It was at the media call (where TV can film some performances to appear on the nightly news) on Friday morning that the seeds were sown. “I’m very very excited to be here,” deadpanned the least excited lead singer you’ve ever seen. The band were Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC), an ensemble born out of community workshops in South Africa, comprising just electric bass, (a lot of) percussion and voice. Yet over the next few minutes they unleashed their unique high energy afro psychedelic spiritual beat music, which saw him explode, screeching and throwing himself around stage like a lunatic, channelling Fela Kuti channelling James Brown.
Finally he decided the band were too loud and made them quieten down and finally stop so he could address the schoolchildren seated at the front. “You are the future,” he proclaimed, “I am so happy to see you here, you are not only the future of Australia but the future of the world.” He then turned to some of the indigenous artists from the Central Australian Aboriginal Choir and talked to them of their shared struggle and implored them not to give up. “To be continued,” he warned as organisers almost had to wrench the mic from his hands.
His ability to go from 0 – 1000 is unparalleled, though so too is the relentless positivism of the bands message. Over the next three days we experienced two high energy performances and a workshop from one of the most exciting ensembles around, where their mix of Zulu, Sotho, and English and in particular the singer’s proselytising was spellbinding. “No one should be poor, not you, not the other ones,” he finished the workshop on Monday morning, after confiding that he’d tried to keep things chilled for as long as possible – and failed. “Can you dig it?” He screeched passionately into the mic. BCUC out. Welcome to Womadelaide.
Womadelaide, nestled in Adelaide’s Botanical gardens is something special. A festival where shoes are optional, and if it all becomes too much, you can always have a snooze under an enormous Morten Bay Fig. It’s an immersive experience, 4 days and nights of cutting edge musical performance across 7 stages, from a myriad of traditions, alongside theatre, cooking demonstrations, talks and some great food. It’s a collision of cultures and it’s intoxicating.
This year it began with a unique collaboration, Indian sarod master Amjad Ali Khan, his two sons and tabla player, with the Adelaide symphony orchestra Samaagam. The symphonic sarod and tabla interplay was curious and at times quite beautiful, but it felt a little restrained – like neither party were free to fly. The following day Ali Khan reconvened with his trio, minus the orchestra in the late afternoon sun, just before the golden hour in front of seated stage 2, and it was a majestic performance of Indian classical music, with soaring sarod call and response between the family.
Earlier in the day we saw one of the more unusual trios, Australian duo Dangerous song, who combined the human voice with the sounds of endangered animals played and looped through midi woodwind, and Bukhu, who played the Mongolian horse haired fiddle and indulged in a spot of throat singing. They each cheerfully introduced their unique approaches with the now Sydney based Bukhu stating that he plays in another group with a didgeridoo player, but it’s not a problem if the player doesn’t show up, because… as he created the closest approximation to the didgeridoo with the human voice you’ve ever heard. Their performance was such an odd and interesting amalgamation of approaches, coming across as an almost new age Phillip Glass style minimalism with a steady pulse courtesy of the woodwind midi instrument, periodically punctuated by Bukhu’s remarkable overtone singing or the cry of an endangered bird. A real highlight.
Alina Bzhezhinska Quartet was another unexpected delight, a jazz harpist, she dedicated her performance to Alice Coltrane, playing classic tunes, though substituting Coltrane’s organ for sax and harp on the hard biting spiritual funk of ‘Los Callabos’. Whilst she also played John Coltrane’s ‘After the Rain’ and a few of her own compositions, she ended with Alice Coltrane’s epic ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ and it was monumental. There is something about having a piece you never expected to hear live brought back to life. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face all day. Thank you Alina.
Across the world the harp comes in many forms and the kora, or West African harp is no stranger to Womadelaide. This year though was the first time it was played by a woman. Coming from a griot family, Ghanaian artist Sonja Jobarteh is a force of nature. Whilst her two performances with her band were joyous musical celebrations, it was a low-key performance late on the final evening in the Taste of the World Tent that held us captivated. With gentle rhythmic guitar case percussion, acoustic guitar, and Sonja forced to sit because the lead wasn’t long enough, she played a beautiful subdued love song that highlighted both the beauty of her instrument and her voice. It was hair stand up on the back of your neck stuff. Later whilst cooking some chicken, she told us that she not only built the kora she plays, but developed a new instrument, (a cross between a ngoni and kora) for a new film score in her quest to create a sound for the African continent that wasn’t specific to any tradition. She’s also self financed a musical and educative academy for children. Her quest she said was “social development and empowerment in Gambia.”
Probably an outlier in the line-up, Estonian electronic folk duo Maarja Nuut & Ruum, offered a more contemporary approach to sound, with electronic textures, violin and vocal loops. Early on Sunday afternoon we caught Maarja Nuut’s workshop where she explained her approach to live looping, though also the MAX MSP patch that had been developed to assist Ruum’s sequences to adapt to her loops and not fall out of sync. When they performed together on the Zoo stage on late Monday afternoon, their bleak fairytales, dreamy vocals and swathes of pulsing electrics created these beguiling textured soundscapes that were equally mesmerising and haunting.
Not too many Moroccans make it to Womadelaide, so when they do it’s best to pay attention. Hamid El Ksari is the master of guembri, a three-stringed bass lute found mostly in Gnawa, the North African music of former slaves. Alongside four metal castanet players, he approached the instrument like a bass, plucking out these incredible deep grooves and singing (often call and response). The key development is the addition of a drum kit, which provided additional punch, particularly on the larger Stage Two. Like most at Womadelaide they played up to the crowd, getting some audience participation, though as you dutifully began clapping along you quickly realised that the rhythm differed depending upon which castanet wielding clapper you followed – highlighting the polyrhythm’s at play. I watched all their performances and even managed to catch a sound check, alone under the bats at the Novatech stage. Gnawa trance: believe it.
From the shimmering instrumental desert psychedlia of Houston’s Khruangbin, to one of the world’s great diva’s Angélique Kidjo covering and Africanising the Talking Heads ‘Remain in Light’ album, to the glossy Malian pop of Fatoumata Diawara, there was something for everyone. Every now and then you’d just find yourself mesmerised at say Mehdi Haddab’s incredible rock and roll influenced oud playing in Duoud, then later witness the oud being used in more traditional cultural means in Yohai Cohen’s Moroccan Andalusian quintet. It was all about possibilities. You’d wander into a set and then become immersed, falling into their traditions and ways of seeing the world before wandering a little to the right and abruptly find yourself halfway across the world.
We ended Womadelaide, spellbound by the fire art and tango of French outfit Compagnie Bilbobasso’s “Amor”, where a couple wordlessly danced around a flaming lounge room, arguing with each other and shooting fireworks into the air. Nothing can prepare you for the spectacle, absurdity, humour and sheer inventiveness of this show. After all who doesn’t want to play with fire?
Womadelaide is not just about entertainment. It is about engagement. It is about an openness and the cross pollination of ideas. It provokes, soothes, seduces and at times even mystifies. But it’s also an education. And I for one hope to be educated for many years to come.
photos by Carla Martins. Amjad Ali Khan photo by Thanasi Bakatsoulas. Text by Bob Baker Fish and Adam Skinner.