The Fela People Might Have Liked This, Too
6 Mar 2009: Botanic Park Adelaide, South Australia
They wanted Fela. They couldn’t have him, of course, more than a decade dead, but his son Seun was performing in Australia for the first time on Saturday night with most of his father’s former band—in their 60s now, but still quick on guitar and calabash—and these fans had established themselves close to the front of the audience, and were clamoring Fel-a! Fel-a! Fel-a! They stabbed the air with their hands. Long, pale arms against the dark sky and a mob of round heads heaving below.
The rest of the band came on first, played some introductory instrumental music, then the son himself arrived. The crowd let off a stormy boom. Seun had a broad, gleaming forehead, a wider face than his older brother, Femi, who came to WOMADelaide two years ago. Femi is closer to his father in looks. Seun is closer to him in the way he sounds. He is conscious of this, he says. His father left him a legacy. He wants to preserve it intact.
Tony Allen, Fela’s drummer, seamed and long-cheeked, with a band and a show of his own, had already performed twice, once on Friday evening, and then at midday on Saturday. Allen’s music sounded mellower than that of both the Kuti sons. Where Seun and Femi filled the role of frontmen by drawing all of the audience’s attention to themselves, jittering with extroversion, Allen sat to the side of the stage behind his drumkit, sometimes leaning forward to purr a lyric into the microphone, then getting back to the drumming again. He was not going to do a lot of talking, he told us: “no bla bla bla.” His band was small and lean. The trumpeter also played calabash, filling his spare time with other percussion. The songs rolled into one another.
The guitarist standing closest to Allen’s drums often glanced at him, smiling or inquisitive, and the saxophonist seemed to have a friendship going with the keyboard player, who was dressed in a flat cap, red kerchief knotted around his throat, and brilliantly white shirt and trousers, looking like a rustic who’d never been near dirt. What did the musicians in Seun’s band look like? I can barely remember. His presence swamped them. During Allen’s show on Saturday the calabash-trumpeter started dancing, looking at the others to see if they’d join in, until finally the smiling guitarist relented and fell into place behind him. They shuffled their bottoms backwards, lightly lifting their heels. That night Seun danced similarly, but his behind was aimed at us and he pointed to it or slapped it. Never did I think I’d get such a specific idea of the contours of the Kuti buttock. He had black elastic on his underwear and there were two words in the brand name. I couldn’t make them out.
I looked at the people roaring Fel-a! All were men, perhaps in their late teens. After that show I didn’t see them again. I wonder what else they watched that night. They brought a different feeling to the crowd, charging it with the kind of demanding borderline-anger that might turn fierce if it doesn’t get what it wants. At WOMADelaide this pushy tension is absent for most of the day. It’s typically a nighttime phenomenon. It’s a feeling that accompanies the big names, the evening headliners, the ones that attract people who come for a single act in particular. This is where most of the crowd politics takes place, in these charged atmospheres in front of a Kuti, or an Asha Bhosle, or a Miriam Makeba.
Everybody wants to be at the front, or they want to stand and dance when the person behind them has decided that the nicest thing would be to sit, and then this sitting person objects to the blocking of their view and to the wiggling and jolting of obstructing backs and thighs. A few years ago the management decided to defuse this situation by telling us on the first day that standing people were going to have right of way at each performance unless that performance was specifically marked All-Seated. “The D in WOMAD is for dance,” is the line the announcers use. It usually works, although there was almost an incident in front of Sa Dingding’s Friday show when everyone except for a single family immediately in front of the black barrier dividing the audience from the photographer’s enclosure had chosen to sit down.
