WOMAD 2016

Originally published at http://www.grooveradio.blogspot.co.nz/2016/03/womad-2016-another-successful-weekend.html


Photo: Trevor Villers http://www.villers.co.nz/

Event organisers announced during the opening of this year’s festival that they’ve just signed a deal with WOMAD UK for Taranaki to remain the home of the New Zealand leg of the festival. Taranaki Arts Festival Trust chief executive Suzanne Porter said she was very happy with the deal and planning was already underway. Tickets this year came in only a few short of a sell-out (12,000 + 3000 free children), although with volunteers, vendors and crew this number swells to about 17,000. Still, it was their third best WOMAD, so far. With an older crowd, many returning, and calendar threats from the Auckland Festival and the new Auckland City Limits Festival there’s a number of challenges but Porter was confident that Taranaki’s special brand of WOMAD, a family friendly-all ages gig, was a unique and the prime reason why audience loyalty is still so high. On the ground, the numbers felt a little smaller, especially on the Sunday, but this could have been due to the fantastic weather. All three days hit the mid 20’s so many gig-goers probably opted for a swim or a walk on New Plymouth’s fantastic boardwalk before heading to the festival site. Speaking of weather, Thursday’s torrential rain nearly killed off the whole weekend but as luck would have it the clouds vaporised and held back right up to the end of Sunday.

As always, the show was run with clockwork precision. A few backstage grumblings came from the stage crew, many who are return volunteers. Their standards were so high that even the tiniest issue unnerves them. Getting it perfect was very important. All onsite staff were helpful and friendly, right down to the recycle team who assist punters to dispose of their rubbish in the right mains. There must have been a competition to customise their team tees.  Many had slashed, cut and remodelled them into new fashion items, vastly improving their usual androgyny.

Camping, motor homes, glamping are all part of the experience, too. The adjacent racecourse holds at least half of the ticket holders.  Waking up with the vista of Mt Taranaki peeking through the canvas opening is a truly magical experience, especially on WOMAD mornings.

The 12th WOMAD officially Kicked off with a speech from Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry and welcome from kapa haka group Te Kapa Haka O Te Whanau A Apanui on the TSB Bowl Stage whilst Mali quartet Songhoy Blues got the party up and going on the Shell Gables stage.

Once again, Event Director Chris Herlihy and Co-Artistic Director Emere Wano’s mix of international and local acts covered the bases well, catering for the younger and the older ages and I was reminded by Posdnuos (De La Soul) that many of these groups have inter-generational fan bases (the hip hop act’s been going since 1987). To me this year’s local fare looked unremarkable and once again I was proved wrong. Tami Neilson was an exceptional show woman, only eclipsed by the D.A.I.S.Y age-ists in the Saturday night slot. But it was the individual and joint performances of Louis Baker and Thomas Oliver, who later teamed up with Warren Maxwell for a “Pass The Gat” session that proved the most nourishing with a sweet mix of harmonies and laid back soul. On the surface you could ask what the ethnic or cultural connection was to WOMAD but looking deeper this Auckland and New Zealand Festival show is really a roots reminder of the campfire ritual that all Kiwis hold dear.
Internationally, the big hitters were St Germain (France) and De La Soul (USA) who both brought classy live bands to flesh out their usual samples and beats. For St Germain, his French African ensemble added additional layers to favourite tunes from ‘Tourist’ and the recently released self-titled albums. The Senegalese musicians were particularly cleverly wove Kora and horns into funky sampling and deep, repetitive grooves -nothing too challenging but satisfying to get down to. For De La Soul, it was on Posdnuos and Dave representing – Maseo was held back in the States due to his son’s legal troubles – but despite a late start the crew found their rhythm and rocked the house show and style; cutting in and out of rhythms and jams with ease and aplomb; name checking rap milestones like Run DMC and Aerosmith and their own ground-breaker Three Feet High And Rising. Sadly, no time on the turntables. ‘Jennifer’ and others were reworked as ‘De La Lounge’ with their very capable show band.

The party continued with Palestinians 47 Soul, who mix conscious grooves and middle Eastern horns with digi-tracks, proved they were the showmen extraordinaire, whipping the crowd to a revolutionary frenzy before dive bombing them with Gaza Helicopter patrols and electro hard core. In cultural contrast Israeli actress Esta Rada showed us a great soul show, drawing deeply on American acts like Nina Simone (“See Line Woman”) for inspiration. She was also a class act and a magnificent voice. The most surprising act was Mongolian blues duo Telegur. Their stilted, stage geeky banter was surprisingly funny and warm-hearted. With a simple guitar and box drum set up they play with astonishing energy and charisma. Anyone who’s familiar with Robert Plant’s recent desert blues projects will identify with their sound.

A common trend at WOMAD is the inclusion of crowd pleasers like Katchafire and Bic Runga, who pulled in good crowds, but delivered pretty mainstream sets. I do wonder how much they compromise the integrity of a ‘World/ethnic programme’.
Backstage, Bic and new baby were very happy to be there, though.  She described her first WOMAD stage experience as “magical”, and was very impressed with the artist’s care and the festival atmosphere. That was a common theme amongst many of the bands I talked to, including nu-folkies Spiro, who’d been to the artist Powhiri the day before and were keen to learn more Maori language and culture and the Talegur were totally basking in the festival love – especially during the CD signings.

One of the go-to bands this time was Inuit North Canadian folk rockers The Jerry Cans who got the crowd on their feet with their unique, but accessible blend of traditional and Celtic contemporary music. Later they hosted throat singing workshops and made a caribou stew in Jax Hamilton’s “Taste The World Tent”. I can vouch that it was deeee-licious!

During day two I had a chance to talk to French composer Carlos Roble Arenas, who trades as Orange Blossom. His band recruited a wide range of ethnicities from Northern and Southern Africa to produce his crazy, border less mash. drawing a massive audience at the Shell Gables Stage.
If there was a regret it was missing Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha, by whom reports told me were stunning.  I did finally mange to catch South Korean group 숨 [su:m] who made sweet, delicate, almost trippy music from a bizarre collection of traditional instruments, including a multi trumpeted horn pipe. Sean Kuti and Egypt 80 should have been a highlight but didn’t really fire this time. Also returning Arizona’s Calexico had a great presence but the fresh shine was a bit buffed this time.

One thing really missing from the festival was Nick Bollinger’s Artists in conversation, which allow the audience to get deeper with the world artists in particular. This was universally missed by everyone I talked to. On the other side the talking book, people who shared life experiences, proved very popular and getting into a session was a real challenge. Over all, WOMAD has a brilliant formula. It doesn’t change but it does work. The music element is still the biggest draw card with performance art and dance components completely absent these days. That’s a pity and it would be great to see their return. That said, performers like John Grant, who sold a totally brilliant performance on Sunday night to all new comers and sceptics, shows what the power of music can really do to bring us all together. It’s a festival for the open minded, the family, the friendly and the explorer. As one punter said, “If everyone lived and thought like a WOMAD crowd war, racism, and bigotry would never exist.

Why can’t the world be WOMAD?”

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