WOMAD New Zealand is famous for bringing together artists from all over the globe for a vibrant showcase of the world’s many forms of music, arts, and dance. This year’s festival went ahead in the face of even greater adversity. Over three days Ngāmotu’s stunning Brooklands Park and the TSB Bowl of Brooklands was, once again, transformed into a village of colour, energy and inclusion.
Driving up to WOMAD this year was a strange experience. The memories of listening to the Christchurch shootings, which had occurred on the same weekend, this time last year, were still quite raw. Police around the country were on high alert just in case there was any flicker of trouble. Then the news came through that Pacifica festival was the latest in an ever-increasing line up of festivals to be cancelled due to the dreaded Covid-19 outbreak. We had to seriously wonder if WOMAD 2020 was actually going to make it over the start line.
Taranaki Arts Festival Suzanne Porter, for the second time in two years, had to front the media on the hard questions. Last year she had to justify continuing WOMAD hours after this nation’s largest mass terror attack. This year, she was trying to put a virus outbreak into perspective. She announced in the media that 51,000 people would be attending WOMAD, plus onsite crew, staff, etc. Quoting the Prime Minister, Jacinda Adern, on Thursday night she said “[She] has publicly announced she does not want Kiwis to be concerned or to avoid public gatherings needlessly, as the risk of community outbreak is low.” Amazing what can happen in 24 hours.
As I stood on the side of the Brooklands Bowl stage watching the opening I looked out at a vastly empty park. You had to ask – where were all the people? Had there been a last minute cancellation?
The festival started with local boy, Hon. Andrew Little and officials acknowledging the events of last year and reminding everyone that WOMAD is a festival of unity, diversity and fun. Despite all the chaos in the outside world, this was a safe space to escape and enjoy all the positivity the world can offer, he said – so long as you make sure to wash your hands! “horoia ō ringaringa”!
And then, like every year, the window of gloom shut and the good times started to roll. It didn’t take long for Belgium’s bogan brass act KermesZ à l’Est to inject a much needed shot of humour and craziness into the day. Dressed like Spinal Tap impersonators with ripped denim, black leather and god-awful mullets they smashed out a set of brilliantly anarchic Balkan party songs. The stage was littered with stuffed animals and abused, gore-ridded doll parts. Their humour was brash, anarchic and physical. Initially the audience were confused – should they fist pump or dance? Eventually, they did both. Best moments – attacking a trombone with a bike pump and a solo on some bongos mounted on an old Victoria pram. Their first show saw plenty leave, bewildered but the second outing later in the weekend had a completely full house. Word had got around.
The party continued over on the Gables stage with Reb Fountain doing a selection from her most recent album and a stripped back version of her latest single. Those who haven’t seen her before were making comparisons between Patti Smith and Stevie Nicks. Reb just gets stronger every time I see her. Her delivery of material ‘Hope and Hopefulness’, ‘The Arrangement’ was particularly spellbinding.
Speaking of magic, another uber-talented Kiwi, Troy Kingi appeared later on the same stage for the first of his two shows over the weekend. Dressed in a wide brimmed hat and velvet cloak, he appeared like some 70’s spiritual leader singing sweet soul tunes from his new album ‘Holy Colony Burning Acres’. Apparently the ‘bishop cloak’ was made by the costume designer from his first film ‘Mt Zion’. Kingi’s voice is truly angelic, his material was a mix of d’Angelo and classic Maori reggae like Herbs. His cheeky, playful attitude, and his costumes, reminded me of Taika Waititi. Backed by a 9 piece band Troy was making the most of his time on the WOMAD stage, schmoozing the congregation from the front right back to those in the raised special seating.
Also blasting away on the night was Ghana’s exuberant King Ayisoba and band producing raw repetitive rhythms. His whole band were driving the percussion at one point or another including the King with his own two-stringed kologo, which he played more like a drum than a bo-didley. If you don’t believe the Blues has truly African origins, take a moment to check out King Ayisoba to have those thoughts well and truly changed.