I was sitting myself. Most of the musicians apparently preferred an audience who stood and danced or clapped, but not Sa Dingding. Why should she? What kind of dance could you do to this crooning, floating pan-Chinese electronica? You could wave your arms in ripples, look noble or thoughtful, drift gracefully sideways like a jellyfish, perhaps, but there’d be no clapping, no jumping, none of those dances that go down well among masses of casual strangers. The only person who danced to Sa Dangding was Sa Dangding herself, in tandem with three men who came onstage with her, dressed in loose trousers and in strips of white gauze worn across their chests like bandoliers. Holding crimson fans as long as their forearms they performed acrobatics in formation, snapping the fans shut on the beat with a sharp ssssth-clack! as if a dozen umbrellas were being closed in unison.
Sometimes the disagreements within the crowds are less logical than that. I spent the Paprika Balkanicus show hating the woman in front of me for her hat. It wasn’t a tall hat, only a very ugly hat, a white cloth pudding with a dinky bow at the back, and she lighthouse-like, periodically rotated her head back toward me, peering into the crowd for other people she knew. Mascara was crusted so thickly on her eyelashes it looked as if she had crushed black dirt into the sockets. The musicians, who came from Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, and Serbia, whooped, “Hop-ha! Hop-ha! Hop! Hop!” bouncing through their songs on button accordion and fiddle, and I imagined myself ripping off that woman’s hat and throwing it into the mob of teenage Balkan-Australians who were footing it off to my right with their hands in the air.
Angus Watt’s Flags
Overall, though, this is a happy festival. There are families, grandmothers, people in wheelchairs, newcomers, regulars. First-time visitors Bob and Cathy had driven from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales to find out what WOMADelaide was like, and there were people I recognised from previous years but had never learnt the names of: The Woman With Half Her Head Shaved and The Man Who Crushes Herbs. I didn’t realise that I was standing behind him until the air around me was awash with scent of mint and lavender. Kids under 12 can come in for free if accompanied by “a paying adult.” Babies stagger through the all-seated performances, laying their hands on your shoulders, leaving prints of chilly drool. Older children wind through the standing crowds of adults. People let them go to the front. Push through now, while you can, urged a woman at the Paprika Balkanicus concert. Once you get old no one will let you do this any more. The boy she spoke to was shy, did not believe her, and had to be coaxed with nudges from behind.
Later that day, another boy, slightly older, stood in the crowd in front of Ska Cubano, arms folded, staring at the ground, evidently frightened—the noise, the movement, the man in the coloured suit on the stage, these adults jumping around him, leaving him at the bottom of a well of much taller bodies. Would he consent to be brought to a more sympathetic spot? Would he like to come forward or backward or see if he could squeeze out of the side of the crowd, which was far away? If this boy had been ten or twenty years older and twice as tall, he could have congratulated himself on finding a near-prime spot, but as he was now, somewhere around the age of seven by the look of him, he would not move, not at all. He huddled his arms together, very white and smooth-faced, staring at the ground, waiting for it to be over.
This was on Sunday afternoon, when it got hot. Last year’s WOMADelaide was bakingly hot, madly, crazily hot, the kind of heat that suggests the sun is playing a practical joke on humanity. This year the temperature was in the twenties—Celsius, that is: around eighty if you’re counting in Fahrenheit, nowhere near cold, but cool enough to be comfortable—until Sunday, when it turned warmer. Ska Cubano’s Natty Bo earned respect by skanking in full-face sunshine for the group’s entire performance, even during those times when he could have rested while the audience’s eyes were on Beny Billy, the group’s Cuban singer. Bounding half his height into the air, Bo pumped his arms, kicked his legs, and threw his hand out as if, on a ship, he had spotted a distant horizon. His face was pearly grey with makeup and sweat. A professional. “It’s cold isn’t it?” he shouted in a Jamaican accent such as ska frontmen from London use. “I should have put something more on.” I don’t know how he does it, said a woman behind me.
