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Planet Music: WOMADelaide 2019

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WOMADelaide: Adelaide’s leading music festival opens on March 8 for three days and four nights. Program manager Annette Tripodi talks with Murray Bramwell about this year’s line-up.

It is a fact of life for annual festivals that no sooner has one taken its final curtain than next year’s model, not only begins, but is well under way. Scoping out and signing performers from across the world is a continuing task and subject to that mix of luck, serendipity and patient slog that any programmer knows about.

“It’s a rolling thing,” says operations and program manager Annette Tripodi. She has been associated with the festival for 21 years, and has held her current position since 2009. Together with WOMADelaide director Ian Scobie, it is Tripodi’s task to piece together the final list of artists and shape the event by deciding where, and on what night, they perform.

“Interestingly,” Tripodi ventures, “this has been a difficult year compared to previous ones. And talking to other festival programmers, and also promoters and tour managers – across the board, they are saying it’s been harder at times to secure the artists we wanted. For money reasons, availability, all kinds of complexities. I thought it was just us, but talking to others like the Perth Festival…it’s been tricky this year.

“You have big dreams, and some acts we approached many times but the financial reality is that if there are 15 to 20 people travelling the offer has to be really substantial to cover the cost of all those flights. Instead they might be attracted to the US for example. But, even though we have had a few frustrations this year, given we have 75 groups from 40 countries in our program, you just can’t have everyone you want!”

But as always, some things were in the process early. The Silk Road Ensemble, for instance. Founded in 1998 by the renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma, this multicultural music project has commissioned over 70 new chamber works. Incorporating instruments from the Silk Road region such as the Chinese plucked lute, the Armenian woodwind duduk, as well as Japanese and Mongolian instruments, the ensemble has a shifting personnel drawn from 59 players.

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Silk Road Ensemble

“They are really excited about coming,” Tripodi notes. “They are a classical music group who are really unfamiliar with outdoor festivals. Ian Scobie has been dealing with them for two or three years and we finally have them. It will be a novelty for them to play in a park.” 

Another early signing was Angelique Kidjo.

“We had her here in 2016 – with Philip Glass and others – so we weren’t looking to have her back so soon. But then she released her unbelievable Remain in Light album and this idea got wings. She’s such a dynamo and she had such a good time at the festival last time, taking part in the Taste the World cookery program and other activities.

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Angelique Kidjo

“The more we heard about the Remain in Light project around May last year, the more convinced we were to try. There was a quick conversation and agreement, and since then the CD and great live performances have gained acclaim and awards. Her version of those Talking Heads songs – I thought: ‘ this is perfect, the synchronicity is perfect.’ She will play on Sunday night (9pm Foundation Stage) with a great band.”

Also returning to Womad this year are Australian favourites the John Butler Trio, who have been touring extensively in the US and Europe with their excellent recent album Home. Italian band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, or CGS for short, are also back after four years, this time showcasing their 2017 release, simply named Canzoniere. 

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Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

“They were a wonderful success before,” Tripodi recalls,” They’re just so authentic and energetic and they have this fabulous capacity to take the traditional, and twisting it a bit, without it becoming the kind of fusion that is off-putting to people who like that traditional sound.” 

“The seven musicians in Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC) are only playing in Adelaide. And in true Womad style: you’ve never heard of them but you’ll become a convert.”

Then there are the new bands that Annette Tripodi is especially keen to have on this year’s listing. 

“French group Christine and the Queens are a coup as far as I am concerned. She’s become huge in Europe and a lot of her reputation is based on the sheer excellence of her live shows. She is as much a dancer as a singer – and she performs with dancers. They have great lighting and special FX; there are 23 people in the show. She will be fantastic on opening night (10.20 pm Foundation Stage) A lot of people are already into Chris, but also there are many who haven’t heard her. It will be a big event.

“But my favourite selection,” Tripodi confides, “and it’s a big call because there are a lot of great bands, is BCUC from South Africa.

“I’d never heard of them until July last year. They were going to play at Womad UK and some people in Paris said to me ‘listen to the album’. But it’s not even about the album – three tracks each lasting 15 minutes – it was the live show. I was transfixed from five seconds in. They bring this positive power to the stage.

“They say it is music by the people and for the people and want to show a side of South Africa and Soweto which is about positive change, tolerance, unity and community. It is never insipid, it is vibrant. This is the new generation who come from the townships bringing creativity and ingenuity in contrast to the difficulties of those communities. The seven musicians in BCUC (short for Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) are only playing in Adelaide. And in true Womad style: you’ve never heard of them but you’ll become a convert.”

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BCUC

One enduring and very welcome feature of WOMADelaide is the preponderance of women performers. “We don’t have quotas,” says Tripodi, “but when we did an analysis 70 per cent of groups either had female leads or women band members.”

“It is a delight to have Christine and Angelique and Malian star Fatoumata Diawara.” Her 2018 album Fenfo brings a range of sounds from signature African styles to blues and funk. Another name which comes up is UK singer Gwenno, whose intriguing album Le Kov features other-worldly feathery vocals in both Cornish and Welsh. She plays two sets: one at the newly established Frome Park Pavilion on Friday night, the other at the Moreton Bay stage at 5 pm on Saturday.

