NEW MUSIC. Notes from WOMADelaide

I was at WOMADelaide last weekend, interviewing a few artists for upcoming episodes of Fat Planet.  Over 500 different acts – featuring musicians from 30 countries – were represented at the festival, delivering sounds from disparate places such as Ghana, Syria, Cameroon, Iceland and China.

Read on for a review of the festival –  I’ll also be playing a few highlights on this week’s Fat Planet program, Wednesday 8pm AEST.

Photo: Jojo Abot at WOMADelaide

WOMADelaide is as ambitious and spectacular as ever in 2018

WOMADelaide is, without doubt, the most culturally diverse festival in Australia.

Over 500 different acts – featuring musicians from 30 countries – were represented last weekend. They played to crowds of over 20,000 each day and delivered sounds from disparate places such as Ghana, Syria, Cameroon, Iceland and China.

The WOMADelaide experience is one of constant discovery. Marquee headliners are largely set aside for an impeccably curated lineup of musicians at the top of their craft, many of them unknown to the audience on arrival.

For every Thievery Corporation (Monday’s multi-million selling headliners), there’s a duo like My Bubba; an Icelandic Swedish combo whose beguiling acoustic lullabies contrast with deliciously dark lyrics about barbecues, cocaine and knitting.

And just as The Avalanches prep for their main stage appearance, Israeli artist Victoria Hanna takes to a stage tucked into the far corner of the park, delivering a breathtaking performance, rhyming ancient Hebrew texts over upfront electronics.

A diverse bill naturally attracts a diverse variety of ages; boomers are as much in abundance as the kid-carrying X-ers and curious Gen Ys. The crowd is therefore much more laid back than most other festival audiences; indeed, many bring their own chairs.

The overall tone of the festival is one of community and congeniality, and it is so resolutely family friendly, that there is a dedicated kid zone that includes dinosaurs, art installations and performances from Justine Clarke.

That said, the crowd are no less vociferous in their appreciation, and when artists such as gypsy punks Gogol Bordello and Chilean dance band Chico Trujillo reach the apex of their sets, any differences disappear altogether.

One of the most remarkable examples of brazen crowd adulation is reserved for Kamasi Washington, whose arrival is greeted with the kind of fervour that you wouldn’t normally associate with an avant-garde jazz artist.

His collaboration with Kendrick Lamar may have earned him thousands of column inches, but on the WOMADelaide field, the hype melts away in the face of a sensational set, punctured by epic sax freak-outs, cosmic analogue synth journeys and a guest appearance from Kamasi’s dad.

Tinariwen‘s early evening set was a textbook example of ‘right place, right time’. As the sun started to set across Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, the Saharan band eased into their signature sound – ‘assouf‘ – their re-imagining of a West African sound that had no small influence on what we know as American blues.

Despite having a repertoire born of protest and rebellion, it’s neither an angry nor agitated set. Rather, Tinariwen transmit a clear sense of aching and loss, and the crowd respond with empathy and compassion.

Ghanian artist Jojo Abot was another standout, her minimal R&B electronics cutting straight through the overall roots vibe of the weekend. She drew a roar of appreciation when she welcomed indigenous performers to the stage for a smoking ceremony, prefacing a set that was underlined with exhortations to check our privilege and move beyond racial and cultural bias.

But the hottest ticket, causing bottlenecks into the performance zone every night, was the late evening presentation of The Manganiyar Seduction. It saw 43 musicians from the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, stacked in four rows of curtained boxes, and resembling something akin to a human advent calendar.

Each player was gradually revealed in sync with the music – devotional singers, kamancha violinists, and others on psychedelic mouth harp and booming drums.

It was everything that WOMADelaide is about – an ambitious and spectacular experience that challenges your perceptions of what music can be.