This review was first published at www.grooveguide.co.nz
Photos by Tim Gruar
Before you read this you have to know that this is a very personal perspective, because experiencing this particular festival is and should be a very individual experience. There’s virtually no way you can take in every event, every artist on offer over the 3 day weekend – but you can try!
Friday night had a very strong line up and it paid off in spades. Vieux Farka Touré gave us solid, dependable desert blues and Tajikistan’s Alev family provided some more real world colour. But then the magic really came, when South African Afro-jazz legend Hugh Masekela and his incredibly tight’n’funky big band took the stage. With dark continental grooves and multi-syncopated rhythms plus his very larger than life personality it was a special show. The man’s a legend for a reason and it was clear to see why. By mid-evening the main Bowl stage was alight and blazing!
By absolute contrast Northern Scots Lau proved to be the most innovative folkies I’ve ever seen. In the first of two stunning appearances these three Guy Garvey impersonators managed to squeeze out some very original and moving tunes armed only with a violin, accordion and guitar. It was clear from audience reaction that their dark ironic observations and gale force energy was hitting home (best served with a Monteith’s Black Beer, by the way). Later, during their set I managed to sneak back stage to watch Fly My Pretties, which was a hearty, satisfying snapshot of several earlier shows, featuring, notably, the return of Adi Dick. His honey soul voice has been sorely missed of late and it was great to see him back.
Events on Saturday until Midday, so I had the perfect opportunity to look around New Plymouth. I have to say this little town has come to life. The waterfront boardwalk and a visit to the Govett Brewster Gallery are compulsory, but there’s heaps more. I can’t wait for the new Len Lye wing to be completed. The essentials for any festival goer has to be a decent supermarket and great coffee. The town has both, plus an awesome little viny junkies paradise in the main street and a brilliant Len Lye wind-wand on the shore.
Come show time there was only one act to see. Female vocal group Ayarkhaan are leaders in the growing revival and preservation of traditional music from Yakutia, the largest province of north-east Siberia. These three elaborately decorated women are masters of the glottal ensemble style (a sort of throat singing) with the khomus (Jew’s harp), that legend says was made by gods and possess a magical voice. Indeed it did. The stories they wove were other worldly, esoteric, equine and epic – Nothing short of remarkable. There were two choirs on offer this weekend. The first was the Soweto Gospel Choir, who put in a solid performance of tingling harmonies and warm positive vibes.
On the opposite stage the Correspondents mashed up swing music and house beats. The quietly clinical DJ Chuck was completely outflanked by the manic dancing of Mr Bruce: a chaotic reincarnation of a Public School Harry Potter in a matador’s jacket. Although more club directed, they utterly, hilariously entertaining. An speaking of that, Cajun revivalist Anne Savoy and her family band were clearly big favourites. They were all over the festival, performing several times, bringing smiles to everyone and even zipping up a wicked gumbo in the Taste the World tent with Master chef’s Jax Hamilton.
Japan’s Shunsuke Kimura and Etsuro Ono, showed they are powerful innovators of the tsugaru-shamisen (an ancient Japanese banjo). Originating from northern Japan, they take this elegant form of traditional music into a contemporary space giving it dynamic rhythms, almost as some kind of jazz improvisation. Very different, challenging and original.
Also on the bill was World Music star Goran Bregovic and his Weddings & Funerals Orchestra. The Yugoslav bandleader’s a legend on the WOMAD circuit, clocking up over 30 albums and has a reputation as being a bit of a brute on the scene. But despite all that his brand of rowdy ommmpah bang-ching-clash-whine just seemed a bit of a letdown. It all missed personality and spark. Perhaps it was jetlag, or maybe he was having an off day.
Jamming it large Electric Wire Hustle rolled out Mara TK’s whole family plus a clumsy appearance from Wellington musician Sam Manzanza, to finish the night off.