I also made sure I caught Welsh harpist Catrin Finch playing alongside kora Seckou Keita from Senegal. Playing on the tiny Dell stage, surrounded by gentle native bush, a lake of lily pads and a warm summer breeze, it’s the ideal setting. Their music swirled around like smoke in the air, and was truly ethereal and mesmerising. Ever since I chatted with Seckou and interviewed him for Ambient Light I’ve been entranced by their album ‘Soar’, dedicated to the Osprey that migrate between Wales and Senegal. They were definitely a very special highlight. Later I got to meet them and they were even more charming. Seckou’s smile was the talk of the town all weekend.
I also caught Aussies Hiatus Kaiyote jamming up a storm on the Bowl Stage with a heady soup mix of soul, funk, fusion hip hop and electronica. Every festival needs one of these all-genre party acts and these guys were it. They put out a huge infectious dance groove just made for gettin’ on down – No wonder Kendrick Lamar likes to sample them.
The heroes of the night had to be the Cathedral City’s own Shapeshifter. The connection between Christchurch and WOMAD wasn’t lost on anyone but their real heroic deed was stepping in at the 11th hour when Ziggy Marley pulled out. They blasted through their usual festival set which features a massive line-up of greatest hits and a few newer tunes, like the single ‘Break Me Down’, destined for their latest release (due in a month or two). Paora ‘P Digsss’ Apera was in his element bouncing around the stage and whipping up everyone young and old. You’d have thought that D’n’B would have been a bit of a challenge for the mainly older crowd, and families, but no one was leaving just yet.
As expected the ‘Shapies’ got an extra half hour and they used it well, finally finishing with the mighty awesomeness that is ‘Colours’. Lights , lasers and a huge back screen of colour and imaged erupted across the famous amphitheatre flooding it with sound and light. The energy of the stage was white hot and the kids in the front rows were loving it. Even the elders perched on the perimeters with their matching Kathmandu polar fleeces and hiking sticks were soaking up the vibes and wiggling their shoulders in time with the beats.
Day two at WOMAD awoke to a stunning sunrise. Mount Taranaki pushed through a thin layer of clouds and into a deep indigo blue sky. While it was still chilly in the campsite, that was not to last. The dew was already evaporating on the canvas. Once again the New Plymouth Racecourse was an expansive sea of tents and campervans of every size and type.
We heard more from the outside that additional measures were in place for all travelers coming into New Zealand to self-isolate for two weeks and counted our lucky stars that this decision had come but one day too late to stop this Festival. Gigs from other overseas acts like My Chemical Romance and The Deftones had already dissolved in the chaos. Was it only a matter of time that everything else would be cancelled?
One cynical gent in the camp suggested that Andrew Little, who is from New Plymouth, had engineered the timing of the announcement so that WOMAD was already underway when it hit. We all wondered if seeing L.A.B and Shapeshifter this weekend was the last chance. Would Wellington’s ‘Homegrown’ gig be cancelled? And we already know the answer to that one.
Meanwhile inside the bubble the party continued. The fabulous UK jazz innovators Ezra Collective mixed up a crazy brew of Afrobeats, Latin, Hip Hop and even Grime in their live set. Their sound has a distinctive London underground edge to it, reminding me of recent Jazz Festival tourists The Rocket is Coming. I saw both their sets over the weekend and have already downloaded everything they released on Spotify.
At the media centre I had the opportunity to meet the wonderful Flor de Toloache. This is an all female Mariachi band, with a twist. They gave us an enchanting collection of modern and ancient classics, including ‘Quisiera’ (their ‘duet’ with John Legend) and covers as diverse as Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ and Led Zep’s ‘Kashmir’ which they mixed up with traditional horns, guitar and acoustic bass. There was plenty of audience participation with everyone encouraged to laugh and cry in time with the music in a swelling cacophony of joy. These ladies were definitely the charmers of the festival.
Standing in for Korean percussionist Kim So Ra, who had pull out due to Covid-19 restrictions, was upcoming Aussie pop queen Odette. With just keys and a drummer she brought an intimate coffee-house feeling to the big Gables stage. Her material was a mix of poetry and catchy commercial tunes, delivered with a youthful sparkle. People who saw Estère a few years back may draw comparisons. Her lines are ironic, razor sharp and occasionally flirty. Mixed with clever little earworms this is an artist to watch in the coming days.
