Over the years its become increasingly apparent that Womadelaide is not just a music festival, it’s a cultural exchange of sounds, ideas, even food. For many of us it goes beyond mere teaching into something almost soul cleansing. So when your feet hit the grass of Adelaide’s gorgeous botanical gardens there’s an immediate sense of relief. After a couple of years of COVID affected programming, in 2023 the big names like Florence and The Machine, Sampa The Great, Bon Iver and Billy Bragg returned, drawing the biggest crowds ever. We tried to avoid them all – particularly the crowds.
We began gently on the Zoo stage with a solo performance from Australian based Chinese artist Mindy Meng Wang, with her mostly improvised work on Guzheng (ancient 21 string Chinese harp). In recent times she’s collaborated with Melbourne electronic producer Tim Shiel (who she performed with on the Morton Bay Stage on Monday) and pianist Paul Grabowski. Her 2021 solo album Phoenix Rising (Music in Exile/Heavy Machinery Records) was a fascinating and forward thinking exploration of the potential of the Guzheng, and live she didn’t disappoint, her use of loops and pedals pushing the instrument in new and exciting directions.
Returning this year were magical French high wire artists Gratte Ciel, whose nightly performance of Place des Anges, was truly a spellbinding and bombastic experience, where death defying zip line acrobatics ended in an ecstatic rain of feathers. It’s truly an astounding performance, where their bizarre feats above the Foundation Stage elicited a childlike sense of joy and wonder for those below. Rinse and repeat nightly, culminating in a finale which involved dive bombing, parachutes and enough feathers to blanket the park.
Late on Friday night beneath shrieking bats on the infamous Stage 7, UK’s Jyoty, a Rinse FM DJ, sent a bizarre and beautiful concoction of bass heavy neo soul mashed with hardcore dancehall into the night. Dancing exuberantly and mouthing the lyrics to the tunes, her truly unique amalgamation of sounds felt like we were heading in two directions at once. We’d never heard anything like it. Somehow the Eurythmics ‘Sweet Dreams’ became an epic pummelling bass stomp with Cuban breakdowns. The beats were ludicrous; the harmonies smooth and lush, the toasting frenetic. Is disco dancehall a thing? It was a set that highlighted the power and potential of the DJ – and we danced our asses off in appreciation before stumbling away into the night.
We began Saturday with the sublime Indian classical music of maestros Pandit Ronu Majumdar and Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh, a gorgeous collaboration between flute, saraswathi veena, and percussion (Arjun Kumar), again on stage 7, with the restlessly vocal bats squawking overhead. You have to wonder what they made of all of this. Majumdar even imitated the bats with his flute – the environment now influencing their improvised musical decisions.
Speaking of the traditional, Pakistani brothers Rizwan and Muazzam are nephews of the late great Qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and they have continued in the great man’s footsteps. Qawwali music is a world unto itself, with the players all crammed tightly together onto a small podium with two harmoniums, percussion, hand claps and a myriad of vocal combinations. It’s Islamic devotional singing, Sufi music of high drama and tension with performers often overwhelmed by a personal form of ecstatic bliss. The beauty and intensity was readily apparent late on Saturday nightly where the ensemble called out to the heavens for an appreciative seated crowd, the depth and control of their vocal pyrotechnics a particular highlight.
Our pick of the festival happened by chance, a hasty decision to stop in as we wandered past the Taste Of The World tent (where performers actually cook dishes for the audience) resulted in an unexpected encounter with Columbian ensemble Ondatrópica. As we arrived they launched into a couple of impromptu songs, and suddenly we knew what life was like around their kitchen table. It was sparse tropical communal music that it felt like they’d been singing for centuries, with the singer actually turning the fish between verses. We’d missed their performance on the mammoth Foundation Stage the day prior, yet were rewarded with something significantly more intimate yet no less powerful. These chance encounters, these moments of insight and opportunity provide a window into another world. And that’s what Womadelaide is all about.
Yet Womadelaide is also a beautiful struggle. Aside from the marathon three and a half days and nights, this year the audience numbers on the Friday and Saturday were pretty challenging, making not just movement considerably more difficult, but also access to food and amenities – something we’ve never experienced before. Thankfully things eased up on Sunday and Monday, which if anything reminded us how lucky we’ve been over the years compared to most other festivals.
