Pic: Jack Fenby

Festivals, Musicals, News & Commentary

WOMADelaide 2020: an interview with Director Ian Scobie

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This Friday WOMADelaide returns to Adelaide’s Botanic Park. Director Ian Scobie talks with MURRAY BRAMWELL about the enduring international music event.

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Friday, March 6 marks the opening of the four-day WOMADelaide music festival. With its odd portmanteau name (WOMAD is an acronym for World of Music and Dance) the South Australian version of the UK festival, originally founded and promoted by Peter Gabriel, began as part of Rob Brookman’s Adelaide Festival in 1992.

There have been 23 festivals since then. It became an annual fixture in 2003, and a four-day event in 2010. Since 1995 the organisation has been managed by Arts Projects Australia (APA) and the current director, Ian Scobie is the sole remaining original member of the APA team. 

As WOMADelaide approaches its 30th anniversary, I ask Scobie what he considers the secret, not only of the festival’s success, but also its longevity. He mentions the advantage of having unique access to Botanic Park, a green oasis in Adelaide’s CBD with ample roaming space for 12,000 people, and seven different performance stages.

“We are lucky with WOMAD. Firstly, it’s in a city that is familiar with the idea of festivals. [Adelaide] has drunk the festival Kool-Aid. People have grown up with it. It is real and palpable.

“And the Events SA funding is rock solid. I talk to colleagues interstate and know its hard yakka without funding confidence. We can talk to people three years in advance knowing that the funding and infrastructure are in place. I can see things and plan. I don’t have to convince a board and so on.”

“Every time I have pushed the envelope the audiences have lapped it up. I think programmers can be too cautious. The public has bought a ticket for an experience. They are up for it.”

The festival also offers a carefully managed experience for both artists and audiences. Scobie sees this as an international WOMAD characteristic, whether it be the UK, Europe or New Zealand version.

“Ziggy Marley [one of the Adelaide 2020 headliners] played at WOMAD UK last year. He was impressed. He got it: being in a likeminded audience and out of the rock and roll thing of arrive in town/practice/put on a show/leave.

“Artists universally respond to WOMADelaide in such a positive manner. They love the city, they love the park, they love the markets.”

That the festival began as part of the Adelaide Festival, where the etiquette of hospitality was a key feature of Writers Week and the performance program.

“I remember the director, Clifford Hocking, giving me the 101 lesson when I worked with him on the Adelaide Festival. [He said] remember that you are inviting people to be a guest in your home and essentially you need to understand that they are feeling nervous, they have travelled a long way. They need to feel welcome and looked after.

“Their technical requirements will be met, but more fundamentally there is a level of respect for them which puts them in the best frame of mind to do their best work. Then it will be received well. And if that’s not the case, then all this other human static gets in there, and people don’t feel looked after.

“I think the festival experience for the patron needs to be discovery, surprise, some old friends, some beautiful music and great artists.

“I have the same view of our audience. You have 20,000 guests who are invited to your backyard for a party. You want to make sure they are comfortable and there’s shade, because if all those basic things aren’t there you have missed the point. If people aren’t comfortable and can’t hear … You want to get rid of all that.”

The 2020 WOMADelaide has some big names coming home to roost. Celebrated Malian griot singer Salif Keita revisits for a fourth and perhaps final time, esteemed US gospel singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples also returns, after her splendid set in 2008 with the exceptional We’ll Never Turn Back album.

Two decades on, early festival favourites The Cat Empire will play the 10pm spot on Friday night. The remarkable Blind Boys of Alabama – a musical organisation founded in 1939 and rejuvenated in the 21st century with collaborators such as Robert Randolph, Ben Harper and Marc Cohn – also feature on the opening night. Indian classical violinist L. Subramaniam, a frequent WOMADelaide highlight, will perform during the day on Saturday and for a seated event on Sunday night.

Scobie is especially pleased to program Ziggy Marley.

“He’s not singing his dad’s hits. He’s a reggae performer in his own right. He’s another generation and he’s very positive. ‘Love will solve the world’s problems’. It’s a joyous show.”

Ziggy Marley. Pic: Tim Cadiente

I ask him how the program is compiled, and he explains that it’s a joint venture. “It is between two and a half of us,” he says cryptically.

“It is between [Operations and Program Manager] Annette Tripodi and me in Adelaide, and Paula Henderson from WOMAD UK. She worked on the first WOMADelaide in 1992. We have worked together on and off over a long time. We have a sympatico understanding, a shorthand.

“Paula sees something and says ‘that will really work in Adelaide’. She’s our UK eyes. It is a collaboration between us and the UK, so there a lot of to and fro. It’s a mosaic, a puzzle, getting the pieces to fit.

“I think the festival experience for the patron needs to be discovery, surprise, some old friends, some beautiful music and great artists. They have to be at the right level. We’ve had some interesting examples of artists who were not quite ready, and then they are. Annette will sometimes suggest something and it’s not the top of my list. But it’s not my festival, and that’s a fundamental difference from other festival models.

“The curatorial role is that you are responsible for a cultural collection in a gallery, rather than picking favourites. You don’t have a program full of work from just one country, you need light and shade. Every time you program a slot there’s one less opportunity for something else.

You have to find those things which are a part of cultural memory and people’s lives.

“Ideally, I like the festival to have quite a few things that are a new thing to me as well, rather than same, same.”

