Review: WOMADelaide 2019

★★★★★
music review (adelaide) | Read in About 11 minutes
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WOMADelaide
Published 01 Apr 2019

Since 1992, the World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival has seen more than 950 performers and groups showcase their countries and traditions in Adelaide’s Botanic Park. Held over the long weekend in March, WOMADelaide has a reputation as an accepting community which shares in talents and experiences from all corners of the globe. This year over 65 artists took to the many stages of Botanic Park in a celebration of storytelling through performance.

Friday

Arriving on site, we catch the last of Amjad Ali Khan's set and are mesmerised by the music’s beauty and extravagance. It is truly ‘East meets West’. A glorious way to open WOMADelaide 2019.

Charismatic choir director, Morris Stuart, opens with a brief introduction to the story of how the choir was founded and a tutorial on the living languages of the Pitjantjara and West Arrernte peoples. Recorded versions of the choirs’ performances are ubiquitous on the internet, but to hear the pure aridity and dedication in the voices of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir live, is special. Their harmonies relieve and refresh the audience of their daytime stressors. Like a boomerang, the ancient hymns they sing have travelled thousands of miles and years, to reach our ears on this warm March evening.

Kaiit’s fans flock to see her one-night-only show. Phat rhymes, funky beats and full-on style have come to define the Melbourne soul singer. Her smoky vocals pierce the dust and dirt kicked up by the clambering audience, while her backing vocalist is especially skilful in anticipating Kaiit’s improvisational approach to her own songs. ‘Natural Woman’ is an instant hit. [Emma Heidenreich]

Calling WOMADelaide ‘The World’s Festival’ might bestow it with a planetary significance, something cynics might decry as overstatement. How significant can one weekend in March really be? But whether you subscribe to that interpretation, or see WOMAD as a music festival like any other, it’s hard to shake the feeling of cosmic alignment on this clear Friday night.

From the packed, attentive crowd gathering for tonight’s Foundation Stage headliner Christine and the Queens, to the awed hush when she speaks to address us (it’s pin-drop quiet, something the French alt-pop star can’t help but acknowledge), to her announcement that her middle name is Adelaide, there’s the heady tang of right-here-right-now history in the air.

Image: Christine and the Queens

Héloïse Adelaide Letissier is a firecracker artist – a quite literal all-singing, all-dancing powerhouse – popping the doors off the expectations of what a performance like this should be. Swarmed by dancers who’d be criminally underrated being labelled ‘backup’, Letissier performs with, against, among six impossibly athletic, androgynous bodies. Sometimes as one brain, sometimes beautifully individual, their physical enactments of Letissier’s timeless 80s grooves and ballads seem, breathlessly, to never stop. To ‘The Stranger’, the closing track to 2018’s Chris (“You can call me Chris,” she says), her dancers fight and grapple around her in such convincing slow motion you can scarcely believe it’s not half-speed hologram trickery.

The choreography on display tonight is in a league of its own. And that’s all without even celebrating the firm, timely urgency of her tearing down of gender stereotypes, or the uncompromising pride she radiates while using her music to champion love and inclusivity in an era of increasingly fractured communities. Maybe this is the world’s festival, after all; if an artist like this can unite us, dancing through the crowd with impromptu dance-offs with audience members, there may be hope yet. [George Sully]

Saturday

Many would never have heard of this little Melbourne band, but their WOMAD presence is impossible to ignore. Catchy, fun, creative and wonderfully entertaining, Amaru Tribe aim to fuse their Latino roots with pop-rock and colourful rhythms. The charango in particular soars above groovy bass notes, and the simple, repetitive tones make it easy for the audience to sing along.

As night time crowds swarm to catch a glimpse of John Butler Trio, Israeli oud player Yohai Cohen and his band add a much humbler, more delicate sound to the mix, comprising violin, bass, drums, piano and Cohen’s vocal/instrumental ornamentation. A warmth emanates from the stage. Yohai Cohen Quintet have a sound that pays tribute to the land flowing with milk and honey. [EH]

Image: Amaru Tribe

In many ways, John Butler Trio is a natural choice for WOMADelaide. With over 20 years and seven studio albums under their belts, this award-winning Australian roots band are arguably as well known for their passionate political and ecological activism as they are for their music – and the Foundation stage is a more than adequate platform for both. This heaving crowd is perhaps explained by the fact John Butler and his band have not been back to this festival for 11 years; despite being a Western Australian musician, this is something of a homecoming gig for the man. It’s everything you could expect from a JBT performance; smooth dub, rollicking bluegrass, head-nodding funk.

In between Butler speaks of coming home, and of the state of the world. They’re an accomplished outfit who don’t skip a beat. A clear highlight is the drawn-out, meditative instrumental of ‘Ocean’, as Butler dons a 12-string guitar to summon a wordless tsunami of sound. 

Closing off proceedings on the Saturday is Foundation Stage headliner Fat Freddy’s Drop, one of the safest pairs of hands for a festival’s peak. The New Zealand seven-piece are an elevated experience when live, their effortless dub stylings writ larger than life when compared to the studio recordings. While their slick professionalism risks teetering into idle complacency, their confidence carries them through hit after hit, leaving plenty of room for improvisation to keep the performance tangibly fresh. Trumpets pierce out and up into the sky, as if in triumph, while playful piano keys dance through the crowd. Thumping new single ‘Special Edition’ gets us all grooving, striped in the roving lights from the stage. [GS]

Sunday

Sona Jobarteh’s music is the kind that brings joy to the soul. Jobarteh’s premiere on the WOMAD stage saw her album sell out at the WOM Shop the same day. Her audience is scattered with fans and people who have never heard her music before, but both groups leave feeling uplifted. Jobarteh and her band have an unparalleled sense of rhythm, interspersed with effortless, smooth harmonies and the gentle, complex strum of her iconic Gambian harp set against funky electric guitar. Jobarteh herself is somehow more beautiful in person and her stage persona is fun, cheeky and inclusive. She ushers the audience to sing along to ‘Kanu’, a love song.

