WOMAD 2018 Diary

WOMAD Day 1

(Words only – originally published at https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/womad-2018-day-1/)

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Drummer – Thievery Corporation – Photo: McKenzie Jennings Gruar

A capacity crowd have packed out the Bowl of Brooklands, in New Plymouth, this weekend for one of New Zealand’s favourite all-ages festivals.  From the get-go there’s colour, revelry, food, spirit, passion and, of course, music!

It may seem like a cliché but it’s totally true – the sun always shines on WOMAD.  Yes, indeed, all day Ra played hide and seek with the clouds.  However, come 6PM it all cleared away.  And, with the exception of a well time ‘cleansing’ shower during MP Andrew Little’s welcome speech, the rain stayed away.

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Hon Andrew Little opens WOMAD 2018  Photo: Tim Gruar

On first, was the Brazilian mega-funk act Bixiga 70, who opened with huge sound of brass and Latin/Afro-beats supported by a video of protest actions from around the world.  Although their music was instrumental, the juxtaposition between it and iconic protest scenes like the the man who defied the tanks in Tiananmen Square or women in San Paulo covering their naked bodies in anti-rape stickers was extremely moving.  The band really knew how to get a message across.   However, this was the only time the band got so political.  The rest of their high energy material was all about dancing.  Which is exactly what the the 9,000 or so who’d already turned up were here to do.

By the end of the night it was expected up to 17,000 would be on site.  Every year this festival gets bigger and bigger. Young and old had made it to the festival, pitched up their tents, parked up their prams or walkers and were intent on having a great time.

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To add a bit of colour, audience members were invited to dress up for the night and, looking around I saw some pretty amazing efforts.  There were plenty of colourful tied died costumes, animal noises and up-dated Victorian bodices and lace.  But my favourite was a lady in a leather steampunk helmet with WOMAD spelt out across the spikes on her hat.  Although, later that was topped by two ladies dressed as glowing jellyfish.

Worth spending time at was a workshop with Aussie miners The Spooky Men’s Chorale, who held a workshop under a canopy of ancient trees on the Te Paepae Stage.  They had the assembled group all singing back a selection of chants and atonal notes, over which they sung creating an impressive sound and the perfect way to show how they create their music.  It was not only informative but great fun, too.

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Aldous Harding Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

One not to miss, Aldous Harding and her three piece down on the Bowl Stage put on an intimate and compelling show.  Not easy to do when you’re a separated from the audience by a duck pond.  She started very quietly with the delicate I’m Sorry and Blend.  When she played Horizon, you could have heard a pin drop.  Cloaked in blues and purples, backed by puffs of moor-smoke, her song, in all its intensity, drifted across the glass lake some ghostly spectre from Wuthering Heights.  Comments afterwards, some from well seasoned Womadians, confirmed how captivating her performance really was.

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La Vent du Nord Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

Bringing the party to the Gables Stage were five Canadians, Le Vent du Nord, who mixed up their modern take on ‘folk’ with hurdy-gurdies, accordion and bouzouki alongside the usual guitars and fiddles.  They mainly sung in French, accented with various other languages to provide a bit of joie de vivre.  I particularly enjoyed Nic Bourerice’s flourishes on the hurdy-gurdy which he played with absolute grandeur.  Nearly everything they did was based on some kind of familiar Celtic reel or stomp, so they were instant favourites with the crowd, who danced and clapped along, spinning like whirling dervishes.

For a bit of variety, I went off to check out the Taste The World tent, hosted by Master Chef star, Jax Hamilton.  She had in Jojo Abot, who will play on Saturday.  The wonderfully funny and charming young Ghanian performer made us all a ‘Red Red Curry’ with chick peas, peanut butter, coconut cream and a whole stack of chilli to blow your mind.  With it she gave sage advice, about following your dreams, to the young ones in the front row and explained how, with music, it is possible to learn many languages.  She herself sings in a number of African tongues as well as French.

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Jax Hamilton cooking with Tama Iti Photo: Tim Gruar

The big decision of the night was a split between two headliners – On U Sound System pioneer Adrian Sherwood or USA EDM music heroes Thievery Corporation, who were playing down on the Bowl stage.  It really was no contest in the end.  Whilst Sherwood showed off his DJ skills mixing up a selection of dub and reggae tracks – recent and ancient – Thievery Corporation brought  a big show, featuring every one and everything but the kitchen sink.   They opened with Facing East, featuring Eric Hilton sitting cross legged on the the Sitar.  Later he’d play us a couple more jams.  The other part of the duo, Rob Garza, remembered his trademark silvery jacket and stood out behind the keyboards and techno-toys.  We got plenty of material from the new album, The Temple of I and I.  Highlights included Racquel Jones doing Letter To The Editor, Notch’s honey sweet vocals on Children of Zion and later his energy on the punchy Weapons of Distraction.  Rapper and showman Mr Lif led a stomping version of Fight To Survive, which morphed into a brilliant finale incorporating the title track and a blazing guitar solo from Hilton.  Later, Lif came back and helped resurrect the band’s big hit The Richest Man In Babylon for the encore.  On my stereo, their new album sounds kind of mellow but on stage tonight it was bursting at the seams with fire.  It was a brilliant set for the first night at WOMAD.  As one punter said, as we were walking back to the camp: “The ‘Thieves’ were definitely the highlight of the night.”  I’d have to agree on that.

