Womadelaide’s unforgettable moments: ‘They didn’t know what to expect’

From an all-star train ride across the Nullarbor to an unexpected cricket plague, this year’s festival marks 30 years of border-defying music and art

It’s hard to forget the sight of Joanna Newsom being attacked by a swarm of crickets onstage.

Back in March 2011 Adelaide had been beset by a freak cricket plague, and the American songwriter’s Womadelaide set saw insects ricochet off her hair and harp strings as she valiantly held it together in front of a small orchestra.

“Y’all there are bugs up here,” she exclaimed, telling the crowd they were flying into her mouth and eyes before battling on with a smirk.

Joanna Newsom at the 2011 Womadelaide festival.
‘Y’all, there are bugs up here!’: Joanna Newsom at the 2011 Womadelaide festival. Photograph: Derek Tickner

While the crunchy chaos of that night has never quite been repeated, such unexpectedly memorable moments have become par for the course over Womadelaide’s 30 year history.

There were no guarantees the festival would even make it that far when it debuted. Launched as part of 1992’s Adelaide festival program, it was to be the first Australian offshoot of the UK-based Womad festival series, founded by Peter Gabriel in 1980 as a unifying response to the fear and division of the Cold War.

Even the festival’s Botanic Park location, whose outdoor charm – and in recent years, colony of shrieking fruit bats – have become key to Womadelaide’s character, was a last minute fix. A plan to hold it in a national park in the Adelaide hills came unstuck when festival director Ian Scobie noticed the approaching bushfire season.

“I thought, ‘Hmm, I wonder what happens if there’s a fire ban?’” Scobie tells Guardian Australia. “I rang our contact and he said, ‘Oh, the park would close — no ifs, no buts’.”

With the programs already printed, and Scobie feeling increasingly “green about the gills”, he scrambled to find an alternative. “I got in my car and drove around; I looked at Gregory’s street directory — it had all the green areas of the city — and I thought I’d just circle around and see if there’s anywhere.”

The show went on, with a 26-act lineup led by Crowded House, Paul Kelly, Archie Roach, Senegal’s Youssan D’or, and Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The first Womadelaide, held in 1992.
The first Womadelaide was held in 1992 – against all odds. Photograph: Womad

They’ve all returned to the festival over the years, part of an extended family of legacy performers that helped cement a formula of the familiar and the unexpected – for both audiences and artists.

“[International artists] knew of Australia, but for many of them it was a complete revelation to finally get here,” Scobie says of the early days. For audiences, Womad offered an uncommon opportunity to experience a global cross-section of styles and artistry rarely found in one place. “People didn’t have YouTube, they didn’t know what to expect — that was a fascinating thing, to see that exchange develop.”

Peter Gabriel and the Mahotella Queens played Womadelaide in 1993.
Peter Gabriel and the Mahotella Queens in 1993. Photograph: Womad

The festival returned in 1993 as its own standalone biannual event, this time headlined by Gabriel and Yothu Yindi. For a time, the off-years were filled by an eclectic run of spinoff events: archival photos, dusted off for the 30th anniversary, recall a Womad Indian Pacific train tour held during Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide festival, in which Roach and Kelly led a dozen artists on a 2,000km trip across the Nullarbor.

Archie Roach and Paul Kelly led a dozen artists on a 2000km trip across the Nullabar.
For 1996’s Womadelaide, Archie Roach and Paul Kelly led a dozen artists on a 2,000km trip across the Nullarbor. Photograph: Colin Koch

They finished up in Pimba, 480km north of Adelaide, where an all-star passenger list including Tanzanian guitarist Remmy Ongala, India’s Purna Das Baul and Cameroon’s Francis Bebey performed on a makeshift stage outside Spud’s Roadhouse.

Roach remembers the trip fondly: “What I loved … was when we stopped at Pimba to perform a concert. It was not far from Woomera. A lot of Ruby’s family came to that show,” he says, referring to his late partner and collaborator Ruby Hunter.

“When we were getting off stage all these old people swamped Ruby. They told her they were family through her grandfather — I thought that was beautiful. Ruby was overjoyed meeting her Pitjantjatjara and Kokatha family.”

Over the years the festival has welcomed a long list of music legends, some of whom, like Hunter and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, are no longer with us. There were Yolŋu songwriter Gurrumul’s two appearances, American protest poet Gil Scott-Heron, influential Sierra Leone guitarist S.E. Rogie, and US country great John Prine. Others, like Salif Keita, Angélique Kidjo, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Cliff and Mavis Staples have kept coming back.

At 2018’s Womad, the Manganiyar Seduction featured 40 musicians from the Thar desert in Rajasthan, seated in jewel box-like staging.
In 2018, the Manganiyar Seduction featured 40 musicians from the Thar desert in Rajasthan, seated in jewel box-like staging. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Guardian

It also played host to a 90-year-old Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka, as the master sitarist bid farewell to Australia shortly before his death (Anoushka later returned in 2018 to keep the tradition alive). In 2018, French circus troupe Gratte Ciel’s aerial piece Place des Anges saw a tonne of white duck feathers dropped onto the crowd each night by zip-lining acrobats. A beautiful, hectic sight, it nonetheless courted minor controversy among vegans and asthmatics — and left the park looking like the scene of an avian massacre come morning.

Another memorable moment came in 2019, when First Dog On The Moon appeared in the Planet Talks program and playfully outlined how swiftly a new pandemic might spread around the globe.

In 2018, during the Place des Anges by Gratte Ciel, a tonne of white duck feathers were dropped onto the crowd each night.
In 2018, during the Place des Anges by Gratte Ciel, a tonne of white duck feathers were dropped onto the crowd each night. Photograph: Scott Oates/The Guardian

On Friday, the festival returned to Botanic Park for the first time since March 2020 (last year Roach led a seated, Covid-safe concert series at an alternate venue). While its overseas Womad counterparts have been virtually mothballed, this proudly internationalist music festival has pushed on by embracing the diversity within Australia’s borders. The 2022 headliners include perennial Womadelaide favourites such as Paul Kelly, Baker Boy and the Cat Empire, but the weekend will also include appearances from South Sudan’s “King of Music” Gordon Koang, Malyangapa and Barkindji rapper Barkaa, and Punjabi Australian singer Parvyn.

But on Friday night, over on a smaller stage, Melbourne-based trio Glass Beams played in Adelaide for the first time. As the masked group mined a vein of ethereal dance music inspired by Shankar and 70s Indian disco, something happened to the crowd; at first they were sprawled out on the grass, but then a few people near the front tentatively rose to their feet. Then a few more, and a few more.

State government restrictions on dancing expired at midnight, but the festival had been given a few hours’ head start — allowing it to once again live up to the promise of its acronym: World of Music and Dance.

As fruit bats circled overhead, the park turned into a dancefloor — and that 30-year-old dream was alive again.

  • Womadelaide continues until Monday, 14 March as part of Adelaide festival


Walter Marsh

The GuardianTramp

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