Live, Music, Reviews

Womadelaide celebrates 25 years of doing its own thing

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Murray Bramwell talks with WOMADelaide director Ian Scobie about the music festival with a difference.

It is now 25 years since WOMADelaide, that strange acronym grafted on to the name of an Australian city, was first heard about. In 1992, as part of Rob Brookman’s Adelaide Festival, negotiations took place between Brookman, his colleague Ian Scobie, and Thomas Brooman, the director of the UK WOMAD (aka World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival. The idea was to present a range of international music acts in a micro-festival inside the main Adelaide Festival.

It was all very new, and Scobie recalls they spent much time trying to describe what this venture would be like. Many of the artists – unheard of then, but legends of World Music now – were associated with WOMAD founder, Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld record label. Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Remmy Ongala all performed in the first event, along with Crowded House, Not Drowning, Waving and The Pogues.

“I don’t think Rob or I had any sense it would continue after the first event. Or maybe for a one-off afterwards,” says Scobie. But continue it did. Featuring more Real World artists – Sheila Chandra and Geoffrey Oryema, as well as Peter Gabriel himself, priming the pump for ticket sales for the fledgling venture.

I asked Scobie what he thinks has contributed to the continuing success of this music festival when others, including Big Day Out, which also began in 1992, have fallen by the wayside.

“WOMADelaide has a lot that is particular to it : because it is in Botanic Park, and because it is during the Adelaide Festival.”

“It had the sensibility of the Adelaide Festival. By that I mean its standard of presentation and the quality of the artists. In outdoor stage music at that time – let’s say, presentation was a lower order of priority. Also the engagement with the artists. They were being ‘hosted’ within a festival context.”

Maintaining those high production values, from the quality of the sound stages to the organisation of on-site amenities, has been a WOMADelaide hallmark and is one reason why the event has won Helpmann Awards for Best Contemporary Music Festival in 2002 and as recently as last year.

WOMAD is a highly ritualised experience. Many aspects of the organisation have evolved over 25 years but much has remained pleasingly familiar and as crowds walk through the gates they know the drill and head for their favourite venues and meeting places.

“Audiences have grown up with WOMAD and been touched by it.” Scobie remarks, “they all carry that sense of ownership that has become what the festival now represents – as much as what the organisers can influence”

Scobie and his team, including Programming Manager, Annette Tripodi, maintain close links with the UK and other WOMAD operations:

“We do take advice and feedback from each other but what we all recognise is that for the festivals to succeed they have to have the spirit of the place about them. WOMADelaide has a lot that is particular to it : because it is in Botanic Park, and because it is during the Adelaide Festival.”

The importance of the location, Botanic Park, right in the Adelaide CBD, with its gum trees, enormous Moreton Bay Fig trees and its swathe of green grass, has made it an oasis in the heat of March days and nights in Adelaide. Until recently WOMAD has had exclusive use of the park for performances and its proximity and natural beauty greatly enhances the appeal of the festival.

But while some things stay the same, much has also evolved since WOMAD became an annual event in 2002 and then extended to a four day fixture (on the newly established Adelaide Cup Monday holiday) in 2010.

Scobie notes that the annual cycle marked “a fundamental shift to a broader audience. Up until then we had absolutely loyal, rusted-on music fans who researched the program and so on. But for the broader community there was that perplexity about what it was. When it went annual more people engaged with it. People told friends and that gave it momentum”.

“It is different from other festivals where headlining is almost an obsession. We have stopped having to deal with that question – ‘Who are these people? Never heard of them.’ They take that on trust.”

“At the same we pushed the envelope with our audience – whether it was with programming Dirty Three on the one hand, or presenting a sound sculpture, edgy performance art activities, things you wouldn’t normally expect a broader audience to be engaged in. That is because the audience come with such an openness; an intent to enjoy what is offered. They are very receptive and keen to move on to the road less travelled.”

