More than 96,000 people flooded into Botanic Park across the March long weekend to witness one of WOMADelaide’s best lineups of recent times and a whole lot of feathers.
DAY ONE – Friday, March 9
WOMADelaide kicks off in the sunny balm of a Friday afternoon for yet another year of international culture and sound. Jamie Goldsmith continues the family tradition of opening the festival with a rousing Welcome to Country from a troupe including Uncle Brian Goldsmith, Jack Buckskin and the Taikurtinna dancers. A yidaki is played, and Goldsmith pays homage to the Yolngu people from whence it came, as well as the Kaurna, their ancestors and spirits.
It’s a smattering crowd at first, with interstate visitors having slipped through the gates early, and Adelaide’s most eager attendees have knocked off work early to make the first performances.
On the Foundation Stage Bixiga 70 then blasts into life. The Brazilian crew hailing from Sao Paulo bring a boisterous set, getting the crowd bopping, clapping and waving throughout on Botanic Park’s still-green grass. Rolling through a wide variety of styles that mirror Brazil’s own cultural diversity, there are touches of big band funk, guitar-driven psychedelia and electronic noodling here along with deep horn-based grooves. A freewheeling trombone solo particularly sets the crowd alight in this raucous opening performance.
More punters roll into the park, while others grab an evening meal, discovering WOMADelaide’s new waste-preventing initiative of drinks supplied almost exclusively in hardy plastics cups and water bottles, purchased via deposit. Many are preparing for one of the festival’s marquee performers with her own special connection to WOMADelaide from almost a decade ago.
Photo: AK Photography
Anoushka Shankar arrives on the Foundation Stage seven years after appearing in a feted performance with her late father Ravi, and she finds a large crowd ready to hear more. While Ravi’s performance in 2010 had a reverent feel to it, with the crowd mostly seated, even shooshing one another throughout his performance, Anoushka’s is evenly divided between sitters and standers.
The set comes from her latest album, Land of Gold, written in response to the plight of the world’s refugees, displaying her classical capacity with the sitar as well as more experimental, electronic pieces. It’s a diverse collection of tunes, with the audience guided through low tempo, meditative songs and into faster contemporary work, satisfying both those down on the grass and the up-front crowd who are very ready to dance. The festival organisers are strict on performance time, Shankar laments, but the band powers through their final three songs, with the last rising to a speedy and satisfyingly cathartic finish.
Melbourne’s Nai Palm assumes control of the Novatech Stage just a few minutes before Shankar finishes. The sun has set, but the warmth still lingers for the crowd, which is talkative as Nai Palm plays a harmonious and soulful performance.
As with just about any performer on the Novatech Stage, the overhanging bats are a curious, if not vaguely threatening and noisy novelty. Nai Palm makes light of that darkness, thanking the crowd for watching her set “featuring 70,000 bats” and appreciates their own musical talent of echolocation.
The Manganiyar Seduction
The Manganiyar Seduction kicks off immediately after Nai Palm, and a swelling seated audience fill Frome Park to watch the first of their nightly performances. For those who saw The Manganiyar Classroom perform in 2017, this Seduction proves a reasonably different show. Where Classroom was tied together by the narrative string of school children learning and performing their parts in the show, Seduction is supported by its towering grid artifice, hemmed by red curtains and dotted by light bulbs.
Slowly it begins with the Rajasthani ensemble pulling back the curtains on their own squares to reveal singers, strings or percussion played in a methodical, and entrancing manner. The lights around the squares flick on and off throughout, illuminating the 33 panel grid in Tetris-like formations, each with its own musical arrangement. It comes to a spine-tingling climax, of course, with every player lit, its white robed conductor wildly gesticulating and orchestral clamour pouring out over the mesmerised onlookers.
DAY TWO – Saturday, March 10
With her stunning voice and an infectiously cheerful stage presence, Havana’s Daymé Arocena provides Stage Three with an early Saturday highlight. Still in her mid-20s, the former child prodigy’s oeuvre of Afro and Latin jazz with Cuban folk and western vocal jazz has made her a favourite of UK tastemaker Gilles Peterson and audiences across the globe with her albums Nueva Era and last year’s Cubafonia.
