March 03, 2020

Daily Review – WOMADelaide 2020 Returns to Botanic Park

Director Ian Scobie talks with Murray Bramwell about Adelaide’s most enduring international music event.

This coming Friday, March 6, marks the opening of the four day WOMADelaide music festival. With its odd portmanteau name (WOMAD is an acronym for World of Music and Dance) the South Australian version of the UK festival, originally founded and promoted by Peter Gabriel, began as part of Rob Brookman’s Adelaide Festival in 1992.

There have been 23 festivals since then – it became an annual fixture in 2003 and a four day event in 2010. Since 1995 the organisation has been managed by APA (Arts Projects Australia) and the current director, Ian Scobie is the sole remaining original member of the APA team.

As WOMADelaide approaches its 30th anniversary, I asked Scobie what he considers the secret, not only of the festival’s success, but also its longevity. He talks about the great advantage of having unique access to Botanic Park, a green oasis right in Adelaide’s CBD with ample roaming space for 12,000 people at any one time as well as seven different performance stages.

“We are lucky with WOMAD. Firstly it’s in a city that is familiar with the idea of festivals. It has drunk the festival kool-aid. People have grown up with it. It is real and palpable. And the Events SA funding is absolutely rock solid. I talk to colleagues interstate and know its hard yakka without funding confidence. We can talk to people three years in advance knowing that the funding and infrastructure are in place. I can see things and plan. I don’t have to convince a board and so on

The festival also offers a carefully managed experience for both artists and audiences. Scobie sees this as an international WOMAD characteristic, whether the UK, Europe or New Zealand version.

“It is interesting. Ziggy Marley (one of the 2020 headliners in Adelaide) played at WOMAD UK last year. He was impressed. He got it. Being in a like-minded audience and out of the rock and roll thing of ‘arrive in town-practice-put on a show-leave’. Artists universally respond to WOMADelaide in such a positive manner. They love the city, they love the park, they love the markets. It’s great.”

It is also a factor that the festival began as part of the Adelaide Festival where the etiquette of hospitality was a key feature of Writers Week and the performance program generally.

“I remember the director, Clifford Hocking, giving me the 101 lesson when I worked with him on the Adelaide Festival. That was – to remember that you are inviting people to be a guest in your home and essentially you need to understand that they are feeling nervous, they have travelled a long way. They need to feel welcome and looked after.

“Their technical requirements will be met – but more fundamentally there is a level of respect for them which puts them in the best frame of mind to do their best work. Then it will be received well. And if that’s not the case, then all this other human static gets in there – and people don’t feel looked after.

“I have the same view of our audience. You have 20,000 guests who are invited to your backyard for a party. You want to make sure they are comfortable and there’s shade, because if all those basic things aren’t there you have missed the point – if people aren’t comfortable and can’t hear. You want to get rid of all that.”

The 2020 WOMADelaide has some big names coming home to roost. Celebrated Malian griot singer Salif Keita revisits for a fourth and perhaps final time, esteemed US gospel singer and civil rights activist, Mavis Staples, is also returning after her splendid set in 2008 with her exceptional We’ll Never Turn Back album.

Twenty years on, early festival favourites The Cat Empire will play the 10 pm spot on Friday night. The remarkable Blind Boys of Alabama – a musical organisation founded in 1939 and rejuvenated in the 21st century with collaborators such as Robert Randolph, Ben Harper and Marc Cohn – also feature on the opening night. Frequent WOMADelaide highlight, Indian classical violinist L.Subramaniam will perform during the day on Saturday and for a seated event on Sunday night.

Scobie is especially pleased to program Ziggy Marley.
“He’s not singing his dad’s hits. He’s a reggae performer in his own right. He’s another generation and he’s very positive. ‘Love will solve the world’s problems’. It is a great attitude to have. It’s a joyous show. “

I ask him how the program is compiled and he explains it is a joint venture. “It is between two and a half of us,” he says cryptically.

“It is between (Operations and Program Manager) Annette Tripodi and me in Adelaide, and Paula Henderson from WOMAD UK. She worked on the first WOMADelaide in 1992. We have worked together on and off over a long time. We have a sympatico understanding, a shorthand. Paula sees something and says ‘that will really work in Adelaide’. She’s our UK eyes. It is a collaboration between us and the UK, so there a lot of to and fro. It’s a mosaic, a puzzle, getting the pieces to fit.

“I think the festival experience for the patron needs to be discovery, surprise, some old friends, some beautiful music and great artists. They have to be at the right level. We’ve had some interesting examples of artists who were not quite ready- and then they are. Annette will sometimes suggest something and it’s not the top of my list. But it’s not my festival- and that’s a fundamental difference from other festival models.

“The curatorial role is that you are responsible for a cultural collection in a gallery, rather than picking favourites. You don’t have a program full of work from just one country, you need light and shade. Every time you program a slot there’s one less opportunity for something else. Sometimes finding a group from Timor or Malaysia is way of sharpening the experience. Ideally, I like the festival to have quite a few things that are a new thing to me as well – rather than same, same. “

I ask Scobie which selections he is particularly pleased with and he begins to thumb the brochure for examples. Floating Flowers, a dance work from Taiwanese company B. Dance, led by director /choreographer Po-Cheng Tsai, springs to mind.

“They were a classic last-minute surprise. I saw about 20 minutes of Floating Flowers in passing in Edinburgh and thought ‘this is extraordinary.’ I gave them my card and said ‘you must come to WOMAD.’

