“I’ve been to all of them except 2002,” said one audience member, settling into a low deck chair and pulling at the brim of his hat, “and this is better than last year.” The Australian branch of the international WOMAD festival has been going in Adelaide’s Botanic Park since 1992 on a stretch of springy, resilient lawn that runs between a huge Moreton Bay Fig tree and a nearby river crowded with messy scrags of bushes and willows.
The grass did its best to stand up to a weekend of dancing, but in patches we killed it, leaving its blades to dry out in the heat and turn to fine hay. In front of Simone Soul, we stamped around, causing the dead grass to fly into the air in a flurry—it looked like a fairyland on fire.
Soul was the backing drummer for Brazilian singer Chico César, and like a number of the performers, he held a workshop—the stamping dance was part of his. Of all the musicians there, he’d be the one you’d most want as a teacher, the one you would introduce to your friends afterwards. He was courteous and impassioned. I saw him later standing at the edge of Cameroonian musician Coco Mbassi’s audience, swaying and lifting his fingers to his mouth as if pleasure was something he could taste.
A less confident speaker, Japanese taiko drummer Eitetsu Hayashi had memorised his stage patter down to the very inflections in his voice, which he repeated identically in each performance.
Miriam Makeba, who has been performing since the ‘50s and is now on a 14-month long farewell tour, spoke with a serenely wicked chuckle. Though she was energetic, she sometimes panted between songs: “I am seventy-two years old and my bones are tired,” she said. When she sang, the ends of her notes sometimes unravelled in little shreds. She had a way of emphasising everything by saying it twice. “And his name,” she said, introducing a member of her group—“and his name is…”
His name escapes me, although I remember his colored waistcoat. He strutted and grinned, but he couldn’t match the biggest stage-ham of the festival—Orchestra Baobab’s saxophonist, Issa Cissoko—who courted the audience in a dozen different ways: by giving them the peace sign; by performing a brief solo and then flinging his hands up; by pretending to fight with the other sax player and then applauding him; by engaging the singers in a dance-off. I adored him. It was the first time I’d seen Orchestra Baobab live, and I’d been thinking of them as a cool-toned band of men who would play without moving. Wrong. They were warm, and even their smaller gestures were alive with energy.
The Orchestra played three times: once in a workshop, once on Friday, and once on Sunday. A pair of children in the front row of the last performance attracted the lead singer’s attention by waving at him and shouting, “My friend!” Their mother told them that the band comes from Senegal, a francophone country. Perhaps “mon ami” would be better? “Mon ami!” they screamed. “Mon ami!” The vocalist smiled back and pointed at them. When the band left the stage, he took the white towel he’d been using to dry his forehead and tossed it to the boys. Their mother discovered that she had waved her hands so much she’d lost her wedding ring.
I don’t know if she found it again. We searched the grass, but Jimmy Cliff was performing next, and the mob had closed in. After a while, I headed off to buy a mango lassi and saw that Lura was singing on stage two by the food stalls. As she tied a scarf around her bottom, one of the boys in the audience shouted “Hey, Lura!” with a lazy, sexual growl in his voice.
It was a violent sound, at odds with the rest of the festival. For two-and-a-half days, several thousand people were as happy and peaceful as a large crowd can be. Oh, audience members lost their tempers at people who stood in front of them when they wanted to sit, and kids tussled and whined as children do. But, overall, WOMADelaide 2006 had the atmosphere of a huge picnic at which everyone liked the food and no one went hungry. When the weather turned on Sunday, and a gust of cold wind blew through the Dhol Foundation’s set, the audience greeted it with whistles of appreciation.
The wind went away for a while and came back in the evening, accompanied by rain. The rain fell for hours. I was wet; my shirt was glued to me. I should have been cold, but I wasn’t—not until half-past one in the morning when the last performance ended and the announcer with the microphone told us that we should go home now because the festival was over.
Over? But there’d been so much of it. We’d heard a heart sutra from the Dalai Lama’s Namgyal Monks, and Jimmy Cliff had told us he loved us all. We’d shouted and pogo’d (one man even bounced to the heart sutra, which didn’t seem quite right) and flung ourselves around in the heat for Eastern European gypsy musicians DOCH . We’d sat quietly for the Indonesian group Sekar Budaya Nusantara as a performer pretended to be a magical six-foot tall duck. We’d watched the Aboriginal Gupapuygnu Dancers keep their performance together though the Renegades Steel Orchestra was overwhelming them with popular show tunes on the stage nearby. “Can you feel the love tonight?” asked the steel pans at top volume, while the Gupapuygnu Dancers shuffled their feet in the sand, rubbing their hands together and murmuring. It seemed wrong for anyone to think he could make it all stop by saying, simply, “It’s over.”
But he did. Security was gathering by the gate, and we had to leave. My body finally got the message to me that it was shivering, and that both it and I ought to be going back to the hotel. The rain stopped and, as I left, the crew was already dismantling the barriers.