Arocena’s voice is a thing of beauty, like a Cuban Ella Fitzgerald, as she sings an eclectic mix of jazz and folk in Spanish, Yoruba and English. Backed by a brilliant three piece band, the composer/writer begins with a mix of Afro-Cuban jazz and spiritual. Dressed all in white (which represents her Afro-Caribbean Yoruba faith, Santeria), she jokes that it wasn’t easy to get a visa from Cuba to play WOMADelaide.
She unsuccessfully tries to teach the crowd to cha-cha-cha, but tells the audience to “keep singing, keep dancing, keep feeling Cuba”. We might not be able to dance like they do in Havana but most leave Stage Three with a deeper feeling and understanding of Cuba’s music and culture via one of the most impressive new voices in jazz.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Eight years after playing one of the highlight 2010 WOMADelaide sets, Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble make a long overdue return to Botanic Park. The band — predominantly made up of seven sons of the late Sun Ra Arkestra trumpeter Phil Cohran — have achieved a splattering of fame since their last visit including collaborating and touring with Gorillaz while their brass anthem War was prominently featured in the blockbuster series The Hunger Games.
Though their last album Book of Sound was a more reflective jazz excursion than the party brass of their self-titled debut in 2009, they get the Foundation Stage moving with tracks such as War and an upbeat mix of brass funk, jazz, hip hop and even a nod to Chicago house. Armed with a swagger few live bands possess, the brothers frequently jump on the mic to rhyme over their brass instruments for an energetic set that was fittingly ended by their call and response track Party Started. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another eight years for their WOMAD return.
A packed Novatech Stage — the largest crowd The Adelaide Review has witnessed at this stage — greets one of the most exciting new names in Australian hip hop, Baker Boy. The young Yolngu rapper, now based in Melbourne, shows the hype is justified with one of the most ferocious hip hop sets seen at WOMAD.
With two backing MCs and a DJ, Baker Boy’s live show is much more impressive than his early singles, which include the dual charting triple J Hottest 100 tracks Marryuna and Cloud 9. On stage, the former Djuki Mala dancer delivers a raw intensity that hasn’t been heard on record yet. Hopefully his debut album, due for release in the middle of the year, is able to capture what Baker Boy delivered this Saturday evening in Adelaide. He is an impressive talent.
Place des Anges
There has never been a WOMADelaide event as spectacular as Gratte Ciel’s aerial circus Place des Anges (Place of Angels). Despite the spectacle, it will also go down as one of WOMAD’s most controversial shows thanks to tonnes of imported duck feathers that were poured over the Foundation Stage’s audience across the four days.
Not many events create a sense of childlike wonder but the sight of acrobats dressed as angels performing in the night sky is something to behold and treasure. Described as an aerial ballet it is closer to Homer Simpson’s idea of a ballet than Sylvie Guillem. It’s not as graceful as a traditional ballet but that doesn’t impact the wonder. Witnessing acrobats whizz and tumble in the sky above provokes a joyous reaction especially when the feathers pour down over you like a snow storm in a fairy tale.
It could be argued that Place des Anges places spectacle over meaning but the resulting ethical debate proves otherwise. Place des Anges dishes up plenty of food for thought, as the artistic debate will continue for some while yet. Meanwhile, the performances won’t be forgotten anytime soon either.
DAY THREE – Sunday, March 11
Melbourne via Yirrkala songwriter Yirrmal offers a rousing opening to the day with a refreshing interpretation of radio-friendly acoustic rock. Having appeared in a small but important role in last Adelaide Festival’s 1967: Songs In The Key Of Yes, it’s satisfying to see him back to stretch out with his own songs and a full band. While the Milyawutj offered arrangements similar in style to cuts from the Mumford & Sons or Vance Joy playbook, Yirrmal’s lyrics – often sung in Yolgnu Matha and English – and charisma are all his own.
It’s been a busy weekend for the singer, making a cameo early in the festival during the set of his cousin, triple j-feted rapper Baker Boy. At one point Yirrmal pauses to reflect on the importance of carrying and passing on stories and culture, and inspiring those younger than him to do the same for the benefit of Aboriginal communities and non-Indigenous Australia alike. “When you sit down at the piano, you don’t just play the white chords,” he says, a fitting sentiment for a festival of cultural exchange like WOMADelaide.
