Before beginning, I would like to pay tribute to the fifty souls who were brutally cut down by an act of pure hatred on Friday afternoon in Christchurch, 15 March 2019.
Our hearts reach out to their friends, family, and community. The events unfolded at pace as we listened in complete shock, on the radio, driving to New Plymouth. Immediately all the frustrations of traffic delays caused by summer road works dissolved away and were replaced by shock and fear. Only an hour before, we were listening to the bright hopeful voices school students protesting and calling for awareness to climate change on the steps of Parliament. And that should have been the salient theme of this year’s WOMAD festival. But it never came close.
This was my 7th consecutive WOMAD, a celebrations of world music, arts, culture and above all, diversity. This was the place where people from everywhere come together to learn and share in the best everything the world can offer. Normally, there is a heightened buzz about the place. People arrived and it was business as usual but there was an unspoken cloud hovering.
It all started with the canvas city that amasses on the racecourse adjacent to the Bowl of Brooklands, in New Plymouth. This year the campsite had completely sold out, with thousands of tents, camper vans and Winnebago’s also jostling for the best position. Usually, there are loud voices, people playing cricket, drinking wine, flags flying and the aromas of exotic food wafting about. But, understandably, the site was subdued with everyone checking phones and speaking in hushed tones.
WOMAD was meant to start with the Prime Minister opening, but events down South had overtaken this. Then I heard from my Radio NZ colleagues that Kim Hill’s Saturday Morning live cross was cancelled. Comedian Jeremy Elwood also told me that his live cross to ‘The Project’ was also cancelled. Other media events were rescheduled. I mention all this because this year’s WOMAD was promising to be the largest and greatest celebration to date, with unprecedented ticket sales, despite there being no household named headliners. Punters were investing in the reputation the experience of past events alone.
The security presence was amped up, too. Police numbers were more obvious, with sidearms and there were security crews dressed ominously in military black with high vis-vests. This felt very unnatural, given their usual invisibility. WOMAD is one of the places you can go where security is usually very low. The biggest presence of emergency crew is St John’s Ambulance, who usually attend to grazes, heat exhaustion and the occasional hot flush. With a predominance of families, over 65’s and teenagers, this was not the kind of place for panic or alarm: everyone felt safe – usually.
But, as the say, the show must go on. Minister Andrew Little, standing in for the Prime Minister opened the festival and called for a celebration of life and cultural inclusion. Just then it didn’t feel right. We all stood wondering what to do. Here we were in this beautiful place about to party hard but we were lost, hurting, shocked, confused and maybe even feeling guilty to be here.
But in the end the show went on. Artists features were Angelique Kidjo, Amjad Ali Khan, The Black Seeds, Congress of Animals, Finn Andrews, Nadia Reid, and many others.
Photos by Tim Gruar and McKenzie Jennings-Gruar