By Nigel Hopkins
From March 11-14 in 2016, smack in the middle of Adelaide’s ‘Mad March’, more than 500 artists and speakers from 25 countries made their way to the city’s 34ha Botanic Park for one of the world’s most colourful and respected music and performance arts festivals – WOMADelaide.
New Zealand musician Tim Finn described WOMADelaide as “like dying and going to musical heaven”, while ABC music radio personality Myf Warhurst waxed more lyrically: “You can just wander around, you can stay under the trees, you can have a beautiful time, see music that you’ve never seen before and be blown away by music from places you never thought you’d hear music from. It’s an extraordinary experience.”
And instead of having to head into the wilds for some sort of Woodstock experience, it’s just minutes’ walk from the centre of the city, with seven stages for live performances, artists in conversation and workshops – and the best festival food in Australia, which in 2015 attracted a record 95,000 people over its four days.
WOMAD, which stands for the World Of Music, Arts and Dance – was founded in 1982 by rock-music superstar Peter Gabriel and music journalist Thomas Brooman. It was brought to Adelaide in 1992 at the initiative of Festival director Rob Brookman as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts, initially biennial but becoming annual in 2003 and expanding from a three to a four-day festival in 2012.
Each year Festival director Ian Scobie and program and operations manager Annette Tripodi lead a team that puts together its “dream list” of performers from around the world.
“Our job is to introduce Australia to the best possible mix of traditional and contemporary, established and emerging, but always extraordinary, music and dance,” Scobie says.
In 2015 that dream list included Irish rocker Sinead O’Connor, Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour and master kora player Toumani Diabate from Mali, all of whom WOMADelaide had been chasing for years.
The headliners this year are no less impressive, led by Grammy Award winning West African pop legend Angélique Kidjo, appearing in her first WOMADelaide in collaboration with the 80-piece Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. It’s expected to be a breathtaking performance, her only Australian appearance, which includes a suite of songs written with acclaimed US composer Philip Glass.
Others who appeared for the first time, having been on the WOMADelaide hit list for years, include reunited US alternative band the Violent Femmes and South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which found worldwide fame on Paul Simon’s 1986 Graceland album.
Bearded men shed inhibitions at WOMADelaide
At the opposite end of the choir spectrum program manager Tripodi points to the Spooky Men’s Chorale from Australia – “a bearded, all-male 16-piece choir that sings about tools and things, a sort of extended men’s shed experience.”
Other names in what was another big year for the world music festival include Ibeyi, twin sisters Naomi and Lisa-Kainde Diaz, whose Cuban father was percussionist with the Buena Vista Social Club – “deceptively simple, really beautiful – Beyonce tweeted them to her 28 million followers”, Tripodi says.
She says Orange Blossom were a similar discovery for Australia – “a crazy Nigel Kennedy-like violinist, amazing African percussionist, magnificent female Egyptian singer, very dramatic, original and unexpected music.” Or there’s Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” folk quartet DakhaBrakha, returning to WOMADelaide after many years – “a crazy mix, like electronic trance music.”
And, of course, very much more, including a massive “global village” of around 100 stalls, and for the first time a curated section for emerging Adelaide designers and makers, a Taste the World marquee where performers swapped instruments for cooking utensils under the guidance of Adelaide food diva Rosa Matto, and a Taste the World restaurant with Orana/Street ADL chef Jock Zonfrillo.
For many, one of the star attractions was environmentalist, scientist and author Dr David Suzuki, who led a star-studded panel of environmental thinkers and scientists in The Planet Talks, now “a major focal point for serious, civilized conversation about our environment”, Scobie says.
Appropriately, it’s held in a section of the park known as Speaker’s Corner, and last year included internet entrepreneur Simon Hackett who stepped in almost at the last minute as the festival’s major private sponsor.
Hackett has described WOMADelaide as “an event that, more than any other I know, serves to unite people in a joyful shared experience, in a manner that should happen more in the world – but doesn’t.”
In continuing a tradition started by founder Peter Gabriel, WOMADelaide takes its environmental responsibilities seriously, having mapped its carbon footprint and planted 70,000 trees on a 65ha WOMAD Forest in the state’s Coorong and Lower Lakes region – sufficient to make the whole event carbon neutral.
Scobie says that, above all, it’s about creating a festival memory – something that, in later years, people will ask “do you remember that festival when…”, just as David Suzuki clearly recalls specific performances from his first WOMADelaide visit a decade ago.
In 2016 that memory was a major site installation called Sacrilege, an interactive, life-sized inflatable replica of Stonehenge created by Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist Jeremy Deller. Measuring 34 metres long and five metres high, this is Stonehenge with an irreverent modern makeover originally created for the London Olympics: “You won’t be able to miss it,” Tripodi says. “It’s in the middle of the park and it’s very big.”
That sense of a festival memory is something Scobie first experienced as a child growing up in Mildura, when the local oval “was transformed into an absolute wonderland,” he recalls. “It enabled the same great social interaction that I now see at WOMADelaide, a real sense of community that everybody loves.
“It’s why when people leave the festival they feel recharged. It rekindles your faith in a broader humanity. The insanity of the world can bubble up very quickly, as we’ve just seen in Paris.
“But that’s the great thing about performance. In the end, the human spirit, regardless of Paris, will endure – and life really is fantastic. That’s what we want people to feel as they come away from this festival.”
Virgin Australia operates frequent flights between Sydney and Melbourne to Adelaide.