[27 January 2009]
WOMADelaide takes place every year between large trees and stretches of open lawn in Adelaide’s Botanic Park. The city simmers distantly around the gardens and the autumn sun shoots down. Musicians from different continents play ouds, drums, ngonis, guitars, sitars, didjeridus, accordions, wooden flutes, and fiddles. Some dance, some sing. Two years ago there was an Iranian mystic who writhed on the floor. There are four or five stages to attend to, there is an activities area for children, there is food, not all of it rice, and there are small tents selling miscellaneous items like hats, books, albums, wooden marionettes, and the chance to have the backs of your hands marked with the curled brown ivy of a henna tattoo.
Last year’s festival was unusually warm. Peruvian women and Irishmen sweated alike. Zach Condon of Beirut told the crowd that it was so incredibly hot it reminded him of a time in Moscow the previous year when he had been incredibly cold. Trapped on a stage that faced into the sun, the accordion player for Taraf de Haïdouks wore black sunglasses and tilted his head back until he looked like a supercilious gangster trying to scan a nightclub for faces in the dark. Idan Raichel threw water over us. Dancing started after sunset. During the day, the audience was divided between the people jammed up against the stage, trying to huddle in whatever shadows it cast, and the people far back under the trees squatting on blankets and fanning themselves. An open river of sunlight lay thickly between the two groups. The grass under our feet withered and vanished. Groundskeepers doubtless wept in our wake.
That was exceptional. This year should be cooler. It had better be. The only people who openly enjoyed the weather in 2008 were the Malians—“I am home,” announced Toumani Diabaté, sitting comfortably behind his kora and smiling at the sun—and this year there’s only one of them, the singer-guitarist Rokia Traoré, who is going to be the headline act on the festival’s final evening.
Other Africans are scheduled as well. We’re promised the Seckou Keita Quintet, led by a Senegalese kora player who emigrated to the United Kingdom some years ago, a Madagascan guitarist, a South African DJ, and the singer Dimi Mint Abba of Mauritania. There’s the Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen of Nigeria, still being congratulated on his association with Fela Kuti more than a decade after the latter’s death, and Fela’s son Seun. Europe is being represented by a Balkan band, Occitan singers from France, and various other pieces of folk music and DJing. India sneaks into the lineup only once, embodied in a Carnatic violinist named U Shrinivas, and so does China, with the folktronica singer Sa DingDing. There will be a few North Americans, Dengue Fever doing double duty for the United States and Cambodia.
Latin America is absent, aside from Ska Cubano, Cuban-themed and based in London.
But the most obvious difference between this Womad and world music festivals held in other large countries lies in the number of Australian and Oceanic musicians. Overseas they are scarce; here they are present in abundance. The one likely to attract the most passionate crowd is Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Yolŋu singer-songwriter of the moment, subject of reviews and newspaper articles, and winner of ARIA and Deadly awards. If the crowd around the Black Arm Band last year was anything to go by then the audience in front of Yunupingu’s show will be huge.
The more surprising shows, though, are sometimes the smaller ones, the musicians you don’t know, who turn out to be unexpectedly good … there was the time, two years ago, in front of the Melbourne rebetika band Rebetiki, when the women, the boys, the middle-aged Greek men in white shirts and dark trousers, pot bellies hitched over their belts, all of them got up, hooked their arms around one another’s shoulders, and danced …