The huddling boy wriggled away at the end of the show as the crowd came apart around him and I moved on to Neil Finn, who was performing on the main stage, stage one, the back of which faced the back of stage two, the stage we had been watching. Most of Finn’s audience must have grown up with Crowded House in the background. They sang along—they knew all the words. The field of heads in front of him spread across the flattened grass, all the way up to Angus Watt’s giant flags, which swayed creaking on their long poles. A similarly large crowd appeared in front of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, another Australian singer-songwriter and guitar player, but one who effected less of an audience sing-along because his lyrics are in Yolŋu Matha. A smaller crowd attended Mikidache, another guitarist, this one from Mayotte, an island that lies in the sea between Madagascar and Mozambique. He had his own version of the Madagascan style of playing, those phenomenally fast cartwheeling sets of notes. Over this he sang in a voice that sounded romantic and languid above the cartwheels.
Neil Finn turned up once more after the end of his show, putting in an unannounced appearance at the All-Star Jam and singing parts of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” accompanied by Seckou Keita on the kora, Juldeh Camara on the ritti, and the singer Binta Susso. Her hard voice was startling against his soft one. The All-Star Jam is a one-hour miscellany of the festival’s performers, overseen by an MC. The MC is a performer themselves. It happens every year. This year the Jam was run by the British African-blues guitarist Justin Adams, who told us that he’d checked into his Adelaide hotel room to find that he was two doors down from a woman he considered one of the greatest voices on the planet: The plump Mauritanian Dimi Mint Abba who now appeared, wrapped in red cloth, to perform with him. She has one of those West African griot-voices that sound even more commanding on a woman than on a man, possibly because the women have to go to more effort to make their voices carry. It’s the sound of authority easily worn: The tone compels attendance. Everything it says becomes important.
I’d already seen Dimi Mint Abba on Friday, when both she and the woman who was one of her backing musicians had struggled to keep their head-coverings from blowing aside in the wind, battering across their faces and showing us their ears and hair. The backing musician finally grew so annoyed that she snatched a piece of the flying cloth and tucked it into the corner of her mouth, keeping herself Mauritanian-ishly respectable like that while she danced and played the tambourine. Meanwhile the men carried on with ease, their heads uncovered. I thought of the old Ginger Rogers saying: She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.
All Star Jam
Dimi Mint Abba
There were other singers too: Rokia Traore, taking her music in a pop direction with a show performed half in mysterious indigo gloom and half in flashing lights that must have made the epileptics in the audience wonder if they were going to make it, and Lo Còr de la Plana, a group of six men from Marseille who established audience rapport through a combination of stage patter and updated polyphonic folk-chant. The huge noise of them swept across the audience, picking people up and shaking them into dancing with an almost physical force. The Fela enthusiasts would have liked it, I think, if they were there. Then there was Dona Rosa, a Portuguese woman whose show rose up in front of me almost without warning while I was looking around with a drink in my hand for somewhere to sit. The audience was on the grass under the trees by casual little stage 4, labeled in the program Z, or Zoo Stage, because, of all the stages in the Botanic Park, this one was closest to the Adelaide Zoo. Good, I thought. A seated show.
Now who is Dona Rosa? Dona Rosa is a fado singer, like the more famous Mariza, but physically they are opposites. Mariza, tall, thin, angular, elegant, well-dressed, with large, brilliant eyes and artful hair arrangements. Dona Rosa, dwarf-short, with the plump, corrugated knuckles of a dwarf, coloured and permed hair, angleless and soft, wearing a knitted granny-jumper, and blind. The daughter of a poor family, she contracted meningitis at the age of four, never saw again, was put to work begging on the street, and sang because singing was a pleasure. An Austrian music producer overhead her one day and handed her the start of a career. She has a rare timbre in her voice, somewhere between a gurgle and a bird-cry that makes her absolutely distinctive. Hers was the one performance in the festival that moved me at a level deeper than that of pleasure or joy. Every time a song ended and the audience cheered she smiled and smiled, and the percussionist on her right, who announced the songs for us, smiled at her too, as if the great satisfaction in her life, the serene and crowning pleasure, was to see Dona Rosa happy.
The Fela people might have liked this, too.