Womadelaide 2020: uplifting, political and expansive festival offers hope amid the doom

Botanic Park, Adelaide
With Mavis Staples, Aldous Harding and Spinifex Gum in the lineup, the world music festival offered plenty of reasons to look up from our phones – and towards each other
• The festival in pictures: mariachi, Mavis and the sounds of Mali

If Womadelaide had been held a few weeks later, the coronavirus bomb that is detonating over the world may have stopped the festival’s 28th year in its tracks.

With more than 97,000 people congregating in an Adelaide park to see 70 music and dance acts from 32 countries, it simply wouldn’t have passed the elbow-tapping greeting test.

In the end, Ziggy “One Love” Marley was the only act to pull out (due to “unforeseen family responsibilities”) of a multigenerational lineup that showcased much-loved veterans – including Brazil’s samba-rock king Jorge Ben Jor (77) and Mali’s Afro-pop pioneer Salif Keita (70) – as well as rising newcomers.

Jimmy Carter from the Blind Boys of Alabama.
‘We’re still here!’ Jimmy Carter (right) from the Blind Boys of Alabama. Photograph: Colin U'Ren/Womadelaide

Blind gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama opened the festival on Friday evening in sparkly black suits, delivering joyful renditions of People Get Ready and Spirit in the Sky, and bringing us some much-needed “good news”: “We’re still here!” hollered gravelly-voiced Jimmy Carter, who at 87 is the only remaining original member of a group that played its first show in 1944 at the height of segregation.

Singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples
Singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples: ‘I might just run for president myself.’ Photograph: Womadelaide

At 80, Chicago gospel great Mavis Staples told us she still has “work to do”. Rocking the full-bodied pipes and infectious laugh that in 1964 prompted Bob Dylan to propose (she said no), Staples delivered civil rights anthem Freedom Highway with the same urgency her family band the Staple Singers brought to it in the 1960s, when they were playing alongside Martin Luther King and galvanised by the protest marches from Selma to Montgomery. “The struggle’s still alive,” Staples told us. “You gotta keep marchin’ with me.

“I’m gonna go up to that White House. I’m gonna find that little boy up there. I’m gonna grab him by that red hat. And I’m gonna smack him up,” Staples said, waving her hand back and forth in a slapping motion. She only seemed half joking when she added: “You know, I might just run for president myself.”

Maintaining the rage (and elation) – but from another generation and continent – were Spinifex Gum, a project comprising a dozen teenage girls from Cairns’s Indigenous Marliya choir and spearheaded by Cat Empire frontman Felix Riebl, who has a way with an uplifting chorus. Lush harmonies and choreographed moves combined with topical songs in English and Yindjibarndi about Indigenous incarceration (the heart-rending Ms Dhu and Locked Up) and the voice to parliament (a cover of Dream Baby Dream).

By the time Yorta Yorta rapper Briggs joined them on stage for The Children Came Back, the emotional crowd had clearly forgotten health authorities’ warnings about not touching their faces.

The girls from Cairns’s Indigenous Marliya choir perform as part of Spinifex Gum.
The teenage girls from the Cairns Indigenous Marliya choir perform as part of Spinifex Gum. Photograph: Alexander Hallag/Womadelaide

Not long out of her teens, Sydney neo-soul singer Odette brought Tina Turner levels of exuberance (“I’m dancing more than an asthmatic girl should be dancing,” she gasped) to a set that ended with a blistering rendition of Place That I Don’t Know.

On Sunday, Jan Fran’s International Women’s Day address was one long glorious Frant delivered in a kitsch yellow muumuu. Its premise, that there is “nothing scarier than a teenage girl with opinions”, was a paean to the Gretas and Malalas of this world, and a good number of teenage boys nodded along in the audience.

The magnificently beehived New Zealand-based Canadian soul singer Tami Neilson was another International Women’s Day gift, belting out her rollicking feminist songs and a mic-dropping version of It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World that snuck in a new verse: It was a woman who discovered stem-cell isolation /And over in New Zealand we’ve got a prime minister who just had a baby while she’s RUNNING THE WHOLE DAMN NATION!”

Theatrical folk singer Aldous Harding proved an instant role model for one eight-year-old girl in the audience – an aspiring singer-songwriter who became so transfixed by the New Zealander’s performance that security let her into the photographer’s pit to watch the rest of the show. Given a key part of Harding’s stage schtick is sustained audience eye contact – scrutinising us with as much intensity and bemusement as we do her – it was somewhat of an OH&S fail to place her on a west-facing stage at 5.15pm.

Aldous Harding stares down the audience – and the South Australian sun.
Aldous Harding stares down the audience – and the afternoon sun. Photograph: Alexander Hallag/Womadelaide

Nature had a way of encroaching on many artists’ sets: Pakistani Sufi singer Ustad Saami, a 76-year-old perfectionist and master of a 49-note microtonal scale of which he is the last surviving practitioner, probably didn’t count on a colony of chattering bats hanging over the stage while he performed a 75-minute song designed to mark the end of summer and welcome autumn.

And the rather large spider that decided to abseil – spotlit – from an overhanging tree branch into the audience during the haunting set of Scottish singer-songwriter Kathryn Joseph only added to the performance’s unsettling gothic beauty, complete with hall-of-mirrors stage props and an open piano whose innards were as exposed as the emotionally raw songs.

As The World Tipped.
Hanging by a bungee cord: acrobats from As The World Tipped. Photograph: Stephen Trutwin/Womadelaide

This year’s outdoor aerial spectacular was the climate catastrophe-themed show As the World Tipped, a reimagining of the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate change summit (it was oddly comforting to hear Kevin Rudd’s and Barack Obama’s voices boomed into the night) and performed by acrobats on a slowly tipping stage that became a horizontal screen suspended 13 metres above the audience. Created by Nigel Jamieson 11 years ago, its “futuristic” projections of people perishing in a world on fire felt all too real for a nation still processing the trauma of the summer’s bushfire carnage. I didn’t wait to see if it had a happy ending, instead fleeing to an adjacent stage to wig out to Japanese psychedelic five-piece Kikagaku Moyo.

Still, this year’s Womadelaide gave us plenty of reasons to look up from our doom-predicting phones: the smiling faces in the all-ages crowd (children 12 and under are given free entry), the almost-full moon gleaming through the canopy of century-old Moreton Bay figs, the blinking faces of local environmentalists projected on to the trees at night by artist Craig Walsh, and the four-metre-high human and animal puppets of France’s Company Archibald Caramantran which danced alongside the audience.

Faces projected in the trees around Botanic Park.
Blinking faces are projected in the trees around Botanic Park. Photograph: Stephen Trutwin/Womadelaide

French-Tunisian collaboration Ifriqiyya Électrique, who combine the sacred sub-Saharan ritual music of Banga with a rush of doom-laden post-industrial cacophony, had the desired effect of possessing some audience members, while also prompting a mass exodus of boomers clutching their fold-up chairs. Luckily they didn’t have to walk far to the next stage where Luísa Sobral, the composer of Portugal’s 2017 Eurovision-winning song, was interspersing her melodious ballads with tender stories about octogenarians finding true love.

Clearly not everyone received the loved-up memo though, because when I left Botanic Park on Monday night, it was to the strains of expletives being barked by Jason Williamson from curmudgeonly English duo Sleaford Mods. Which, to be fair, perfectly encapsulated my feelings about returning to the real world.


Janine Israel

The GuardianTramp

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