“Our audience is incredibly diverse – from teens to senior adults, there’s a huge breadth. A key to the festival is its format. If you are watching an artist on stage that doesn’t particular take your fancy, you have the freedom to move off and find something else.

“Strolling in the park is pleasurable. It is like a village environment. Colin Koch, one of the original organising group, who came up with the name WOMADelaide, described it as an event where you go and meet your neighbours. The social aspect is a key part. Whether you are among the 40% from interstate, or local, it is a very civilised and sociable environment and we have built on that aspect . So we have Planet Talks and the cuisine sessions, Taste to the World – ways people can engage, not just with the program, but each other.”

“It is different from other festivals where headlining is almost an obsession. In the early days we were obliged to have names – Men at Work, Crowded House, more recently, Sinead O’Connor. But in the last ten years we have stopped having to deal with that question – ‘Who are these people? Never heard of them.’ They take that on trust .

“We still have names – DD Dumbo is a hot favourite at the moment- but that’s not the way the program is appreciated. We had the conscious thought that for the 25th anniversary we should be able to produce a program which is quintessentially a WOMAD program. The Philip Glass Ensemble’s performance of Koyaanisqatsi marks the composer’s 80th birthday (the Adelaide Festival was one of the first commissioners of his work). The Manganiyar Classroom (an Indian children’s project designed to preserve the music traditions in Rajasthan ) highlights the way we relate to the lives ahead of us.

As always at WOMAD, women performers hold up half the sky.

“You can do very different things. The commission with Dance North, Lucy Guerin Inc and Senyawa is another, challenging our audience in new directions.”

WOMADelaide has a long tradition in featuring Indigenous Australian, Torres Strait Islander, Polynesian and Melanesian cultures. In 2017 Archie Roach, who first played back in 1992, returns, while, for a first appearance Yolngu man, Gawurra celebrates Arnhem Land culture.

Other featured performers destined to find enthusiastic admirers are Argentina’s tango sensation Orquesta Tipic Fernadez Fierro, Welsh folk fusion group 9Bach, South African a capella trio The Soil, and Xylouris White (Cretan lute player George Xylouris, in league with Dirty Three drummer Jim White).

As always at WOMAD, women performers hold up half the sky. From Aziza Brahim from Western Sahara/Spain to Bebel Gilberto (daughter of the legendary bossa nova singer Joao). Inna Modja, protégé of Salif Keita will perform, as will fellow Malian, Oumou Sangare. Spanish traditional singer Mercedes Peon will feature along with US favourite Toni Childs and Australians Kelly Menhennett, Caiti Baker and Nattali Rize. The program is full of promise.

Ska, blue beat, and reggae aficionados are well-served at WOMAD – this year with Monday night headliners, The Specials who will be… special. The single handed Jamaican, Brushy One String, is also not to be missed. Other bands mixing it up for the punters will be the Serbian actor, director and musician Emir Kusturica and his No Smoking Orchestra, Austrian live-wires Parov Stelar , The Warsaw Village Band, the exotic Oki Dub Ainu band from Japan and Baba ZuLa from Turkey.

I asked Ian Scobie how it feels on first night as the festival begins:

“Friday is always very fraught. I worry that everything will go well, will go smoothly. I find Friday difficult. You’ve got 25,000 people, all those souls – anything can happen, artists getting sick and so on. But by Monday it’s a mixture of exhaustion and happiness.”

At WOMAD, if you see this modest character in a broad hat cycling between the various stages, it is very likely Ian Scobie – “The most pleasurable thing I find generally about the festival” he observes,  is going through the park seeing the looks on people’s faces, at how much they are enjoying themselves, with friends, with their children.”

And then he climbs back on his bike for next time. There is always the next time. “We have large scale things planned for 2018 already. Things on the boil, we’ll have artists in town for discussions, and there are things that couldn’t happen for 2017 that are waiting to be added.”

WOMADelaide is from Friday March 10 until March 13.

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