Womadelaide 2018: all singing, all dancing festival of joy

Crowds delight in extraordinary range of talent, colour and atmosphere in botanic gardens
Highlights from the festival – in pictures
• Dustyesky review – Russian folk songs and accent comedy

“We’re here to make you dance,” declared Bixiga, the big, brassy Hawaiian shirt-clad opening act who revved up the Womadelaide crowd on Friday with a blast of Latin-spiked Afrobeat.

The Brazilian band’s statement of intent could well have been the manifesto for this year’s festival of global music and dance, which threw off the shackles of last year’s overly political event for four days of sheer, uninterrupted joy.

Where last year’s Womadelaide fell in the dark shadow of Donald Trump’s inauguration, this year’s all-ages crowd mostly just wanted to forget about the world beyond Adelaide’s Botanic Park and have fun in the (blazing hot) sun.

The only person with politics 100% on their mind was Jay Weatherill, the Labor premier who could be spotted shmoozing up some extra votes on the eve of the South Australian election.

On opening night, the good times continued with New Orleans funk-soul-hip-hop ensemble Tank and the Bangas, its frontwoman and spoken word artist Terriona “Tank” Bell pairing cartoon character goofiness with proudly gigantic hair.

Just about every Triple J listener in Adelaide under the age of 20 crammed in to see rising young Yolngu artist Baker Boy. Although relatively new to the scene, he arrived on stage a fully fledged rapper, sporting a slick black outfit and sharp hip-hop moves as he and his crew powered through upbeat Hottest 100 favourites Cloud 9 and Marryuna. Baker Boy’s confidence has soared in the two months since I last saw him perform – in the interim he has supported both 50 Cent and Dizzee Rascal, and some of the star quality has clearly rubbed off.

Baker Boy
Star quality: Arnhem Land’s Baker Boy, who raps in Yolngu and English. Photograph: Luke Eblen

Those who turned up to Baker Boy’s Saturday afternoon dance workshop saw a sweet and nurturing side to the 21-year-old. He reminded us to keep hydrated as he walked us through the moves to Marryuna – part of his campaign to turn the song into the next Gangnam Style-esque dance sensation.

Baker Boy teaching the #womadelaide crowd the Marryuna dance. Is this the next Gangham Style? pic.twitter.com/k7N5B9yI3g

— Janine (@newsjanine) March 10, 2018

Baker Boy also made a cameo during the blistering set of his cousin, Yirrmal, who showcased what must be some of the finest vocal cords in Australia right now.

No one begrudged Anoushka Shankar for breaking out the politics as she performed her 2016 concept album Land of Gold, written in response to the refugee crisis. It was the sitar virtuoso’s first Womadelaide appearance since 2010 when she performed with her now late father, Ravi, in a set that was faithful to the Indian classical tradition. This year’s mesmerising show married the centuries-old Indian instrument with full-blown fusion: electronica, jazz and even industrial sounds complemented the nasal wail of the shehnai and the steady pulse of the hang as Shankar’s swaying black curls threatened to launch into all-out headbanging.

Anoushka Shankar
Anoushka Shankar’s mesmerising performance fused classical Indian music with electro, jazz and industrial. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Guardian

After the darkness of Shankar’s music, Rodrigo y Gabriela’s instrumental set was total euphoria as the Mexican buskers-turned-international superstars proved two people with chemistry and flamenco guitars can lift a crowd of thousands.

But the most uplifting performance of the long weekend belonged to word-of-mouth phenomenon Place des Anges (Place of Angels): a large-scale aerial ballet by French acrobatic troupe Gratte Ciel, which took over the skies before popping up all over Instagram.

Every night mischievous spotlit angels ascended towering cranes and glided on ziplines over the crowd, a stonkingly good soundtrack blaring as their wings moulted, they had celestial pillow fights and a blimp-sized inflatable white cherub wended its way through the audience.

Children were enraptured while baby boomers wondered if they were having acid flashbacks. The performance culminated in one tonne of white duck feathers gently raining down upon the audience, joyous smiles facing skyward, arms aloft in the illuminated blizzard.

Place des Anges made everyone giggle like school children @WOMADelaide #womadelaide pic.twitter.com/wTeGwY3AO4

— Ellen Randva (@ellenrandva) March 9, 2018

I wouldn’t be alone in admitting the finale brought tears to my eyes. Unfortunately it also brought feathery bits into my eyeballs, which took hours to dislodge. The performance also got up the noses of animal rights advocates who questioned how many ducks had to suffer for our viewing pleasure.