Over on the Kunming Stage the Book Club was getting started. The temperature was humming at a very comfortable 24 degrees and the botanic gin from the bar was nicely chilled. Apparently there were a few gin slushies. There were bean bags spread out across the lawn, inviting one and all to take a load off and settle down on the lush green grass. Don’t mind if I do.
First up was the book for the festival, Chessy Henry’s ‘We Can Make A life’, which she discussed in length, recounting her experiences living in a broken home following the Chistchurch earthquakes. Penny Ashton led another of her wonderful Poetry Slam’s – a poet’s competition peppered with her own sparkling wit during the continuity sections.
I also caught some of Shayne Carter speaking very candidly about the process of writing ‘Dead People I’ve Known’, his dry-witted autobiography about his early dark days growing up in the deep South and all the black, white and finally colour that led to him becoming a musician.
On Sunday another musician, this time Mike Chunn (of APRA and Split Enz Fame) also talked about how his upbringing and genealogy contributed to a lifelong struggle with agoraphobia (fear of crowds) and music.
During a few moments of downtime, I sat in of a gig or two from Rura, a popular, multi-award-winning ensemble at the forefront of 21st Century Scottish folk music. They brought it all, traditional instruments, violins, pipes, bodhran and, yes, bagpipes. It was a full on Highland Fling! Ten years of gigging showed them as a tight and sumptuous outfit. They had no trouble getting the people up and dancing with wild abandon. Their stirring, euphoric energy reminded me of bands like Bellowhead. Sure they tick the UK/Celt box, but they did it super-well.
On the Bowl Stage L.A.B were stoked to be here. And so was the crowd, who filled up every nook and cranny to see them. Their huge sound and familiar reggae tinged tunes were just what the doctor ordered. They pulled a blinder, delivering tracks from al three albums but particularly L.A.B.III. With every song the cheers got louder so by the time they closed with the Kiwi No.1 hit ‘In The Air’ the roar from the audience was deafening.
Sadly other commitments meant I missed Laura Marling. All accounts told me her solo set was powerful, clever and, at times, intoxicating. Her two long, intricate personal tunes were magnificent (shame no one knew what they were called). Desperate punters at the WoStore were sadly turned away after discovering there were none of her CD’s available – everyone wanted a souvenir to take home and discover her music more in-depth.
The big headline of the night brought back the crowds and they didn’t disappoint. The Blind Boys Of Alabama have been in action since the 1940’s and with a few line-up changes showed no signed of slowing down any time soon. There’s not much that you can say that hasn’t been said – multi award winners, leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s, and entertainers to 3 presidents, they’ve done it all. Tonight we got a glimpse of their class. Jimmy Carter, the oldest member of the group was keen to show he was still as young as he felt, telling beguiling anecdotes and blasting out the tunes with full force and gusto.
They pulled out a huge bag of favourites. Sometimes standing and sometimes sitting their performance was surely a standout. Fantastic harmonies like sweet oak-aged Tennessee whiskey engulfed every song – ‘Down In The Hole’, ‘Walk With Jesus’, 1982 hit ‘I’m a Soldier In The Army Of The Lord’, Marc Cohen’s ‘Walking in Memphis’, ‘There is a Light’ (originally a collaboration with Ben Harper) and, of course, the spine tingling version ‘Amazing Grace’, performed to a very deep soul interpretation of ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’. The boys were dressed immaculately in glittering jackets, and backed by a stunning band they totally brought the house down.
In complete contrast, Finnish all female quartet Tuuletar were also surprising. Mixing a fierce energy of art and worldly harmonies, inspired by a multitude of cultures with live beatboxing they were both enchanting and cautionary. Early songs were dark and disturbing. Tribal and anarchic, bordering on Death Metal, at least in attitude. Then a move to bring in traditional Finnish folk songs with an almost Celtic purpose. Later, the harmonies became sweeter, almost saccharine. Their messages were always intense warnings about what humans are doing to each other and why there is a need for more unity and aroha in the world.