“Ustad Saami from Pakistan (a practitioner of a vocal style dating back to the 13th century) He’s special. His voice is exquisitely transporting but it has a rasping quality. It’s not like Nusrat (the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan , WOMADelaide legend from the original 1992 festival). It doesn’t pick you up in a warm blanket and take you, but I found it unusual and a real force.

“Every time I have pushed the envelope the audiences have lapped it up. I think programmers can be too cautious. The public has bought a ticket for an experience . They are up for it. They don’t just want familiar pop. “

Other selections he singles out include Ifriqiyya Electrique from the Maghreb (historically known as Ifriqiyya) the region of North West Africa consisting of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara. Their concert experience has been described as a combination of Afro-Tunisian ritual trance and Western post-industrial punk. Their most recent album is entitled Laylet El Booree.

The eleven piece Malaysian group, Orang Orang Drum Theatre also rates a Director’s mention: “I saw them and they were young and enthusiastic. Energised and keen to present their cultural story which I think is fantastic. We are programming a whole new generation of musicians.”

Which leads to Scobie to talking about Scottish performer Kathryn Joseph whose music he describes as a cross-over with performance art. Her first album, Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I Have Spilled, won Scottish album of the year in 2015. Her second recording From When I Wake The Want Is, released in August 2018, is compelling to listen to. Her plaintive, trickling piano aptly matching her burred vibrato vocal. The arrangements with percussion and discreet electronica complete the effect.

With her long, thick hair and crofter funk outfits she is imposing and other-worldly. An original like Kate Bush or Bjork, she is also re-invigorating Scottish folk traditions. Kathryn Joseph plays twice, Saturday and Monday – both times at the Moreton Bay stage. Check out her BBC Scotland live sessions on YouTube. She is not to be missed.

Women musicians are always well represented at WOMADelaide and in 2020 the calibre of their contribution is especially evident. The list is extraordinary. Harpist, Catrin Finch (duetting with kora player Seckou Keita) will play a fusion of Welsh traditional music and Senegalese Mandika rhythms.

Other outstanding performers to check out are the spectacular PNG/Australian Ngaiire, whose terrific recent album, Blastoma is worth checking out. UK contemporary folk songwriter Laura Marling, whose recordings have been nominated for Mercury Awards and a Grammy, will perform once only on Monday.

Aldous Harding has for a time now been a WOMAD NZ favourite and played Laneway Festival in Adelaide several years ago. Finally she gets to play Botanic Park. Like Kathryn Joseph, she is in the Joanna Newsom vein. A mainstay of the thriving Lyttleton music scene outside Christchurch, New Zealand, Harding has two excellent albums. The first, self-titled, with songs such as Stop Your Tears, Hunter and Titus Alone and her more recent CD, Designer. She has one concert only at 5.15 on Saturday.

The unique Kate Miller-Heidke, featured in the current Adelaide Festival’s extraordinary Virtual Reality installation Eight in collaboration with Michel van der Aa, will perform just once time, on Friday night.

Other women artists to watch out for include Luisa Sobral from Portugal, singing from her newest album Rosa, dedicated to her young daughter; the five member Mexican group Flor de Toloache; the talented Indigenous singer, Deline Briscoe showcasing her excellent Wawu album; and acclaimed US traditional country performer Rhiannon Giddens, blending her Appalachian and minstrel fiddle and banjo sounds with Francesco Turrisi on the Sicilian tamburello. There are more – Marina Satti and Fones, Gelarah Pour’s Garden from Iran, Spinifex Gum from the Pilbara country and Korean exponent of the double-headed Janggu drum, Kim So Ra.

WOMADelaide is also a showcase for visual art works, dance, French strolling theatre from Company Archibald Caramantran, the virtuoso acrobatics of Gravity and Other Myths and, featured each night in Frome Park, As the World Tipped from the UK based Wired Aerial Theatre, presenting spectacular high flying movement in sync with massive projected images highlighting the very real and present danger of climate change.

This presentation could not be more timely after a summer of ferocious bushfires, wildlife and habitat devastation, and an urgent need for cogent scientific public advocacy against the continuing obstinacy of government and vested interests.

Last year, Ian Scobie admits he was worried that As The World Tipped “would be passé because of the breakdown of the Copenhagen talks. But it is now very current. There will be references to the United Nations IPPC Report on climate change and a coda with a recorded message from Greta Thunberg.

The Planet Talks forums will continue the WOMADelaide tradition with speakers on sustainability, climate change, big tech and data ethics, politics, transformative change and sleep research.

I ask Scobie if, after so many WOMADs in a row, it has become a routine thing. His reply :

“I do love it still. I have my moments, of course. But then I see something and think ‘I’ve got to have that.’ The French Gratte Ciel company’s Place des Anges in 2018 was an example. Of the things I saw last year, Kathryn Joseph was one , Floating Flowers another.

“I remember things I saw in the Adelaide Festival. Peter Brook’s The Ik and Pere Ubu at the Quarry back in 1980. Having those moments is key. And I think it is for our audience. You have to find those things which are a part of cultural memory and people’s lives. And they look back and say ‘do you remember that time ?’ Part of the task is to have those WOMAD peaks. That ‘wow’ moment, that full stop, or exclamation mark, is why culture matters. It makes you stop and think. It gives you that space in your soul.”

WOMADelaide opens March 6 until March 9. Botanic Park, Adelaide .

Daily Review. March 3, 2020.

WOMADelaide 2020: an interview with Director Ian Scobie

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