Womadelaide 2016 was a curious beast. There seemed to be an intent from organisers to reach towards artists you wouldn’t traditionally expect to see in Adelaide’s Botanical gardens at this time of year. And to some extent it appeared designed to increase attendance, where acts like the Violent Femmes, Sarah Blasko and De La Soul appeared somewhat incongruently. Even still many of the artists felt a little too MOR, leading many in attendance to lament the lack of edge, and ask where this year’s Speed Caravan, Omar Souleyman, or Tanya Tagaq were.
US blues loving Hazmat Modine opened proceedings and were the most unexpected ill-fitting bands you could imagine. They looked like a gaggle of secondary school administrators direct from the teachers lounge, but they were clearly having the time of their lives. Their music had a distinctively Louisiana down home swampy blues and jazzy feel and their enthusiasm for this sound was palpable. In the media call earlier in the day the lead singer played some of the most incredible harmonica I’ve ever heard, somewhere between a rocket landing and a broken piano heard through the gaps in a passing train. His voice was also the exact centre point between Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. Which is also an apt description of their music.
The aforementioned Violent Femmes did enable you to tick something off your teenage bucket list, surprising you with how many of their songs you actually know. Give me the Car was a highlight, in a set that bookended classic hits with their new bluegrass style. They opened with Blister in the Sun and closed with Add it Up. Gordon Gano it should be noted was the pastiest white man in the gardens this year. A wide brimmed hat only further emphasised his studio tan.
Dakhabrakha’s return to Womadelaide in recent months has been discussed in hushed anticipated tones. We saw them early in their career and they offered some of the most searing metal takes on Ukrainian folk music you’ll ever see. And since their visit they’ve pretty much toured non-stop. They were amazing then but they’re better now. Whilst their standout track Vesna began with the band making bird sounds and ended with driving techno, admittedly with only percussion and cello at their disposal, they’ve also moved in totally disparate directions. Each track felt like a surprise, an expansion of their sound and approach, and was a gentle reminder how to build a set. That said it was still quite peculiar when the quartet of three female singers who also provide percussion and cello, and a male hand drummer/ accordion player just burst unexpectedly into hip hop, or a strange heartbreaking kind of neo soul. They’re odd and intense yet also one of the best live shows around – all without ever getting off their seats.
Indian slide guitar legend Debashish Battacharya also made his return and it felt like he was everywhere. His two sets on the intimate Zoo stage were nothing short of transcendent. Featuring tabla as well as his daughter on vocals, the warmth, interplay and improvisation between the trio was astounding. The feature was clearly Battacharya and it was impossible not to be drawn to him, getting up close to observe the ease at which his fingers glided across his remarkable self designed instrument. Debashish in turn would peer over his spectacles, intently observing the audience, seemingly buoyed by our enthusiasm and our slack jawed amazement. It seemed effortless. Afterwards I had to shake his hand and he told me that it was “a joy to return to people who love music.”
“This song is called horse riding, because I’m from inner Mongolia…lots of grasslands,” chuckled the guitarist/ vocalist from Tulegar, right before he took up what has become something of a tradition at Womadelaide in recent years – throat singing. The Mongolian duo though owe more to Pink Floyd than any of their recent compatriots like Hangaii, with drifting rumbling electric drones over acoustic guitar riffs. With some pretty odd facial expressions and a wry sense of humour, where some bands use harmonica, Tulegar used their throat…and a Roland electric percussion with a booming bass drum. Later they demonstrated their true nature as renaissance men, making us a chicken curry in the Taste of The World tent and then rocking out beside us during Dakhabraka’s intense set.
Palestinian pop dabke outfit 47 Soul offered a lot of energy and sex appeal but would’ve benefited from less vocals and more dabke – though their simulation of an air raid making the audience get on the ground was quite inspired.
Bollywood legend Asha Bosle’s voice is still remarkable, yet I’d expected a rawer more ramshackle ensemble around her, like the ones we remember from her countless soundtracks. Whilst the James Brown obsessed, 70’s/80’s movie soundtrack fan boy funk of Japan’s Mount Mocha Kilimanjaro was pretty much an example of them cramming all their favourite genres music into one song. Then repeating. And repeating.
In other news Asian Dub Foundation are apparently now Nu Metal.
South Korea’s 숨[su:m] were also quite incredible, a female duo who performed on traditional instrumentation such as the piri, saenghwang, yanggeum and 25-string gayageum. Their music was difficult, challenging avant-garde, at times atonal, at others traditional and folkloric, at the edge of musicality. This was music that isn’t about crowd pleasing. There’s seriousness to the way they play, continuously pulling out an instrument more bizarre than the last. A real highlight.