On the Gables stage up and coming DJ Montell2099 brought out a whole kete of old favourites, referencing Fat Boy Slim, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and many more. The crowd literally went nuts partying hard til’ closing time.
For those that don’t like the ‘Doof’, Jose ‘Pepito’ Gomez led his Orquesta Akokán through a glorious set of tunes from old Havana. Over the years we’ve seen plenty of Cuban bands including The Buena Vista Social Club, so I wasn’t paying too much attention. That’s not to say that they didn’t have appeal. There were plenty up and dancing the night away.
And so to the last day. A chilly night, getting down to about 7 degrees. Some wet dew on the canvas but another spectacular sunrise. No clouds to be found and at least 25 plus on the barometer by lunchtime.
Sunday’s program began with a moments silence for those lives destroyed on Friday March 15 2019. During the festival a Cloak of Peace was created out of messages of wellbeing, which will be presented to Christchurch at a later date.
As always, Sunday was the day to catch up on acts missed and take part in workshops or see speakers at the World of Words and The Steam Lab. The latter was a new event – a short series of speakers covering social eco-related topics including Daniel Burmester, who lives in a tiny house ‘off the grid’, Dr Shayne Gooch, who studies sustainable buildings for earthquake events and Ian Welch, who talked about online voting scenarios.
Music was everywhere on the final day. I caught the tail end of folkies Albi & The Wolves who were whipping up the peeps at the Dell stage and made a note to check out their playlists. Albino Chris Dent dressed in his pure white suit cut a ghostly but imposing figure but was totally upstaged by the completely mental fiddle playing of Pascal Roggen. Later, they crashed the Taste World Kitchen with a hilarious session of tall tales, song and banter. Roggen did all the cooking, played violin and told stories all at the same time. He was hilarious.
On the Bowl stage Hot Potato Band gave the early afternoon crowd a huge shot of funk. These guys wowed Coastella two years ago with their hyper energetic brass band bursts, and a punchy blend of catchy music, and an arsenal of original songs inspired by pop, funk, ska and reggae. Sporting not one but three drummers and an all brass line up they made band camp cool again. Everyone was up and groovin’.
One of the great things about this festival is the ability to surprise. There’s been plenty of the familiar. However, nothing prepared me for Minyo Crusaders who do an astonishing take on Japanese folk (known as Min’yō) which they ‘channel’ through Latin, African and Caribbean elements. Their music references historical tales of the working class. They sing in a traditional style but use a ten piece orchestra to smash out reggae, cumbia and Afro-rhythms. It was truly bizarre and very cool at the same time – the band is transforming what’s considered to be ‘high brow art’ into a catchy, danceable art form.
Soaked Oats brought Orientation to the Gables stage with a shimmering set of Velvet Underground/Lou Reed influenced blissed out sludge pop. They rattled through a good set of favs including ‘Stoned Fruit’, ‘I’m a Peach’, ‘Primus’ and ‘Aficionado Avocado’. Building their confidence song on song, singer/guitarist Oscar Mein starts doing his reluctant rock star thing leaping across the front of stage speakers and encouraging the whole band to getter closer to the crowd. During Cherry Brother he adopts various accents and charms the pants off the front row who all giggle, embarrassingly like three little maids from school. Clearly, this a band to watch as they build, carb on carb and become even more robust.
Soaked Oats also were at the Taste the World stage to make a pie but most of their cooking time was taken up with witty dry banter, in jokes and Science questions. Even the audience joined in. There were plenty of student flat gags and geek jests.
At a festival there’s always a few that fit the template. Like Destyn Maloya (from Réunion Island). They performed a dynamic selection of Maloyan dance music, referencing old slavery songs that hark right back to French Colonial rule. Those familiar with New Orleans artists like Dr John easily recognised the tunes as Maloya culture has strong links to Creole, ska, samba and Afrobeat. On RI Destyn Maloya have been a popular band for over 20 years partly due to their pounding percussion and passionate harmonies which they use to celebrate and reconnect with their ancestors. Most of that washed over the audience however. But any drummers in the audience were certainly sitting up and taking notice.
