It’s difficult to put into words the outpouring of joy that we felt walking into Adelaide’s Botanical Gardens after a two year absence. Whilst COVD restrictions had somewhat dampened what would no doubt have been some pretty grand plans to celebrate Womadelaide’s 30th year anniversary, it was simply good enough to be back, to feel the grass under our feet, gaze up at those enormous Morton Bay Figs and spend the next four days chasing ourselves down all manner of wild and wonderful musical rabbit holes.
So what do you do when your best laid plans are thwarted by a pandemic? If you’re Womadelaide you go Aussie, with big names like Paul Kelly, Courtney Barnett, The Cat Empire – even Goanna (and guests), who popped up to possibly cover Scott Morrison’s ‘April Sun in Cuba.’
More interesting though was the focus on Indigenous artists, across numerous styles, with the likes of Emma Donovan & The Putbacks, AB Orginal, Baker Boy, Dhungala Baarka, King Stringray, and Kutcha Edwards all performing. As a result the name Kumanjayi Walker, was ever present throughout the festival, mentioned repeatedly by artists, as the news came through that the Darwin police officer on trial for his murder had been acquitted. It’s a raw wound, and sitting with this sadness was both powerful and heartbreaking, demonstrating how far we still have to go in this country.
But Womadelaide is a world festival, so the organisers also took advantage of our increasingly multicultural society. It became a running joke – everyone seemed to be from Melbourne.
Our Womadelaide began with Egyptian born Australia based oud maestro Joseph Tawadros and his brother James with an epic performance with the 52 piece Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. It was simply astounding. This is how you start a festival. It was dynamic, yet also at times quite subtle as the oud led some incredible movements, pairing particularly well with the brass.
Next up were Springtime, a super group of Jim White (Dirty Three), Chris Abrahams (The Necks) and Gareth Liddiard (The Drones/ Tropical Fuck Storm). Guitar, vocals, piano and drums. Their sound was really worlds colliding and it was fascinating, raucous and violent, and at turns surprisingly tender. While it took us some time to warm to the rock and roll vocals, the trio’s elongated instrumental parts that seemed partly improvised were nothing short of sublime. A few days later we were sitting eating calamari with a family who’s kids felt it was time to go home. “It was just noise,” said the 12 year old, referring to the Springtime show he had no doubt been dragged to. “They’re a pretty new band,” offered his mother, “they obviously haven’t had much time to practice yet.”
Sydney’s Eishan Ensemble also incorporate improvisation but are the polar opposite, offering tightly controlled classical Persian music, led by the tar (an Iranian string instrument), though also incorporating double bass, saxophone and percussion. There is something incredibly stately about their music you can imagine it being performed in a royal court – though sitting on the grass in front of the Adelaide zoo with their music intermingling with the cries of the monkeys and birds felt pretty right too.
We started Saturday with a workshop with Adelaide’s own Farhan Shah & Sufi Oz, because if there is one thing that Womadelaide has taught us, its that you need to see the Qawali singers every chance you get. Breaking the music down piece by piece was incredible and the joy on the players faces as they performed made it impossible not to participate. Their show the next day complete with guitar, drum kit, santoor, violin, harmonium and tabla whilst reminiscent of some of the great Qawali acts that we’ve seen at the festival before, felt like something new, blending cultures and traditions in new and fascinating ways.
Next up were 9 piece Melbourne based West African ensemble Ausecuma Beats, who feature not one but two kora’s! Their music was life affirming upbeat party music and it was a great opportunity to get a boogie on. We particularly loved the sax player from Sunshine who seemed to think he was scoring a 90’s erotic thriller (think Angel Heart) – and it worked.
Though they were visually striking with peculiar masks, Melbourne trio Glass Beams were all about spacey instrumentals, mining psychedelia, and exotic sounding post rock, that melded seamlessly with the squawking bats on stage 7. Dance North’s percussion based piece was particularly striking with the dancers all in red, while El Gran Mono were a Columbian sound system offering a chance to boogie to some pretty incredible cumbia selections every night at 10pm.
The highlight of the festival this year was the Australian Art Orchestra. An experimental ensemble made up of trumpeter/composer Peter Knight, David Yipininy Wilfred on yidaki (didgeridoo) Aviva Endean on clarinet, Yolngu songman Daniel Wilfred and Korean jazz vocalist Sunny Kim, it was a beautiful collision of culture and style. Daniel Wilfred has the most amazing and powerful voice we’d ever heard, and when he would sing alongside Sunny Kim it was quite spectacular. There was a piece which had Kim and David Wilfred flapping their arms and imitating birds and it was nothing short of transcendent. Later there was a rumbling bottom end bass clarinet and yidaki duo. It was incredible. Everything they did was tasteful, beautiful, heartfelt and like nothing else you’ve ever heard. We went back again two days later and they blew our minds again. Incredible.
Is there anyone as infectiously optimistic as Gordon Koang, born in South Sudan, now residing in Melbourne? He plays the thom, a four stringed, guitar-like instrument. His music is like medicine. It cleanses the soul. Lying back on the hill behind stage 3 under the shade of the mammoth pines as the heat simmered and scalded around us, his joy and energy reached out through his music and it was impossible to wipe the smiles from our faces – or on those around us.
After catching Springtime on the opening day we were keen to see, Asteriod Ekosystem, which featured another Necks member Lloyd Swanton (bass), alongside Alister Spence on piano, Toby Hall (drums) and Ed Kuepper (guitar). The recipe seemed remarkably similar to Springtime, yet the execution was very different. Entirely instrumental, their pieces came from improvisations that were recorded, edited and put on their album, and the quartet subsequently learnt these ‘songs’. It was both terrifying and beautiful, a place where rock and jazz intersected and then hurtled out of control, becoming something new. We weren’t entirely sure what this was – perhaps we needed to find the kid from the calamari table to explain it.
It’s impossible not to be drawn in to the fire, spirit and authenticity of Barkaa’s raw brand of hip hop. A Malyangapa, Barkindji woman from Western NSW, she said that she had no idea that tunes she created in her bedroom could resonate so much – particularly with this crowd who were rapturous, with a group of about 15 people at the front all wearing her t-shirt – which actually overwhelmed her. “Stop it, you’re making me cry on stage,” she laughed, “I’m supposed to be in show mode.” With an incredibly distinctive voice, she was powerful and proud with a remarkable flow that embraced and celebrated her gender and culture. She was authentic and felt like the future. The crowd went nuts.
Next up it was a mad dash to the opposite end of the park, but also a psychological journey too, going from fiery Indigenous hip hop from an up and comer, to chilled out Brazilian funk from legends Azymuth and Marcus Valle. What followed was about an hour and a half masterclass of smooth funky jazzy bossa and samba. It was sexy, soulful and so very funky. Nothing short of sublime – particularly getting to experience ‘So Nice (Summer Samba)’ from the man himself.
We ended Womadelaide 2022 with the bats, and a Floating Points DJ set that continued the Brazilian theme before diving headlong into some pretty hard funk. As we walked home, the beats, tunes and messages still ringing in our ears, it was hard not to reflect on what a remarkable, rich and diverse country we live in. With so much focus on the negative and what divides us, festivals like Womadelaide are more important than ever. We need safe places to celebrate culture to learn from each other and participate in meaningful exchanges that make us all better – for the next 30 years and beyond.