WOMADelaide – World of Music and Dance Adelaide, for the uninitiated – has only recently turned into an annual event; and what a turnout, even compared to the huge crowds that flocked to Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens last year. As me and my uncle (he played Annie Liebovitz to my Hunter S. on this intrepid adventure) picked up our press passes on the opening night we overheard a couple complaining that they couldn’t buy a weekend pass. They’d driven all the way from Canberra, they said, and were flabbergasted that the weekend passes – not the more expensive daily passes, mind you – were sold out. Which serves to show that the people of Adelaide aren’t slow: they know a hot ticket when it’s selling. And that Canberra really is the cultural backwater of state capital cities, and deserves to be the butt of more jokes.

WOMADelaide has a laid-back family environment, as opposed to all the headlining summer festivals these days that are sponsored by sugar-caffeine-complex energy drinks – and they wonder why the kids go crazy. On that note, I should apologise that some acts aren’t represented in this review; I was probably digging into a curry, having a nap in the shade of a Moreton Bay fig tree, or else being held hostage by a well-dressed troupe of hippy children fluttering around the festival with their butterfly painted faces – no doubt exploiting the do-good-feel-good vibe and robbing strangers of their organic candy.

FRIDAY

The festival was opened by the self-deprecating Mahotella Queens, who have collected colour with age: not least their co-ordinated costume capes of bright orange, blue and red and rambunctious music and dance steps.

At this early juncture I should point out that WOMAD likes to see itself as part of a political forum. Many of the acts, such as the aforementioned South African female trio, have stories of political oppression and motivation in their music.
The protest fervour hit fever pitch when Blue King Brown took to the stage; an exponent of everything that a WOMADelaide crowds love: hand-clapping, dancing, and sing-along songs focused on empowerment. The Friday set, and the mirrored performance on Sunday, had a little trouble reproducing the urgency of their bombastic protest chorus release of 2006, ‘Stand Up’. The keys occasionally scrambled some songs, but when the bass and drum kit came in heavy and deep, with flourishes from on ensemble percussion, order was restored.

Although there were more recognisable names on the list this year, one of the chief delights of WOMAD is rocking up and discovering – listen to the hippy vernacular coming out – something new. This is world music after all. Lunasa were my find: intricate traditional Celtic music on fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, with bass and guitar accompaniment. The speed and precision of the playing, even on the laments, was phenomenal. At one stage I turned to my uncle to replicate how fast the fiddler was fiddling the strings, quickly realising that my fingers – in comparison – were like limp hot dogs wobbling in the breeze. The mandatory Irish jig of the festival was done early in the piece, which, due to over-crowding at the prime dancing positions all weekend, would turn out to be my only chance.

Gotan Project graced the stage, all in white-chic couture, seeming almost austere. A rarity at WOMADelaide: a group that doesn’t encourage hand-clapping and party fun-time sing-along. And genuinely appreciated; my hands were already red raw, and my nerves slightly jangled by the off-beat rhythms of some patrons. An amalgamation of old world instruments such as the bandoneon and violin with a club [beat] sound, Gotan Project was refreshing, but somewhat limited by their techno-tango ambitions. Singer Cristina Vilallonga delivered a sultry, but not powerfully sexy performance that one expects in the tango. And apart from a few spotlight solos the violin trio shanked their bows across the strings to syncopate with DJ (come conductor) Phillipe Cohen-Solal. The video installation was impressive, even if the lighting design became repetitive and seemed only to serve the purpose of foiling the plans of photographers. When two emcees were projected, then became apart of one the songs mid-set, I was initially impressed, but on reflection knew why the pre-recorded verbal battle had a blunt edge. The bass, it must be noted, was so deep that the speakers never fully recovered, emitting a slight buzz during quieter sections all weekend.

Femi Kuti and the Positive Force, however, were live and thrusting. Three – count them: one, two, three – African go-go dancers straddled the speakers in skimpy outfits, shaking their ghetto booty with more lovely-jubbly than Jamie Oliver could ever manage. As the sun went down, the six strong horn-section warmed up the chill evening. Femi Kuti was feeling the positive force: either getting some ritualistic high from the cumulative effect of the scene, or else controlled by some voodoo spirit imploring him to dance convulsively. When he took his shirt off and dowsed his chest with water I can’t be certain; it was a natural progression of all the madness.

By this stage of the evening I knew the weekend was going to be a long haul and almost considered skipping Shivkumar Sharma & Rahul Sharma: 100 minutes of meditative discourse on the 100 string Indian folk instrument, the santoor. We were encouraged to sit down by the father and son duo; the former had a big white afro, the latter a mane of shiny dark brown hair. Upon sitting down I realised it would be quite difficult to get up, meaning I would sit through 100 minutes of continual crescendos, followed by a two second pause. When this first occurred at the 40 minute mark people clapped thinking the performance was over. But on they went. When the crowd number had dwindled, the performance, building up to a faux finale, actually ceased. I felt nourished, awake even, despite the fact that it was 1:30AM in the morning; 22 hours after I had woken up in Melbourne the previous morning.