Mama Kin Spender
Over on the Moreton Bay Stage Mama Kin Spender eschew a traditional set in favour of something more inclusive and fun. Joined onstage by members of two local choirs, the duo explain they’ve been working with different groups of singers in each town they visit, ensuring each performance is unique to a time and place.
They take it to a new extreme with this crowd, coaxing willing participants up off the grass and sorting them into vocal parts. Initially recruiting just a handful of people, after a few minutes the entire audience is on its feet, sorted by bass, tenor, alto or soprano, and learning choral harmonies to the pair’s single Air Between Us. It takes a while, but thanks to Kin’s sense of humour and excitement at the sounds she’s hearing, it’s clearly a highlight for her and the audience.
The punters at Dan Sultan need little encouragement to get vocal, serenading Sultan’s keyboard player with an impromptu ‘Happy Birthday’ and adding some gospel overtones to Hold It Together, the stirring single from last year’s Killer. Every bit the rock star, Sultan struts across the stage dishing out new wave rock for the album’s title track, teasing classic rock riffs out of his his goldtop Les Paul.
At their louder moments Sultan and his band recall Humble Pie, Sultan’s voice every bit as powerful and gritty as the late Steve Marriott. Then, he pivots, sending the band offstage to perform solo, showing off his voice’s rugged vulnerability with Paul Kelly co-write Dirty Ground. Dirty or clean, from the amount of ground expertly covered it’s evident why Sultan is now regarded as a generational talent in Australian music.
A subtle surprise comes from Bedouine, the project of Aleppo-born songwriter Azniv Korkejian. Set to fingerpicked acoustic guitar and light-touch bass from Gus Seyffert (producer of her 2017 debut album), Korkejian’s voice evokes Laura Marling-via-Nick Drake with a sunny Californian wistfulness.
Then, in the middle, she offers up a song sung in her native Armenian that touches on lives put on hold by war, adding a different set of stakes to the references to unpaid rent and “books and radio snow” that dot her other songs. As the Moreton Bay figs provide shaded reprieve from the intensity of the sun, Bedouine offers a welcome moment of tranquillity away from the loud energy on other stages — across a four day festival, even the most dedicated dancing feet need a rest.
Less subdued is Kamasi Washington, the innovative LA saxophonist and his group bursting onto the stage for an explosion of complex rhythms and freewheeling melodies. A clear highlight for many around the festival, Washington takes the crowd on a mesmerising journey of virtuosic modern jazz as vocalist Patrice Quinn bounds around the stage.
The chemistry and intense talent of Washington and his players keeps people’s faces enthralled and their bodies moving, even if the jazzy time signatures and rhythmic changes often require a bit more attention than usually necessary. The musical family becomes actual family when Washington welcomes his father Rickey to join him onstage, and although hopes of a cameo from regular collaborator Thundercat were unfulfilled, the bassist’s brother Ronald Bruner, Jr. mans the kit with incredible energy.
Closing out Stage Three, The Avalanches aren’t quite as elusive as they once were with their second appearance in Adelaide since the release of their long-awaited second album Wildflower last year. What’s special about tonight is the presence of founding member Robbie Chater, who was forced to sit out much of Wildflower’s touring cycle due to health issues. At the start of the set he pauses to take a photo on his phone, looking positively thrilled to be out and sharing his creations with such happy crowds.
He should be pleased, when newer tracks like Because I’m Me and Frankie Sinatra provoke a gleeful cheer from the crowd that equals the response to earlier hits like Frontier Psychiatrist from their seminal Since I Left You. The energy of the band’s current lineup offers a different interpretation of their sample-rich albums, with drums from Paris Jeffree, vocal samples sung live by Eliza Wolfgramm and Spank Rock delivering verses to replace Wildflower’s Danny Brown and MF Doom cameos. Even mastermind Chater spends much of the set behind an electric guitar, leaving most of the laptop work to fellow longtime member Tony DiBlasi.
