Womadelaide 2018 boasted some pretty big names. From the desert blues of Tinariwen, to the gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, to the virtuosic sitar of Anoushka Shankar, to the sample heavy Avalanches, to Kamasi Washington and whatever the hell Thundercat is – it was pretty clear from the outset that 2018 was going to be a memorable outing. And we weren’t wrong, yet what made Womadelaide 2018 so memorable wasn’t so much the above musicians, or even some of the unexpected musical surprises, rather it was feathers.
They were everywhere; coating Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens a peculiar speckled white, like a snowstorm that was slowly melting across the four days and nights that the festival encompasses.
The feathers descended from a nightly performance by French ensemble Gratte Ciel who offered a bizarre and beautiful aerial ballet, high up over the main stage, from cranes with connecting wires. Their performance “Place Des Anges” (Place of Angels) was a magical death defying mix of wonder and slapstick as they flew across the sky hurling feathers on confused patrons below.
I just want to be clear: You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a rain of feathers descending upon you from 100 odd metres.
And the effect on the audience was remarkable, adults became children, and children lost their minds. It was a truly grand amazing spectacle that despite lasting a mere 20 odd minutes per night managed to extend itself into every square inch of the park. And later you’d be watching a band such as the Eastern European rock and roll excess of Gogol Bordello, dancing on a soft fluffy pure white layer of duck feathers. Odd.
Last year we were charmed and seduced by the highly theatrical Manganiyar Classroom, which was ostensibly a reworking of Footloose set in a Rajasthan classroom. This year they left the children at home, with The Manganiyar Seduction setting up 43 musicians in a giant light box that would light up when each of them would perform. It looked like a cross between a tacky UK game show and a dolls house, with the performers hidden behind curtains, only exposing themselves to play. Whilst the music was remarkable with its mixture of percussion, traditional stringed instruments, and a ridiculous number of vocalists, the visual component provided a remarkable context to the work and assisted us to work with them towards the inevitable climax. I went back again the second night. And bought the DVD.
The highlight of the Friday night was without doubt UK dub producer Adrian Sherwood’s epic one and a half hour set, performing under the Botanical Garden’s resident bats he unleashed versions, dubplates and rare mixes from Lee Perry, Horace Andy, Sherwood and Pinch and Congo Natty. ‘Chase The Devil’ was a highlight, but to be honest in a set that moved beyond the outer reaches of dub into drum and bass and strange electronics, it all blurred into one soupy loping ‘pinch yourself that you’re there’ mix. Everyone went crazy. He could’ve kept going for hours.
Earlier on in the night, and on a much gentler note Iraqi oud player and composer Rahim Alhaj brought his trio, comprising of Iranian santour maestro Sourena Sefati and Palestinian-American percussionist Issa Malluf to the same stage as Sherwood. The interplay was quite remarkable, particularly between the oud and santour. Alhaj, possessed with a devilish charm, confessed that the trio was previously a quartet he formed after George Bush’s infamous ‘axis of evil’ comments. Unfortunately it seemed that the North Korean performer had gotten away. We happened upon Alhaj wondering around in Womadelaide the next day (when he wasn’t scheduled to play) and he spoke to us excitedly about the festival, about the importance of being an activist, though also of being tortured by Saddam for his activist work and being forced into exile in the US where he couldn’t even speak the language. Then he gave us each a hug. I love this man.
Similarly gentle and inspiring were Senegalese kora player Ablaye Cissoko performing with Montreal based Constantinople, comprised of Iranian Kiya Tabassian on the setar (three stringed lute), Canadian Pierre Yves Martel on the viola de gamba, and fellow Canadian percussionist Patrick Graham. With two stringed instruments this could have been a messy culture clash, yet the fusion between the kora and the setar was seamless – at times it was difficult to know which instrument was doing what. This was the key, they really felt egoless, and the joy at performing together was palpable. Cissoko’s vocals in particular were startling, so sweet, so gentle, so powerful. Truly a remarkable collaboration and a real highlight of the festival.
From the faux Russian choir of Dustyesky singing drinking songs (and the Soviet National anthem) to Noura Mint Seymali’s Mauritanian desert blues complete with drum kit, to the traditional tarab music of Zanzibar’s Rajab Suleiman & Kithara, after a few days things became slightly schizophrenic. You’d have just immersed yourself in one culture and tradition before you’d be thrust headlong into another – it was overwhelming and it became difficult to cope. Yet these issues could easily be overcome by genius. Whoever programmed West Coast jazz upstart Kamasi Washington directly after Tinariwen deserves a promotion. They could barely be more disparate. Yet somehow it all made sense.
Tinariwen are of course legends, veterans of the desert blues. Tuareg musicians from Northern Mali, their music with its delicate web like riffs is pure hypnosis, almost free of dynamic shifts that you commonly experience with electric guitar music. Their sounds drifted across the gardens, soothing all who encountered them. I’ve seen Tinariwen three times now and the experience just keep getting better.
And then immediately onto the main stage for Kamasi Washington’s only appearance. Kamasi toured Australia a few years ago on the back of the appropriately titled Epic – his three LP debut, and his show demonstrated not only the remarkable talents of himself and his band mates, but also the stylistic diversity of their approach. Beginning with a noisy near Pharaoh Sanders atonal blowing out of cobwebs, his ensemble moved from soul jazz to funk, and ended with some kind of weird funky 70’s Herbie Hancock space electro piece courtesy of his synthesist Brandon Coleman. He even brought out his Dad on clarinet. He played “Truth” off last year’s gorgeous EP Harmony of Difference, remarking “you’re about to hear five different melodies layered on top of each other as a metaphor that difference can be beautiful,” and of course it was. If you don’t know Kamasi find him.
Anoushka Shankar’s decision to eschew tabla, relying instead on kit and those metallic tuned hand drums that you always see buskers playing was really interesting, and as an artist who’s always been interested in furthering where and how the sitar can interact with modern music, her performance was astounding. Having previously seen her accompanying her father a few years ago in a more traditional role, it was great to bring her back with her own ensemble.
Jake Savona’s massive undertaking Havana meets Kingston fused members of the Buena Vista Social Club with Sly and Robbie, was created primarily because Savona realised how close Cuba and Jamaica are. Aside from a few straight up reggae songs and Cuban jazz, it was when the fusions occurred that the true magic happened. If you put this on paper it’s ridiculous, yet somehow they managed to find space within each other’s traditions and the effect was disorientating and beautiful. This music was breaking down barriers, fusing countries and traditions. It doesn’t get much better than this.
And then the biggest wtf? moment, which came courtesy of Thundercat. Seriously what is he? As we wandered past his music was impossibly lame, heartfelt odes to nothing that would descend into these amazing jazz fusion freaklouts that were simply jaw dropping, it was Boyz 2 Men meets the Jan Hammer Group. It was repulsion then attraction and it was so confusing. “Who likes video games,” he announced. “No one? I like video games.” “There’s no way this guy has a girlfriend,” offered the person next to me. Midway through the next song he announced “Ladies and gentlemen Michael McDonald!” Yet the Doobie Brothers singer and keyboardist did not appear, though apparently he does play on Thundercat’s last album Drunk. “Who bought Drunk,” asked Thundercat at one point. “It’s a pretty fucked up album right?” And chuckled to himself. Thundercat scares me. I think I’m gonna buy his album.
And that was Womadelaide for 2018. I’m missing so much, the sights, the smells, the tastes, particularly the apple and pomegranate cider – which truly deserves its own review. But there was so much happening in so many different directions all you could do was chart your own course and hope for the best. This is my story. There are countless others. See you next year.
Photos by Carla Martins.