Gamilaraay woman and Triple J favourite Thelma Plum will play one show on Sunday, as will NSW singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin, drawing from her debut album, Don’t Let the Kids Win. US singer Liz Phair, best known for her 1993 album Exile in Guyville, will reconnect on Saturday night with her indie fans and find a new audience with her bright guitar sound and her forthright, still-timely songs.  

Womad has seen some outstanding West African kora players, including the great virtuoso of this 21-stringed harp, Toumani Diabate. This time, Gambian woman Sona Jobarteh breaks the 700 year gender barrier to become the first professional female performer to come from a West African Griot (hereditary musician) family. Winner of the coveted Africa Festival Artist of the Year award in 2018, she will perform twice in Adelaide.

Other notable women included in the line-up are Irish accordionist Sharon Shannon, returning with her excellent band; and rapper singer and flautist, La Dame Blanche, daughter of Jesus Raos, director of the Buena Vista Social Club. She left Havana for Paris and has boldly re-invented herself outside the Cuban music scene.  

Another of Tripodi’s favourite choices is Dona Onete from Brazil. Her remarkable musical success began at the age of 73 when she signed her first recording contract in 2014. Her music (a version of Carimbo, a mix of Brazilian, African and Caribbean sounds) has not only made her a revered figure in her home country but has, in Tripodi’s words – “conquered Europe in the past five years. She played to 10,000 plus audiences at Rosskilde Festival in Denmark. She’s a tiny figure and with her young dynamic band she gave her performance seated on her throne!”

Included also in the headliners is the celebrated sarod player Amjad Ali Khan, performing as a trio with his sons Amaan and Ayaan, and accompanied on opening night by members of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.  

Two sets from Polish jazz harpist Alina Bzhezhinska and her quartet are a must. Influenced by Alice and John Coltrane, this will be an all-too rare opportunity to hear jazz at Womad.

On Saturday night, New Zealand’s powerhouse band, Fat Freddy’s Drop, returning Womad favourites, will bring their brilliant jazz-funk-reggae-electronica-soul sound to the Foundation Stage. Their 2015 album Bays is their best yet – and so will be this year’s performance. On closing night, topping the Monday bill, are The Original Gypsies – founder members of 1980s phenomenon The Gypsy Kings – with a 12 piece band including eight guitars, creating a wall of rumba and flamenco.

The late night Novatech stage will be a compulsory destination for electronica and house fans again this year. DJ Harvey features on opening night – Tripodi calls him the DJs’ DJ – “He’s quite the English character, traversing all genres from house to soul. I can’t wait to meet him. He’s a cheeky soul – and daring.”  Other DJs include Leftfield, also from the UK, Palestinian electronica wiz DJ Sama (she is also a music producer and sound designer), and New York City pioneer DJ, Danny Krivit whose career began in underground clubs in 1971. Known as the King of Re-edit for his scratch mixing skills, he has producer credits on more than 300 records. 

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DJ Harvey

Also worth catching, at the Frome Park Pavilion, is Lord Echo (also from NZ) featuring his 2017 Harmonies album with a six-piece band. And on another note, don’t miss the wittily named two-piece, DuOud, featuring Jean-Pierre Smadja (AKA Smadj) and Mehdi Haddab (from Speed Caravan – previous Womad faves with their Bo Diddley desert electric blues) mixing classical oud sounds with beats, grooves and other aural paraphernalia. 

Often the most memorable Womad experiences are meditative sets on the smaller Zoo and Moreton Bay stages. This year, the two sets from Polish jazz harpist Alina Bzhezhinska and her quartet are a must. Influenced by Alice and John Coltrane and highly acclaimed on the UK circuit, this will be an all-too rare opportunity to hear jazz at Womad. Also at Moreton Bay will be the intriguing Estonian duo, Maarja Nuut and Ruum, and on Sunday night at Stage 2, the Moroccan guembri (three-stringed lute) maestro Maalem Hamid El Kasri.    

Womadelaide, as always, is much more than music. The ‘dance’ that makes up the World of Music and Dance acronym is strongly represented this year by Spanish dancer and choreographer Maria Pages, a pioneer in contemporary flamenco. Her 80-minute work Yo, Carmen (I, Carmen) re-works Bizet’s opera with the songs and poetry from which it derives. There will be two performances on Stage 2. 

Australian/New Caledonian dance company, Marrugeku will perform Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry, their exploration of the dilemmas of postcolonial Pacific communities, and, each night at the Frome Pavilion, the French Compagnie BiLBobaSSo, featuring Herve Perrin and Delphine Darus, will perform the fiery Amor, a study of a tempestuous couple who literally ignite the world around them as they quarrel. French street performance group Artonik returns with the visually explosive The Colour of Time in homage to Indian Holi festivals made vibrant by processional dance, body painting and costume. 

Other park-wide events to look out for will be Le Phun (The Leafies) – sculptures made from tonnes of disintegrating leaves, and the mysterious, rising cardboard edifices of Ephemeral City, supervised by French artist and provocateur Olivier Grosstete. Tripodi praises the range of local groups and institutions – the SA Museum, Adelaide College of Art, Botanic High School and others – who have been collaborating with these events months before the WOMADelaide weekend begins.

Musing on our conversation, Annette Tripodi remarks: “It’s always good to have this chat a few weeks out. We are so pre-occupied with getting the fine details and the logistics right that we forget how great the content is and how wonderful the celebration will be when everyone is there.”  

WOMADelaide opens at Botanic Park next Friday March 8 until Monday March 11

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