February 25, 2014

Music World

Murray Bramwell previews a selection of the singers and sounds from Womadelaide 2014, opening March 7 to 11. Botanic Park, Adelaide.

For more than twenty years the first week in March in Adelaide has heralded, not just the Festival and Fringe, but Womadelaide, the enduringly popular music event with the portmanteau name that is both a local and national institution. First staged in 1992, under the wing of Rob Brookman’s Festival, Peter Gabriel’s UK concert venture Womad (that’s acronym for world of music and dance) introduced Australian audiences to an extraordinary range of exceptional musicians – the Afrobeat sounds of Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Tanzanian Remmy Ongala, Indian music from Dr L Subramaniam and Sheila Chandra and the unforgettable Qawwali vocals of the Pakistani master, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

So many names have been added to that list over a succession of Womad festivals organised in Adelaide by Arts Projects Australia, each year extending and intriguing crowds with new sounds, both ancient and modern, from every part of the world. And with that, a number of constant factors have ensured Womadelaide’s undoubted success. Most significant is the location – Botanic Park, right in the CBD, an oasis of green in the parched South Australian summer, with ample shade trees – including the enormous Moreton Bay figs which give the venue its unique character.

And from that has developed a sense of ritual and fond familiarity. There is a very high rate of recidivism among Womad patrons – many have attended every year since the festival began. Some who first came with their parents are now adults continuing the tradition. From the moment people enter the park they settle into its easy vibe. Everyone knows the drill and there is a gentle orderliness about sharing the space, keeping the park tidy and peacefully co-existing. The layout of the stages – in recent times expanded from five to seven – has remained the same, as have the excellent production values.

But there is nothing predictable about the program. Most festivals depend on well-known headliners to attract the crowd, whereas at Womad maybe two thirds or more of the artists are completely unknown to Australian fans. There are headliners, of course. Nigerian singer Femi Kuti and his band the Positive Force continue the Afrobeat presence at Womad, following such artists as Salif Keita and Baaba Maal. Performing from his latest CD No Place for My Dream, Kuti’s songs, many in English, such as “No Work No Job No Money” and “Action Time”, are rallying reminders of Developing World injustices. Femi Kuti and his band will perform the closing set on Monday night.

Billy Bragg is making a welcome return to Australia- and features for a first time at Womadelaide. In recent years, since his Woody Guthrie project, Mermaid Avenue, Bragg has turned his interest to American country styles and, with its mid-Atlantic accents, his most recent album Tooth and Nail, produced by US singer Joe Henry, sounds a very long way from Essex. Let’s hope in his once-only Monday night set there might still be greetings to the new brunette.

US hip-hop pioneers, Arrested Development also perform just once- on Saturday night. After more than twenty years, Grammy awards and such recent albums as Strong – with tracks such as “Let Your Voice be Heard” and “Freedom” – they still deliver beats with heart.

Among the Celtic folk artists at Womad this year are Scottish band Breabach , a five piece band featuring rousing Highland pipes, but, as their 2012 CD Bann indicates, they have their lyrical shading as well. Also at the forefront of contemporary folk is English singer Sam Lee and Friends. With vocals eerily reminiscent of the late Bert Jansch, Lee’s recent recording, Ground of its Own -with cornet and chimes on “On Yonder Hill” and loops and beats on “The Ballad of George Collins” – promises much for their Saturday 5pm sit-down set.

And while blues and Americana are often in short supply at Womad, fans will be pleased to see Australian master guitarist Jeff Lang at Speakers’ Corner, and from the US, Pokey Lafarge and his band conjure the jugband ragtime swing of the 20s and 30s on such staples as “Wontcha Please Don’t Do It” and “Kentucky Mae”.

Women artists feature prominently at Womad and this year is no exception. Indie country singer Neko Case, who is touring the Eastern states in early March, performs only on Friday night. Featuring her ninth album, unfurlingly titled The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You, Neko Case will be gathering admirers in Adelaide. Australian based artists include Ngaiire, former singer from Blue King Brown, with her debut CD Lamentations, Brisbane singer Thelma Plum, Adelaide newcomer Loren Kate and, leading the sweet-sounding folk pop band Tinpan Orange, Emily Lubitz. Fado is never far away at Womad and highly-praised Portuguese singer Carminho performs at twilight on Monday.

Womad is nothing if not eclectic and numbers of bands draw on a farrago of influences – like Brooklyn-based brass and percussion unit, Red Baraat with its North Indian, Bollywood and jazz influences, Japanese outfit Osaka Monaurail devoted to the works of James Brown, and the Spanish surf sound of Los Coronas. The seven piece French Algerian group Dub Inc play Saturday afternoon and Monday at 7pm – they have a rich vibrant sound and should be terrific. As will New Zealand favourites Fat Freddy’s Drop whose new album Blackbird has taken their assured mix of soul, techno and reggae to a new level. They only play on Friday and they will be a blast.

Also among the acts I am keen to see is the UK based Balanescu Quartet. Led by Romanian born violinist and composer Alexander Balanescu, they last played in Adelaide at the Barossa Music Festival in the early 90s when they accompanied the Meryl Tankard Dance company with their witty arrangements of Kraftwerk songs. This time they will perform live with a screening of Marie T, a tribute to Romanian singer Marie Tanase. Perhaps in their Monday set there will room for “Robots”, “Autobahn” and “Pocket Calculator”.

There are always some artists that make Womad memorable, whose music we have never heard before but they become immediate favourites. Latin piano wiz Robert Fonseca is a likely contender, as are Living Room, from Austria, a minimalist duo featuring percussion, bass clarinet and an invention called a pepephon. Scandinavian singer-songwriter Ane Brun is another: reminiscent of Beth Orton perhaps, or even Joni Mitchell, she plays twilight sets on both Saturday and Sunday- you will want to go to both. And don’t miss the keening vocals and oud, synth and percussion sounds of Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi. Her current album, Kelmti Horra, reminds us how wide the world of music can be.

Published online The Daily Review, February 25, 2014

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