SATURDAY

It was a slow start and slow afternoon of music appreciation.

Performing the songs of a well-toured first album, WOMAD was the swansong for Lior‘s 2005 release, ‘Autumn’s Flow’. Of most interest now is the follow-up second album: songs such as ‘Sleeping in the Rain’ and ‘Sitting with a Stranger’ – workshopped during Lior’s rigorous touring schedule – hold plenty of promise, keeping the live acoustic-pop sensibilities of previous recordings.

After being disappointed that San Lazaro was LABJACD with a slightly re-jigged line-up and the same Cuban/hip-hop/jazz rhythms, I was hoping that Fat Freddy’s Drop would be something more… well, more. I don’t know; something to shake me out of the doldrums. The soulful deep-dub was good, but what caught my attention was the trombone player in the horn section. He wore a salmon coloured polo-shirt stretched across his beer gut, tight white football shorts that kept his thrusts in check, all complimented by typical dark shades and a brimmed “jazz” hat. He didn’t so much dance as stomp his feet and let the rest of his body jiggle. And he was the only visibly excited member in the band, and, it should be noted, members of the crowd got excited – one of the few times – when he peeled off the polo-shirt to finish the set in his sweat-stained singlet.

I must admit I’d never heard of drum virtuoso, neigh, genius, Bill Cobham, before seeing his name in the program guide. All my muso friends proceeded to educate me in vague terms mirroring the methods of teaching four year-olds about the theory of relativity: “trust me, it’s important”. I passed up the The Waifs for the one-off performance, and thanks-be that I did. The sharply dressed man who sat down at a drum-kit ensemble you usually see reserved for a heavy metal drummer wore a head-band to stop the sweat dripping off his clean-shaven scalp into his eyes. And then he played – for the complete hour – without a break. If I could explain what this man does on the drums I would be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature: delicate, guttural, manic, and spare would be just some of the words included in this unachievable masterwork. My muso friends were so spun out they had to head to Spliff City to settle the experience in their memory. And maybe, sadly, the performance warrants a cliché: once in a life-time experience.

SUNDAY

I woke with dust in my joints and a fresh layer of skin across the bridge of my nose to be burnt. The problem with three day festivals is that they’re three days long: you always go too hard at some stage, re-gather your thoughts at the first-aid tent, but never quite sort them out by the time you have to celebrate the long-awaited final night.

It was the first time I had seen The Waifs live, Apparently, Donna had forgotten most of the words to ‘London, Still’ on Saturday night. I’m a fan of The Waifs, but I’m still trying to forget that song. They didn’t play ‘Crazy Train’ even though vocal audience members, who no doubt owned live recordings, requested it at more than one juncture. Seeing them live confirmed what I long suspected: guitarist Josh Cunningham is the cream on the cake of the Simpson sister’s skills as songwriters, not to mention his own. Donna, of course, forgot some of the words to ‘London, Still’ again. Nobody minded; The Waifs are a charismatic live act that can please even when the grasp of their own material slips. Kev Carmody joined the group on-stage as they covered his song ‘From Little Things (Big Things Grow)’. The crowd sang the dulcet tones of the chorus, and in reasonable tune; and though I suspect I have long since been diagnosed a cynic, I had goose pimples. There is a calm presence – hippy talk translation: calm = strange and magical – that comes over you when a large group of people sing together.

Major Disappointment: the All-Star Jam was all percussion mixed with some “pocket” bass lines and Tuvan throat singing. There was more Ben Walsh bravado than Billy Cobham skill on display – which would I prefer?

And I mustn’t forget Augie March, who seemed confused, even more than Clare Bowditch did last year, as to how they had pulled a gig at WOMAD. Even after catching a live set, I’m still to be convinced – I was one of those to audibly groaned when ‘Crowded Hour’ polled number one in JJJ’s Hottest 100 – and will withhold my opinion here, only mentioning that they will have to get used to teenage girls screaming for the aforementioned song when they play gigs outside of their normal pub environment.

When the sun went down on the final night the doof was turned up. Everyone seemed slightly confused. Most of the “younger generation” dancing along to the pop-doof hadn’t paid for their tickets, and bore scrapes from climbing the fence. After standing on my feet all weekend, suffering heat-stroke, and craning my neck to get a glimpse of the stage from the very back of the huge crowds, I was ready to skip scientific testing when the Mad Professor waited until the song stopped completely to mention that his CD was for sale at the – wait for it – CD tent. Even if the Mad Professor could’ve provided cosy transitions in the early part of his set I was already in transit from festival, to pub, to bed.

Wrap my hands together so I can’t clap, ice my feet, pour me a warm cup of water with honey and lemon, and get me on a plane back home.

WOMADelaide was, as always, too much to see and love and absorb in too little amount of time. They could add an extra day on to the long weekend, but they might suffer bliss-out overload, and there are too many people napping under the Moreton Bay figs already.

This WOMADelaide experience was supported by the Farrago Travelling Gypsy Grant, packed lunches and an endless supply of apples from my aunties, and a bean bag to rest my head, in a corner of the room of a friend’s housemate’s best friend.

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