Words by Isaac Selby
WOMADelaide festival presents a unique experience, one that attracts all ages and carries a strong reputation as a grounds for discovery with its eclectic lineups. This year's was one of their best yet and saw crowd attendance records broken with over 96,000 people making their way to Botanic Park.
The program commenced with the Kaurna welcome to country that over the past 10 years has been performed by Steve Gadlabarti Goldsmith, a respected Elder and advocate for reconciliation who sadly passed away in 2017 and was this year honoured with a tribute conducted by a small group of friends and family. This image of respect and family is central to the core ethos of the festival which for over 20 years has been delivering diverse, eccentric and eye-opening programs.
Alongside a strong contingent of Australian talent such as Baker Boy, Nai Palm and Didirri, the clear highlight of Friday night was Anoushka Shankar who delivered a captivating performance in what must have been a poignant moment considering the last time she played the Womadelaide mainstage was with her late father Ravi Shankar back in 2010. Her set drew heavily from her 2016 album 'Land of Gold,' a rumination on the plight of displaced persons fleeing conflict and poverty around the world set to a sonic backdrop of traditional Indian sounds merged with contemporary bass-heavy productions.
This was followed by what was without doubt the most talked about performance in the history of WOMADelaide, Gratte Ciel’s epic ‘Place de Anges’. For anyone who didn’t attend the festival (or check their Instagram stories over the weekend) the piece was a spectacular aerial ballet, featuring an array of dancers and acrobats gliding across the night sky over the Foundation stage while they performed and yes, dropped a lot of feathers. A controversial decision considering that 90% of Adelaide’s vegan population were likely in attendance but one that for many will be a stunning memory not forgotten for some time.
Equally stunning was the enthralling musicianship of the Magniyar Seduction, a captivating array of 40 musicians from the heart of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan performing inside of an illuminated 36-window ‘jewel box’ each evening. As each musician begins to play, the lights surrounding their box would light up and gradually begin to pulsate as the performance gained momentum.
Quite regularly the Friday evening of Womad can pass by in the blink of an eye, with Saturday morning often being the perfect opportunity to get in early and check out the stalls or perhaps even try your hand at some yoga, if you’re feeling limber. For those unaffected by the heat Scotland’s Elephant Sessions provided all of the necessary ingredients for a jig amongst the trees at the Moreton Bay stage early on. Later in the evening many punters found themselves drawn out of curiosity towards Dustyesky, a 28-piece choir of vodka-loving men from Mullumbimby belting out renditions of Russian folk songs. Word of mouth saw their crowd attendance grow significantly in size for their subsequent performance on the Sunday, a day that arguably boasted one of the greatest individual day line-ups the festival has seen.
Dan Sultan is no stranger to WOMADelaide and treated the audience like an old friend with his charming blend of soul and swaggering charisma. Around this time was when the bars began to really feel the strain of the crowd that must have been close to record attendance, with the dilemma of beers versus bands becoming a real concern for some. Over on stage 2 Tinariwen delivered a great set filled with their thumping desert-rock songs of protest, while rappers Remi x Sampa kept things cool over on stage 3 with their tight 15-piece live band and tongue-in-cheek stage banter.
The festival truly hit its peak however when saxophone wunderkind Kamasi Washington took to the stage and proved why he’s been heralded as the best thing to happen to jazz in quite some time. The experimental sounds of last year’s 'Harmony of Difference' EP and his sprawling opus 'The Epic' washed over Botanic Park gloriously and proved a clear highlight. Next up were The Avalanches who played to what felt like the largest crowd stage two has ever seen, taking everyone along on a psychedelic party bus through the legendary band’s brilliant output.
For those who decide to tackle 4 days of WOMAD, Monday can often be when an afternoon nap under a tree becomes a necessity. However, if you were still there to dance you were more than covered with the infectious grooves of Thundercat, Thievery Corporation and Nickodemus bringing the festival to a close. Usually if a friend asks if you want to watch a performance that consisted of 80% bass solos you’d tell them you’d rather keep an eye on a freshly painted house. Thundercat however is an exception to the rule and his maverick brand of whacked-out funk rivalled 'Brainfeeder' alumni and close friend Kamasi Washington’s claim to the best set of the weekend.
Mama Kin Spender was another Monday highlight and a fantastic remedy for sore heads with their snappy song-writing chops and heavenly choir. Singer Mama Kin at one stage was unable hold back tears while delivering an impassioned speech about how she views WOMADelaide as a “statement of hope and acceptance.”
What makes it such a beloved festival is this very essence of inclusivity, which is reflected by the attitude of attendees, performers, workers and volunteers alike. You’ll often hear people refer to WOMADelaide as more than just a festival and this wonderful sense of community is precisely why.