“Everybody deserves to learn Bach,” offered the conductor, reading from historical notes discussing why indigenous Australians were taught English hymns over the years. It’s a patronising colonialist statement that lends a certain discomfort to proceedings. It’s the sound of religious oppression and the destruction of culture, yet it is also a sound that is so beautiful, almost otherworldly. Celebrating their 35th anniversary, the remarkable ensemble of voices that is Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (The APY) choir from South Australia’s APY lands drifted across the gardens in the mid afternoon and was nothing short of joyous. Singing a capella in the Pitjantjatjara language, you can rest assured it doesn’t matter what they are singing – the hairs will still stand up on the back of your neck. Afterwards as the crowd rushed forwards to get a closer look, it was a bizarre cross cultural meeting of gawking humour from both sides.
Possibly the most confusing set of the festival was Melbourne heat beat practitioners No Zu. They are such a confluence of ideas and inspirations that I have no idea what it is they are doing. Eventually you just have to let go and trust they understand their own vision. It’s about shutting down the brain and letting your ass do all the work. They also just happened to play at the exact time of early evening that you kind’ve needed to have your brain exploded then handed back to you in pieces.
Then there’s the Gyuoto Monks of Tibet. Despite numerous monk sightings throughout the day, playing soccer with kids or getting carpets carried around the gardens for them (I don’t know why either), nothing could prepare us for the power of experiencing them lined up unmoving and chanting for over an hour to end the evening. This was all about centring your body, allowing you to sink into the earth. Their set felt cleansing, almost purifying, and with nothing to look at aside from motionless monks we were left to our own devices. This was experiential, almost medicinal sound, designed to alter your body’s chemistry and experience of the world. Most of us just lay back and sank into the earth as these incredible sounds reverberated through the hills and into the Adelaide night.
You’ve never seen harp played with such enthusiastic machismo as Colombian harpist Edmar Castenada, who’s trio, with percussion and soprano sax offered up some incredible jazz, with Castenada providing both the bass and melodies. The speed, interplay, and energy was astounding, up until midway when he felt the need to express his religious convictions via an epic meandering composition entitled Jesus of Nazareth before inviting his wife onto stage to provide a similarly spiritual spoken word – all of which served to halt the momentum of what was up until then an incredible show.
Seun Kuti’s return too was triumphant, as he was embraced so readily when he was here last some seven years ago via his incendiary slabs of Fela inspired afrobeat. His banter though was odd, talking about astral travel and the difficulty in speaking English when you’re first thinking African. His tunes IMF (International Mother Fuckers) and his ode to THC, Higher Consciousness as well as the languid Afrobeat of Black Women, allowed him a platform to express his political convictions whilst still bringing the party. Afrobeat is an assault on the senses and between Kuti’s unique quite incredible dancing and stage presence, and that of his back up singers/ dancers, alongside Egypt 80’s relentless throbbing Afro funk it’s an impossibly overwhelming brew that was over all too quickly.
The buzz band for the festival were French outfit Orange Blossom. They played on the first night during Dakhabrakha’s set, so it was at their workshop the following day that I first caught them. Their djembe player put on a masterful display of percussion, whilst their Egyptian singer taught the crowd to sing in Arabic. Yet it was on the last night at stage 3 that it all came together, such bizarre and disparate ingredients, from France, the Middle East and Africa. Whilst their reliance on an electronic backing tape was a little frustrating, this melting pot, this fusion of congas, kit, violin, and vocals – all coming from different worlds was the most inspired and surprising sound clash of the festival.
As always there were many conciousness enhancing performances. You can’t see the likes of Dakhabrakha, Seun Kuti, and Debashish Battachaya often enough. The monks, 숨[su:m] ,Quarter Street, and Mali’s energetic Songhoy Blues also all produced inspired and singular sets. But it’s hard not to lament opportunities missed. Imagine at night on stage 6 they eschewed house DJ’s and instead pursued the likes of Portugal’s Principe crew who are making some of the most progressive forward thinking and distinctively regional music around at the moment, or imagine putting Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka in a tent and letting them play every few hours. Whilst the crowds are important to guarantee the ongoing viability of the festival, Womadelaide have traditioally been great at maintaining a balance between the populist, the traditional and progressive. This year the balance felt more weighted on the side of the populist. Yet perhaps that’s just me. Give me your hand and I want your arm. Where else can you remain barefoot for four days and nights, indulge in apple and pomegranate cider, take a nap under an ancient Morten Bay Fig, marvel at a flying fox colony incensed by stern Ukranian women or launch yourself headlong into a blow up replica of Stonehenge? And that’s before even considering the music. There is nothing else like Womadelaide. It’s an experience that continues to amaze and inspire in equal measure. It in itself is medicinal. See you there next year.