No WOMADelaide is complete without a requisite Irish band on the Foundation stage to get the audience jigging in the warm air. Since 1991, Sharon Shannon, a well-known Irish accordion, melodica and tin whistle player and her band have produced some of the most successful albums in Ireland’s history. The band comprises an Irish fiddle, bodhrán, acoustic and electric guitar and Shannon’s iconic accordion, which is occasionally replaced with a delicate Irish tin whistle.

They perform a series of Irish jigs, airs and vocal rounds, before opening the stage to multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Susan O’Neill, who performs a bluesy, husky rendition of ‘Piece of My Heart’. O’Neill’s WOMAD performance establishes her as an up-and-coming voice. [EH]

In amongst the relaxed vibes are Australia’s own 5 Angry Men who unassumingly ride their black fixies into the crowd of people and toward The Bells. Despite wearing heavy, dark trench coats in stifling humidity, what follows is an energetic acrobatic performance. The five each have their own thick, knotted rope which, when pulled, strikes a church bell sound. In a discordant synergy the men jump, pull and flip on their ropes. When working together, the use of space, height and sound is mesmerising. When something doesn’t go to plan, the irate nature of the 5 Angry Men bubbles over in hilarious clowning acts across other ropes and into the audience. We laugh as they steal water bottles from children and lean so far back holding their ropes that their dishevelled hair is dragged across the faces of the front row. [Laura Desmond]

Image: Sona Jobarteh

Tara Tiba’s exotic, melismatic voice is paired with the passionate rhythm of her Cuban band, to create a fusion of Latino blues and Middle Eastern sounds that are haunting, resonant, tranquil and replete with spine-tingling crescendos. Tiba and her band have their audience ensconced, many in search of relief from the surrounding boom of other, less subtle artists that fill botanic park. Throughout her performance, Tiba unravels the powerful story of her childhood growing up in Iran and finding freedom from the oppression of Iranian revolutionary powers through her music. She is as relatable on stage as she is in interview. Tiba also offers a foray into the ancient Iranian classical music tradition of Radif, through an improvisation of sound set to Iranian poetry. [EH]

After a very successful 12 months, Adelaide’s Ukulele Death Squad take to the Zoo Stage in front of an welcoming home crowd. Their particular brand of energetic uke-thrashing is both enthralling to watch and impossible not to dance along to. Performing a mixture of classics (such as a spring-loaded cover of Cher’s timeless ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’) and original pieces, the energy of the set ebbs and flows, including a heartfelt acapella Irish folk tune from Eamonn Burke. The audience silent, Burke shows his connection to his home country through his rich, husky voice.

We also see a rising star in Benjamin Roberts' young son, who makes his debut with the band. Even though he struggles to use the microphone, his sheer confidence as a child under five is inspiring.

Bringing in the sunset is Tkay Maidza with an all-killer, no-filler set of the bass-heavy tunes which launched her onto the world stage. Maidza powers through her rap and hits every note while throwing dance moves across the stage. The crowd grows in number through the set and by the time 'Tennies' drops, we may as well have been in an underground club at 2am. We are lucky enough to hear a number of unreleased tracks which are preceded by a quick lyric lesson so we can back Maidza up in the choruses. [LD]

To hear Dangerous Song – comprised of wind instrumentalist Lindsay Pollak and improvisational singer Lizzie O’Keefe – and Bukhu in person is mesmerising. O’Keefe’s unbelievable range, Pollak’s looping capacity and Bukhu’s Morin Khur and throat singing combine to create a musical experience that is challenging, enveloping and emotional. It is a testament to the sadness of environmental degradation of the Earth. [EH]

Monday

The harmonic roar of the Galician bagpipes beckons us to the stage to see the Silk Road Ensemble. Formed in 2000, the Ensemble are transparent in their objectives to unite people through music. Their compositions are an amalgamation of the sounds of Asia, the Middle East and Europe. They explore the dimensions of influence that have come to define the main musical regions of the world. Each musician is a virtuoso of their specific instrument. There's Kayhan Kalhor on the kemancheh, Wu Tong on the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ), or Sandeep Das on the tabla. (Fest has the pleasure of meeting Das after the performance, who gives us a brief tutorial on the different sounds produced by the male and female Tabla.)

Image: Sandeep Das

These musicians and their instruments are new to most Western listeners, but their complex diversity is held together by a delicate web of sounds from more familiar instruments – violins, cellos, pianos and double basses. Silk Road Ensemble’s sound is unique, beautiful and joyful too. [EH]

Fighting the Monday afternoon’s overcast sky and chewy, humid air is Dutch rock trio My Baby. Though to call their decidedly guitar-based music (lead, bass, drums) anything akin to rock ‘n’ roll – despite its clear blues and funk influences – would be to ignore its powerful, house music-like tempos. Progressive in a way that’s closer to the hypnotic build of electronic dance music, My Baby’s repetitions and looping melodies enthrall this sweating, reverent crowd. Cato van Dijck’s guitar, battlecry vocal and mastery with loop pedals go toe-to-toe with her brother Joost’s four-to-the-floor drumbeat, as tracks like ‘Seeing Red’ and ‘In The Club’ start to finally pierce the sky. [GS]