world fight and that Africa is not alone or different to other continents. This notion, comes from someone with big picture ideas, who knows his countryman and has belief himself. So perhaps it was his sensitivity to small tweets and rumours that surprised me throughout the interview, that gossip and innuendo seemed to burden him to easily. I thought it was about the movement, the force. â€œmaking people dance while helping them swallow the bitter pill of realityâ€?
Femi did one show at the main stage on the last day and we all enjoyed it. But the positive force workshop the day before was the highlight for me. The men played the drums and the girls danced, and we danced. but not like Femi’s dancers. They tried their hardest to teach us, and we did our best to imitate. They were impressive. And we all laughed at ourselves and walked away amazed with respect to shaking it.
â€œMY WORD IS FREEâ€
Everyone was blown away by Emel’ Power and Beauty. This small Tanisian, had a line half way around womade at her CD signing, and she smiled, signed and took photos with everyone, and couldn’ have been happier.
Emel has been thrown into the spot light after her song â€œKELMTI HORRAâ€(My word is free) become an unsuspecting anthem of the Arab Spring when someone posted it on Youtube.
With violin and percussion, with slight electronic pulses, her music is spellbinding, her voice incredibly powerful. Her unexpected cover of Leonard Cohen’ Hallelujah is particularly powerful.
She was ready to give her whole at every performance and seemed surprised when the crowd wouldn’ stop clapping when she finished. Even her third performance she seemed so genuinely appreciative at our response to her songs.
Cuba meets Mali. Now that sounds interesting! After just a few minuets of experiencing Roberto, the boyish charm and charisma was evident. Is it the challenge to play with a Kora? Or homage to Cuba’ African roots? Or just a fascination with one of the most remarkable instruments on the planet? I wonder?
First Roberto wins us over with his extensive mix of technical and free flowing piano work. He’ looking to have fun, playing with the percussionist and stirring the crowd.
Then the Kora arrives, and we listen to these vastly different instruments play together, upping the anti with every improvisation. It was a special Womadelaide moment, one of those unexpected cultural exchanges that manages to work so well. The way they toyed with each other, copied and added to each others improvisations. It was technical and skillful, but oh so playful. Across Fonseca’ face was pure joy for the entire performance.
This is what Womadelaide can do, after four grueling days and nights of heat and near exhaustion one performance, or even a few special moments in a performance can make you forget everything.
Photos by Thanasi Bakatsoulas