I ask Scobie which selections he is particularly pleased with and he begins to thumb the brochure for examples. Floating Flowers, a dance work from Taiwanese company B. Dance, led by director /choreographer Po-Cheng Tsai, springs to mind.

“They were a classic last-minute surprise. I saw about 20 minutes of Floating Flowers in passing in Edinburgh and thought ‘this is extraordinary.’ I gave them my card and said ‘you must come to WOMAD.’

“Ustad Saami from Pakistan [a practitioner of a vocal style dating back to the 13th century]. He’s special. His voice is exquisitely transporting but it has a rasping quality. It’s not like Nusrat [the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a WOMADelaide legend from the original 1992 festival]. It doesn’t pick you up in a warm blanket and take you, but I found it unusual and a real force.

“Every time I have pushed the envelope the audiences have lapped it up. I think programmers can be too cautious. The public has bought a ticket for an experience. They are up for it. They don’t just want familiar pop. “

He also singles out Ifriqiyya Electrique from the Maghreb [historically known as Ifriqiyya] region of North West Africa. 

The 11-member Malaysian group Orang Orang Drum Theatre also rates a mention.

“I saw them and they were young and enthusiastic. Energised and keen to present their cultural story which I think is fantastic. We are programming a whole new generation of musicians.”

Which leads Scobie to discuss Scottish performer Kathryn Joseph, whose music he describes as a crossover with performance art. Her first album, Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I Have Spilled, won Scottish album of the year in 2015.

Her second recording From When I Wake The Want Is, released in August 2018, is compelling listening. Her plaintive, trickling piano aptly matches her burred vibrato vocal. The arrangements with percussion and discreet electronica complete the effect.

With her long, thick hair and crofter funk outfits she is imposing and other-worldly. An original like Kate Bush or Bjork, she is also re-invigorating Scottish folk traditions. Joseph plays twice, Saturday and Monday – both times at the Moreton Bay stage. Check out her BBC Scotland live sessions on YouTube. She is not to be missed.

Women musicians are always well represented at WOMADelaide and in 2020 the calibre of their contribution is especially evident. The list is extraordinary. Harpist Catrin Finch (duetting with kora player Seckou Keita) will play a fusion of Welsh traditional music and Senegalese Mandika rhythms.

Other outstanding performers include the spectacular PNG/Australian Ngaiire, whose terrific recent album Blastoma is worth checking out. Mercury and Grammy Award-nominated UK contemporary folk songwriter Laura Marling will perform once on Monday.

Aldous Harding has for a time now been a WOMAD NZ favourite and played Laneway Festival in Adelaide several years ago. Finally she gets to play Botanic Park. Like Kathryn Joseph, she is in the Joanna Newsom vein. A mainstay of the thriving Lyttleton music scene outside Christchurch, New Zealand, Harding has one concert at 5.15pm on Saturday.

The unique Kate Miller-Heidke, featured in the Adelaide Festival’s extraordinary Virtual Reality installation Eight in collaboration with Michel van der Aa, will perform on Friday night.

Other women artists to watch out for include Luisa Sobral from Portugal, singing from her newest album Rosa, dedicated to her young daughter; the five-member Mexican group Flor de Toloache; talented Indigenous singer Deline Briscoe, showcasing her excellent Wawu album; and acclaimed US traditional country performer Rhiannon Giddens, blending her Appalachian and minstrel fiddle and banjo sounds with Francesco Turrisi on the Sicilian tamburello.

There are more: Marina Satti and Fones, Gelarah Pour’s Garden from Iran, Spinifex Gum from the Pilbara country and Korean exponent of the double-headed Janggu drum, Kim So Ra.

Ngaiire. Pic: supplied

WOMADelaide is also a showcase for visual art, dance, the virtuoso acrobatics of Gravity and Other Myth, French strolling theatre Company Archibald Caramantran, and UK-based Wired Aerial Theatre’s As the World Tipped. That show presents spectacular high-flying movement in sync with massive projected images, highlighting the real and present danger of climate change.

This presentation could not be timelier after a summer of ferocious bushfires, wildlife and habitat devastation, and an urgent need for cogent scientific public advocacy against the continuing obstinacy of government and vested interests.

Last year, Scobie admitted he was worried that As The World Tipped “would be passé because of the breakdown of the Copenhagen talks. But it is now very current. There will be references to the United Nations IPPC Report on climate change and a coda with a recorded message from Greta Thunberg.”

The Planet Talks forums will continue a WOMADelaide tradition with speakers on sustainability, climate change, big tech and data ethics, politics, transformative change and sleep research.

I ask Scobie if, after so many WOMADs in a row, it has become a routine thing. His reply: 

“I do love it still. I have my moments, of course. But then I see something and think ‘I’ve got to have that.’ The French Gratte Ciel company’s Place des Anges in 2018 was an example. Of the things I saw last year, Kathryn Joseph was one, Floating Flowers another.

“I remember things I saw in the Adelaide Festival. Peter Brook’s The Ik and Pere Ubu at the Quarry back in 1980. Having those moments is key. And I think it is for our audience. You have to find those things which are a part of cultural memory and people’s lives. And they look back and say ‘do you remember that time?’

“Part of the task is to have those WOMAD peaks. That ‘wow’ moment, that full stop, or exclamation mark, is why culture matters. It makes you stop and think. It gives you that space in your soul.” 

WOMADelaide is on March 6 – March 9 at Botanic Park, Adelaide.

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