March 16, 2012

WOMADelaide – 20 Years in the World

Filed under: 2012,Archive,Womadelaide

March 9, 2012

WOMADelaide – 20 Years in the World

As Adelaide’s most cherished musical festival celebrates a major milestone it is timely to consider just how far it has come since 1992 when that strange acronym was first welded on to our city’s name – and WOMADelaide arrived. Rob Brookman had programmed this weekend of something called ‘world music’ as part of his Adelaide Festival, and he (and Administrator Ian Scobie) negotiated with UK Director Thomas Brooman to bring together a range of artists few of us had ever heard of, but were soon to be amazed by.

Driven by singer Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label the fledgling idea of WOMAD – the World of Music, Arts and Dance – took particular hold in Adelaide’s Botanic Park where it has flourished ever since. And when we revisit the 1992 line-up it is not hard to see why it has been so providential – the Afrobeat showbands of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, and Tanzanian activist Remmy Ongala reminded us that electric rock music was not merely a Western style but a global phenomenon, while Indian violinist Dr L Subramaniam, vocal stylist Sheila Chandra, the haunting Trio Bulgarka and eclectic electronica exponents the Afro Celt Sound System – all variously opened the ears and minds of the delighted audience.

The unexpected highlight, though, was the entrancing Qawwali vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his fellow Pakistani musicians. Performing until past midnight on a balmy night under an open Adelaide sky, the ensemble’s intricately mesmerising vocals – and the connection they made with an audience, for the most part unfamiliar with this ecstatic music form – came to epitomise the WOMADelaide experience.

Even though the 1992 audience was modest in number and the program small compared to the current format, many key elements were established at that first gathering. Botanic Park itself instantly became an essential ingredient, as has the layout of the stages and the excellent production values they continue to maintain. WOMADelaide has morphed and mutated in many ways over 20 years, but it has also maintained seamless continuities. It is the familiarity of its rituals and protocols which has meant a high percentage of the audience have attended year after year – filing through the gates and instantly resuming that collective spirit of affable curiosity and openness to new cultural experiences.

WOMADelaide , with its orderly, self-regulating ambience, is like an exhilarating social experiment where friends meet and picnic under the Moreton Bay figs , the weary over-worked take a relaxing deep breath, and parents and their kids feel free and safe to roam and have fun. And, of course, those who were young children in the 90s are now part of that evolving generation who have supported the new sounds and directions of a myriad of WOMAD’s DJs, dubsters and assorted other sonic pioneers.

The WOMADelaide audience is unique in its inclusive benevolence and its willingness to explore each new program in all its facets. There is support for the social issues that are part of the festival’s charter – whether for AIDS awareness in the early years, gender and racial equality or, most recently (particularly with its satellite festival, WOMAD Earth Station) resource sustainability and environmental action on climate change. In its cultural programming WOMADelaide has been an avid supporter of Aboriginal rights (and rites) and featured numerous musical talents from Jimmy Little to Tiddas to this year’s return of the Pigram Brothers.

2012 brings yet another intriguing line-up – the welcome return of Baaba Maal, a showcase for the inventive trio Dirty Three and the haunting voice of the extraordinary Gurrumul. WOMADelaide Director Ian Scobie announced that Youssou N’Dour can’t attend this anniversary year because he is preparing his campaign to run for President of Senegal. What an amazing thought. And it tells us so much about the synergy between culture and political and social change – that, from the little green shoots of music, all manner of big things grow.

Murray Bramwell

Published in WOMADelaide 2012, Official Souvenir Guide Celebrating 20 years.
pp. 30-1.

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