Young and old enjoy being feather-bombed at the end of the Place des Anges performance.
Young and old enjoy being feather-bombed at the end of the Place des Anges performance. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Guardian

The 35C heat that dogged the first half of the four-day festival saw many punters retreat beneath trees during the day while opting for low-key acts including the sepia-tinged folk of Syrian-born Armenian American singer Bedouine; the melancholic ballads of young Melbourne crooner Didirri; and the floaty kora-led sounds of Canadian-Iranian-Senegalese ensemble Constantinople and Ablaye Cissoko.

It was a testament to the infectious cumbia of Chile’s Chico Trujillo and the knees-up renditions of Yiddish drinking songs by 22-piece Melbourne band YID! that plenty of people were willing to risk dignity and heatstroke by emerging from the shade to dance wildly in front of the stage.

Gypsy-punk-ska rockers Gogol Bordello were fortunate enough to be granted a cool late-night slot, the perfect platform for 45-year-old Ukrainian frontman and one-time fashion icon Eugene Hütz to demonstrate he’s still got boundless energy, a rippling torso, effortless style (the plastic sunflowers in the gun holster really set off his crotch-strangling jeans) and the ability to make his anarchic and perpetually frowning troupe look like the most fun band in the world to be in.

Kamasi Washington
Epic performance: Kamasi Washington. Photograph: Luke Eblen/Womadelaide

Kamasi Washington was a treat for anyone who likes extended saxophone solos and the chance to hear from his father, Rickey, the man who taught the American jazz guru “everything I know” and who joined him on stage. In another highlight, Aussie sample masters the Avalanches brought out Baltimore rapper Spank Rock to perform his 2006 hit Bump before a verse on Frontier Psychiatrist. Downtempo duo Thievery Corporation had a rollcall of magnetic guest vocalists, including former Miss Universe Jamaica contestant Racquel Jones. Remi and Sampa the Great – the new political face of Australian hip-hop, who won the $30,000 Australian music prize last week for her debut album – was another collaboration that delighted crowds.

Womadelaide is what happens when you’re on the way to see another band – and anyone who caught sight of Ghanaian performer Jojo Abot would have halted in their tracks.

Her latest EP, NGIWUNKULUNKULU, means “I Am God” in Zulu, and gracing the stage as the sun was setting with her gold-painted palms and matching eyelids, violet talons, red hair extensions and Geisha-goes-to-West-Africa-to-play-lawn-tennis-inspired outfit, she certainly looked – and sounded – every bit the deity. (The white angels from Place de Anges, who stood watching in full costume from the stage wings, added to the impression.)

Flanked by two extraordinary dancers, Abot’s set was an exercise in precision performance art, incorporating smoking rituals and her signature “Afro-hypno-sonic” music that is a polyrhythmic blend of Afrobeat, jazz, kwaito, electronica, reggae and neo-soul.

Other strange but satisfying acts included Israel’s Victoria Hanna, who plucked saucy passages from the Bible and turned them into avant garde hip-hop tracks; and Cie Pernette, a dance troupe made up of local volunteers who pirouetted around with garden sprayers, shooting out liquid arcs in time to Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz.

Catching up with friends at Womadelaide.
Drinks under the trees. Photograph: Luke Eblen/Womadelaide

As always, the Planet Talks tent was the brains and social conscience of Womadelaide, featuring the likes of former al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste in conversation about press freedom with the Guardian’s own Ben Doherty, and Pacific island climate justice activists Ursula Rakova and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner talking with Julian Burnside and Tim Costello about how to turn the tide on climate change. (Solutions ranged from sending Tony Abbott to the Marshall Islands to engineering a global paradigm shift.)

Over in the Taste the World tent, where artists cook their favourite dish from their homeland in a kind of multicultural MasterChef, Nano Stern, who became increasingly loose-lipped on Chilean wine while his bandmate made sopaipillas, had the chutzpah to address the elephant in the room. He applauded the diversity of Womadelaide’s lineup (this year artists hailed from 25 countries) but called out the whiteness of the audience.

The long-haired Chilean folk star continued to serve food for thought in his Monday afternoon performance, where he spoke against the genocide of his country’s indigenous people as well as the treatment of refugees in Australia’s offshore detention centres (he read out an impassioned statement from a refugee on Manus Island). But ultimately, he said, he was just there to make us happy.

“When you go home [after Womadelaide] and look in the mirror – with the dirt on your face and feathers in your hair – if you see someone happier than the person who came to the festival, we have done our job.”


Janine Israel

The GuardianTramp

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