Despite a few bumps, like the fun but inessential cover of The Clash’s Guns Of Brixton, The Avalanches of 2018 might share scant membership with the lineup of their last festival appearances, but their chaotic energy and sense of fun makes up for it. While Wolfgramm’s passing comment that it would be their “last gig for a very long time” could be cause for concern given the length of their last hiatus, tonight’s show provided enough positive vibes to last, perhaps not another 16, but a few years at least.
DAY FOUR – Monday, March 12
One of a select crew of local acts dotting the lineup, Naomi Keyte attracts an early afternoon crowd that noticeably grows throughout her set. Starting quietly with a cover of Mirror Drawings by defunct Melbourne duo Kid Sam, Keyte draws us into the post-folk rhythms and arching melodies of her debut album Melaleuca. Slipping in older track Balance proves a sly move, winning over the Adelaide crowd with its references to catching trams through “this symmetrical town”, painting the city — generally agreed to be a bit of a cluster headache at this time of year — as a picture of serenity.
Keyte invites a horn section onstage for Somene Else’s Home, a highlight which Keyte prefaces with one of the most succinct and evocative pre-song summaries ever uttered all weekend: “Breakup, Greece, AirBNB, you get the picture”. Take that Hemmingway, she only needs three words. Keyte pays tribute to the Kaurna people before a folk interpretation of Beds Are Burning, the song Midnight Oil opened their own WOMADelaide set with back in 1997. It’s a bold choice that actually works remarkably well, and offers a nice nod to the festival’s past and the deeper history of the land it briefly occupies.
Flanked by two dancers Jojo Abot joins the bats on the Novatech Stage for her genre-squelching set of Afrobeat, jazz, electronica, reggae and more. Those dancers know the score, joyfully moving to each tune as we progress through songs replete echoey effects, killer drumming, synthy drone and infectious rhythm.
They never upstage the main Ghanaian attraction though. Abot’s killer outfit of mustard and crimson tones combines with Botanic Park’s greenery to complete the red, yellow, green combo of Ghana’s flag, while her big charisma and bigger vocals pull listeners in with an irresistible gravity. Pretty much everyone’s bopping by the end when Abot wishes “good vibes” to all and encourages those born with privilege to do what they can to help others.
A chill creeps into the evening as the sun dips below the treeline, and Chico Trujillo lands the Foundation Stage for their second performances of the festival. These Chilean party monsters provide more than enough energy for an audience eager to get the hot blood pumping, as they roll through a variety of Latin American beats.
The band was once a ska/punk outfit, and while they’ve moved more towards cumbia than screams, uptempo intensity clearly still pumps through their veins. His beard is white but band leader and vocalist Aldo Asenjo is infectiously youthful on stage, jumping around and summoning the crowd into arm waving action and that time-honoured call: ‘hey!’
If you were told 15 years ago that the 18-year-old guy playing bass for thrash metal band Suicidal Tendencies would be one of 2018’s most influential musicians with his mix of funk, jazz, R&B and yacht rock, you wouldn’t have believed it. But the man known to his mother as Stephen Bruner is one of the great contemporary artists who has created a unique sound of his own.
Under his Thundercat pseudonym, Bruner has delivered three acclaimed albums and recorded important collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and fellow WOMADelaide performer Kamasi Washington. Taking to Stage Three with his two-piece band he asks if we’re ready to travel down the rabbit hole. Thundercat delivers on that promise as the first half of his set is a space funk odyssey with the trio giving the tracks of his latest album Drunk a psychedelic jazz facelift.
A highlight is A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II) complete with the meows. “I fucking love my cat, man,” Thundercat admits after his ode to felines. The crowd erupts for his underground hit Them Changes and the band leaves the stage with the crowd calling for one more. They do more than that, returning to play two more: the Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins collaboration Show You the Way (complete with an amusing Michael McDonald vocal imitation) and Friend Zone, his ode to video games. “I love video games and I love my cat,” he tells the audience playfully. Thundercat and his band (that includes the brilliant drummer Justin Brown) delivered a WOMAD set for the ages to close Stage Three.
WOMADelaide 2018 took place in Botanic Park from March 9 until March 12
Reviews written by Walter Marsh, John Dexter and David Knight
Photography by Sia Duff and AK Photography’s Kristy DeLaine and Andreas Heuer