The Black Quartet (known for their work with Paul McLaney and shows at the Pop Up Globe at Ellerslie) performed an excellent selection with Mali’s Trio Da Kali. These guys are a supergroup in the Mande culture, coming from a long line of distinguished griots (hereditary musicians). Taking their name from an iconic praise song in the griot repertoire. Their name ‘dakali’, by the way, means ‘to swear an oath’. In 2017 they collaborated with the Kronos Quartet. Some of that musc was played with the Black Quartet today, with sumptuous vocals, the wonderful bass ngoni grooves and the xylophone like percussion of the balafon created a beautiful and chilled hour of classical music to go with the dying embers of the afternoon’s heat.
In the early evening I found time to see two more acts. One was Marina Sattir & Fońes. Considered an inspiration to many young people in their homeland of Greece, Marina Satti mixes theatre, design and songs from many cultures into her show. Her track ‘Mantissabecame’ which she did today is an anthem of hope for the youth of her country, after their economic crisis of 2017. She was backed by an all-female polyphonic vocal group (the Fonέs), dressed in matching satin white blouses and fawn pants. They looked and sounded like a Euro-state funded version of the Spice Girls. Their oddly doll-stiff, jerky dance moves, sugar sweet pop tunes seemed better suited for a Cruise Liner cabaret than a world music festival. This was supposed to be the future of Euro youth music, but it came off more like a Helenic interpretation of K-pop.
The last act I went to was Ifriqiyya Electrique (Maghreb/Europe), They were brutal. The group use a drum machine and backing track that would take on The Sisters Of Mercy’s Dr Avalanche any day. Standing in a straight line across the stage, this four piece has two guitarists and two singers who also play what look like oversized iron castanets. But this is no simple village folk. This is a harsh, pounding industrial strength fusion of rhythms and invocations from ancient Saharan Bangas rituals and an electrical storm of contemporary sonics. Their performance was intense, and heavy. It could be likened to Laibach, Ministry, Killing Joke or even Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. But that doesn’t even come close. The energy on the Ifriqiyya Electrique stage was so strong it could power a small hamlet, and simultaneously raze it to the ground. Blood red lighting, chugging bass lines, hypnotic chants and mantra percussion create an immense wall of sound that crashes over you. It was both cathartic and frightening in equal measures.
There were many acts I just didn’t have time to see but that’s the way with these festivals. I was after the ones who had the power to surprise and delight. My all time highlights were Sekou Keita and Catrin Finch; Tuuletar and local lads L.A.B but everyone had their own special choices. That’s what makes this programme so great.
WOMAD Taranaki is in its 16th year and gets better every year. Tickets sell out, campsites fill up and New Plymouth and the whole of Taranaki benefit. There were several hundred volunteers and crew onside everyday from the roadies to organisers to sponsors to security guards to those helping with the sustainable rubbish collection. We need to thank each and everyone for their long hours of work and planning and commitment.
If the order for overseas visitors to self isolate had occurred a week or even a day earlier, then this would never have happened. A lot of musicians joked that they could well be stranded in New Zealand as their home borders closed, and that it could be worse. After all this part of the country is pretty idyllic right now.
As we look forward with some trepidation on future gigs we really don’t know what will happen. This could be the last large festival for sometime and that’s really sad. WOMAD Taranaki is unique. It’s an all inclusive festival that welcomes young and old, diversity, wisdom, skill talent and aroha. It’s family friendly. People come back year upon year. It’s a tradition and a ritual worth preserving. And even though we as a country are facing some really big challenges right now, I’m confident we can bounce back and somehow carry on. Because, as festivals like this prove unquestionably, music and dance is what we need to nourish the soul, and we always will.
As an after note, it was announced on Monday that all gatherings over 500 are to be cancelled. How will musicians make their money? This question is yet to be answered. For now, you need to go out and buy vinyl or CDs while you still can. Show the love. Support them and keep the royalties flowing.
Originally appeared at: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/womad-new-plymouth-nz-2020/