Womadelaide 2017: politics rages through Australia's most diverse and surprising festival

In its 25th year, the world music festival took estimated crowds of 90,000 on a journey of discovery across four days

• The festival in pictures

As the Waifs’ London Still rang out beneath an almost-full moon in Adelaide’s Botanic Park, the bittersweet song about the homesickness that visits an Aussie expat in the motherland certainly resonated with the well-travelled, multi-generational Womadelaide crowd.

But on that late summer Saturday evening, few would have wished they were in London, still – or anywhere else on the planet for that matter. In the 25 years since the first Australian incarnation of Peter Gabriel’s Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance), much has shifted on the Antipodean cultural map. Where once Australians had to travel to the UK or beyond to dose up on the sounds of the world, now – in the internet age – the world comes to Australia.

Back in 1992, Womadelaide proved a hard sell. (Who were Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Youssou N’Dour, and how were their names pronounced?) A quarter of a century later, the festival’s 60 or so acts are a mere Google search away – explaining why this year’s festival could still pull an impressive crowd (90,000 over four days) despite its lack of superstar drawcards.

Festivalgoers in the Gobal Village at Womadelaide.
Festivalgoers at Womadelaide. Photograph: Candice Lo/The Guardian

In any case, Womadelaide has always been a journey of discovery, akin to the travellers’ thrill of waking up in a new country to unfamiliar sights, sounds and tastes. There’s a certain magic about strolling among the giant Moreton Bay fig trees and stumbling across Vietnam war survivors Hanoi Masters riffing Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady on traditional instruments and co-opting a pair of tiny tea cups into crockery castanets.

Or joining an impromptu procession behind the New Orleans party-starters the Hot 8 Brass Band. Or learning to beatbox at a workshop with the South African a cappella trio the Soil. Or sharing a plate of Afghan dumplings with a Hazara refugee experiencing the festival for the first time.

Or watching the US singer turned Byron Bay local Toni Childs bring out a local bagpipe troupe to “clear your musical palette” before leading the audience through a motivational meditation session that reached televangelist levels of fervour.

Womadelaide has always had a progressive political edge; the inaugural 1992 event coincided with the abolition of apartheid and after a performance of his musical, the South African writer Mbongeni Ngema came on stage to deliver the news. But this year’s event radically upped the ante. Corruption in Africa and Latin America, Trump’s fear-mongering agenda and the recently celebrated International Women’s Day were at the forefront of many performers’ minds.

Even the otherwise chilled-to-the-max Jamaican blues singer Brushy One String (“the king of the one-string guitar”) turned on the politics, imploring the seated audience before a rendition of Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up: “If you don’t like what the Donald’s doing in America, stand up. If you like what the Donald’s doing in America, don’t stand up.” I’ve never seen a crowd rise so swiftly to their feet.

The social message was nearly always sandwiched between a palatable melody and a groove-able beat. For the Arnhem Land crooner Gawurra, it was proclaiming, “I love you Australia – I love you black and white” between Gupapuyngu language songs about dolphins and kingfishers.

For the Indigenous legend Archie Roach – who played that first Womadelaide 25 years ago, and whose loyal audience stuck by him through a mid-set Sunday downpour – it was bringing Briggs on stage for a mash-up of his stolen generations anthem Took the Children Away and the rapper’s uplifting companion piece The Children Came Back.

For Briggs and fellow rapper Trials – the Indigenous hip-hop duo AB Original who arguably stole the festival and became the first Indigenous act to win the Australian Music Prize last week – it was all fists-in-the-air denunciations of deaths in custody, methamphetamines and Australia Day lapped up by a mostly young, white Triple J audience and given all-star treatment by special guests Caiti Baker and Dan Sultan.

AB Original
The Indigenous hip-hop act AB Original invite Dan Sultan on stage at Womadelaide to sing January 26. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Guardian

For UK band the Specials, it was updating their 1980 song Man at C&A about imminent nuclear attack with a blunt preface about North Korea.

For Malian model turned pop star turned actor turned anti-FGM activist Inna Modja, it was delivering one of the funkiest sets of the festival while singing about terrorism in northern Mali and asylum seekers drowning en route to Europe.

From Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux declaring there “shouldn’t just be one day for women” to Malian diva Oumou Sangaré mouthing off in French about her country’s government, there was a particularly palpable anger among many of the female performers this year. Julieta Laso, the hipster singer in the otherwise all-male 11-piece Argentinian neo-tango band Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, channelled it best. She tipped tango’s fiery passion over into the realm of fury, complementing her headbanging bandoneonista bandmates with her pack-a-day Édith Piaf voice, and her penchant for ending songs by growling statements such as “this is fucking tango” before storming off the stage.

Even the art this year had a social message, the most dramatic being French company Cie Carabosse’s Exodus of the Forgotten Peoples – a sprawling nightly immersive fire installation about the plight of refugees, featuring flame “waterfalls” and wooden statues of asylum seekers huddled around fires, stacked in overcrowded boats or scaling fences.

Cie Carabosse’s Exodus of the Forgotten Peoples
Cie Carabosse’s Exodus of the Forgotten Peoples. Photograph: Candice Lo/The Guardian

The audience was at its happiest when dancing, whether throwing late-night shapes to Canadian turntabalist Skratch Bastid, pogoing to exuberant Austrian electro-swing pioneers Parov Stelar, twisting hands to flamenco fusion band Fuel Fandango or staving off the unseasonal chill to otherworldly Indigenous electronica duo Electric Fields.

Theatrical spectacles also proved word-of-mouth sensations, including convulsive new contemporary dance piece Attractor (a collaboration between Dancenorth and Lucy Guerin and Indonesian trace duo Senyawa) and the delightful Manganiyar Classroom, featuring a group of 30 all-singing Rajasthani children who play schoolboy rebels with a cause.

Children are not mere afterthoughts at Womadelaide; as well as running free around the festival grounds, they’re given a designated area to create, play or listen to stories from the likes of Australian author Mem Fox. As Womadelaide looks to another 25 years of musical and cultural diversity, it’ll be this next generation keeping the dream – and the political fight – alive.


Janine Israel

The GuardianTramp

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