Yet there are other challenges too – usually self imposed. With 8 stages there’s something quite discombobulating about spending 50 odd minutes in one culture, before moving to another stage and minutes later finding yourself on the other side of the world. It can be jarring. It’s exciting and fascinating, but it can take a little while for your brain to catch up. But its also more than that, there’s an ever present tension between innovation and tradition, between formula and colouring outside the lines, between homage and pastiche, between adding some crowd pleasing glitz and staying true to yourself. These are decisions all the artists ponder, and the different avenues they elect to pursue is endlessly fascinating – and at times even inspired.
Few exemplify these conundrums better than Moroccan/ French psychedelic Gnawa rock band Bab L’Bluz. We attended their workshop on Sunday afternoon, which saw them highlighting the music from some of the various ethnic traditions in Morocco, from the Berbers to the Gnawa’s. Yet despite Moroccan born Yousra Mansour’s Darija vocals and prodigious awicha talents, as well as the presence of the quintessential Gnawa instrument the guembri, they were not born into this tradition. Where they do come from was probably best demonstrated when French guembri player Brice Bottin launched into ‘traditional Australian music’ – AC/DC to a rapturous audience. In an incendiary Monday evening performance they demonstrated the power of this fusion, long drawn out jams, pummelling drums, earnest vocals. It was as urgent, primal and transformative as great rock music can be; yet its roots were very much steeped in tradition. A real highlight.
It’s a similar model for Niger guitarist Mdou Moctar, (who we last saw in the UK in 2014), merging his Tuareg traditions with a love of western rock music. His performance to a mesmerised Stage 7 audience on Saturday night owed as much to Neil Young and psychedelic rock as the traditions from his home in Agadez. As he closed his eyes, smiled, leant back and shredded his elongated guitar solos we were just swept away by these incredible sounds, though also by the unmistakable expression of pure joy etched across his face. He’s living the dream, and that feeling is what music was invented for.
Like Tarabeat x MzRizk’s mash of classic and contemporary Arabic music with the qanun (Arabic harp) paired with electronic sequences, the funky afro jazz grooves of UK’s Kokoroko, or Kefaya and Elaha Soroor’s slightly bonkers amalgamation of prog rock and Afghan folk songs, we witnessed a real desire to utilise traditions as a springboard for the new.
Then there were those who took things to a whole new level. Stumbling across South African artist Nakhane during sound check, we were immediately spellbound by their incredible guitar sound and the notion of a guitar, percussion duo. Despite a reliance on pre recorded backing vocals and instrumentation, their set was one of the breakout performances of the festival, thanks to the cheeky stage banter and delicate soulful vocals that would then evolve into these remarkable quasi-electronic jams. It was hard to know what this was. Neo soul? Post synth pop? Not quite knowing turned out to be fine however, the strength of their performance, transcended any anxiety stemming from that unsettling place where the vaguely familiar butts up against the totally unknown. In fact this struggle is what made their show so great.
Later any struggles or lack of balance were removed via the warmth and deep healing spirituality of Tibetan artist Yungchen Lhamo. It’s difficult to think of a performer with so much love and care for her audience as she sang her delicate ornamental music and attempted to heal us between songs. “Visualise flowers or people that you love in your life,” she offered. “Flowers, water, whatever you need to heal yourself, because you can heal yourself.” It was part teaching, part healing, part guided meditation and it was truly revitalising – a musical equivalent of a firm hug that just holds you until you’re okay again.
We ended our Womadelaide at Galmae, or ‘c’est pas là, c’est par là / it’s not that way, it’s this way’, a peculiar string experiment/performance from Korean/French artist Juhyung Lee, in which random audience members attempted to unravel a series of interlocking strings, before they were finally all collected in balls, dowsed in a flammable liquid and set alight.
It felt like the perfect metaphor for Womadelaide 2023; How the diverse paths we took over the last four days brought us right here right now together in this moment. For the 50 or so people staring into the flames our journey probably couldn’t have been more different. Yet regardless of where we went, who we saw or what we did, we all participated in this rich cultural and musical exchange, navigated the challenges and frustrations that festivals bring, adapted and found our way. Yet like the string participants we can’t take any of this with us. So as we left Womadelaide for another year, to the endlessly raining feathers of Gratte Ciel, all we had was what had grown inside us over the last three and a half days and nights. Luckily it’s more than enough to nourish us for another 12 months.
Photos Carla Martins