Sunday answer the prayers of the rain dancers bring the heavy black to this drought stricken farming community but it didn’t dampen any spirits or significantly dismiss any gate numbers. I’d guess the Sunday nearly matched the 15K ticket stubs of the previous day. For the final day I made a point of exploring some of the other offerings such as Nick Bollinger’s Artists in Conversation. Although headliners Jimmy Cliff chose to stay holed up in his hotel to show time Norwegian rebel Mari Boine, whose sings in joik, the traditional music of her native Sámi people. She told us of her early life in Gámehisnjárga, a village in Norway’s far north, and how she grew up among the strict Laestadian Christian movement discriminating against her people by declaring that singing in the joik style was the devil’s work.
But there was a moment of sunshine in the rain as a small girl danced without inhibition to Marie’s final drum song t which closed her session just as the hot rhythms of Brooklyn’s Antibalas drifted over from the main stage. At WOMAD you can get a tattoo from a traditional Maori artist, so long as you don’t mind everyone watching or you can contribute to the Govett Brewster Gallery’s driftnet Taniwha, which was a feature of the kid’s parade later in the day. Other little treats over the weekend included a human library where you can ‘issue’ a person for a half hour to learn about their life experiences. For the kids, Fraser Hooper brought his improvised Victorian Boxy tournament in to coerce his spectators into a spot of comedy violence with outrageous results.
Sunday’s weather managed to settle for an outing by Flying Nun legend Dave Kilgour, his young grungers The Heavy Eights, Sam Hunt and an appearance from legendary guitarist Billy TK, who’d also popped on Saturday night, supporting his son Mara in his Electric Wire Hustle set. I think Kilgour had intentionally mistuned his instruments for effect and with Hunt’s poetry they produced best bedsit rock’n’read moments of the weekend. It’d be great if these guys recorded something, I’d definitely order it!
Another visit back stage at the bowl stage was entertaining as I was roped into an impromptu lesson by a member Salsa stars LA-33. Later, on the Gables stage local hero and NZ’s Got Talent star Mihirangi launched her debut album of vocal loop alchemy to A rapturous reception. It’s been 12 years in the making she told me later. Well, done then, worth the effort!
Aaron Tokona’s ‘jam band’ Ahori Buzz cheekily rocked out the Sunday night crowd with some pretty loose home-grown psychedelica, which didn’t always hit the mark. Tolkona likes to impersonate ‘Boy’ era Taika Waititi but the off colour remarks between songs might have also been a bit crass, given it was a family show. And it was interesting to see Catabrian soul diva and FMP’s LA Mitchell joining the ranks. Still, the kids moshed in the pit, whilst the olds held their fingers to their ears and wiggled their tooshies. In the corner, a gypsy girl danced with a hula hoop and little boy jumped in rhythm on the spot shouting “ Oh man, coooool!” However the coolest, most extreme and nostalgic moment came with the pairing up of the National Maori Choir with Joe Lindsay’s Ska cheese makers The Yoots who just nailed their performance of classic waita. Despite having had only one two hour rehearsal they carried off the day. When Ake Ake (Maori Battalion song) was played there wasn’t a dry eye, nor a bone less wigged in the joint. It was one of those special festival moments. You had to be there!
A poignant final to the weekend came later when Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff midway through his highly professional 80’s nostalgia set, belted out the sunniest version of “I Can See Clearly Now’ (the rain has gone) during the day’s heaviest downpour. Fresh from winning a Grammy for ‘Best Reggae Album’ last month he was pure class. I’ve never really given him much of a look, being too main stream for my tastes but I have to acknowledge he’s pretty good at what he does.
While the Bowl stage was closed down Novalina and the Correspondents (who do it better in the dark, by the way) took the show home elsewhere, before Tenzin Choegyal and the Tibeten Monks closed the festival with a moving ceremony and the destruction of their three day constructed sand mandala.
Yet again this was three of the best days spent in the ‘Naki, So, when do tickets go on sale for next year? Sign me up!