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Mr Lif – Thievery Corporation

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Jojo Abot Photo: Mckenzie Jennings-Gruar

WOMAD 2018 Day 2

(Words only – originally published at https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/womad-2018-day-2/)

The second day of WOMAD was as chaotic and wonderful as ever.  With more big headliners like Kamasi Washington and Mista Savona sucking in the crowds and getting them moving with frantic energy, they helped WOMAD live up to it’s well earned ‘festive’ spirit and reputation.  Many kept last night’s costumes and could be seen boogieing around the site like they never left.  That also added to the flavours of the day.

For us campers, the night was calm and quiet, so we all got a bit of a sleep in and at least a bit of breakfast before heading down to the bowl.  Judging by the friendly and chilled vibe around me,, even the children, of which there were many, we’re having a great time – even at 6AM!

By gates opening all 17,000 expected ticket holders, musicians, stall holders, and stall holders had already arrived and were in the mood to party.  It was hot but overcast, perfect weather.  The versatile and dynamic Cameroon singer Blick Bassey was on the Gables Stage when I arrived.  I’d seen a little bit of his act the night before in the cooking tent but I was not prepared for his amazing falsetto solos.  Soaring to spine tingling heights, his voice was almost like a tin whistle at times but much sweeter.  His act is really just him with banjo or a child’s electric guitar, playing simple repetitive riffs but it’s what you do with that which counts.  He’s a real showman, perfect for a festival, having everyone eating out of his hands.

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Daymé Arocena Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

Also on the Gables Stage, I saw the incredible performance of Daymé Arocena.  Backed by one of the tightest jazz trios I’ve ever seen they played their way trough music that smashed traditional Cuban styles against Cumbian, Mambo, Salsa and Cha-Cha and then blending it up with classic College Jazz and delivering it with a full on Rock’n’Roll attitude.  Arocena may be small in stature but her personality was ten feet tall.  Her voice is so full of soul and character, with that radiant smile coming through on every note.  Her beautiful smile and charm won over the crowd getting them up dancing Cha-Chas and bouncing around like there was no tomorrow.  Most of her set came from her CD Cubafonia, which is almost impossible to pigeon hole.  As she told me earlier in the day Cuba is a melting pot of styles from Africa slave culture to Chinese gold diggers, exiled from California.  That’s the best description you can get of her roots.  Her set threw in a few English numbers but for me the winner was La Rumba Me Llamo Yo, the funkiest Rumba on the planet.  It’s still ringing in my ears.

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Finn Scholes – helping out Hopetoun Brown Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

Hopetoun Brown – aka Tim Stewart (claps, vocals, trombone) and Nick Atkinson (sax)  – are two lads that grew up together, on the same street and in the former mega funk outfit Supergroove.  So it was appropriate that they decided to use Che Fu’s Misty Frequencies as the holler back track for the audience participation section of their set.  The rest came from their two albums, which is a pretty stripped back collection of brass driven blues and Dirty New Orleans- type tunes with a downtown busker feel.  They also brought out Finn Scholes on trumpet from Carnivorous Plan Society to do Own It.  Scholes stayed around for a stunning solo on Burning Fuse, and a wonderfully jazzy turn on the xylophone as well.  Much of their stuff is like a meld of old time street blues.  Later, they grabbed Callum Passells from Aldous Harding’s band a tune as well, a nicely seedy torch song.  These guys seem to know everyone.  I hear Stewart, who’s also a professional chef, will be knocking up some seawater and potato focaccia bread with homemade onion dip at the Taste the World tent later, so I’ll definitely pop along for that.  Later that night, I caught the Hopetoun Brown boys helping out with Aldous Harding’s mournful set.

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One of the most colour performances I saw came from Jojo Abot.  More a performer than a singer, her music was probably best described as digital pop – sung in a multitude of languages.  However, it was her incredible costume of long flowing red dreadlocks, camouflage and blood red flourishes that stood out.  Onstage, she was accompanied by a danced whose face was partially painted in a shimmering gold design, like a modern interpretation of female warrior war paint.  She also had a producer creating sounds from a set of keyboards and premixed tracks, in time with a bear chested drummer keeping time with angry tribal beats.  This was a fierce performance.

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Mark Williams – Dragon Photo McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

I missed most of Dragon’s set running between interviews and other gigs but from what I heard the foursome were in fine form, providing the party atmosphere for the night with their mandatory set of well loved hits – RainApril Sun in Cuba, Kool & The Gang’s Celebration and See No Evil, to name but a few.  Nobody was complaining down at the Bowl stage – most were singing backstreet the top of their voices.

Every WOMAD had a crazy gypsy collective, and this year it was Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orchestra who provided the Oom pa pa.  Originally a four piece, they’d managed to smuggle another six players and a sousaphone into their suitcases.  The music was predictable but perfect for a mid-March summer’s evening knees up.  With full bellies and few drinks under their belts the audience at the Brooklands stage found their dancing feet.

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Anoushkar Shankar Photo: Tim Gruar

Sitar player and daughter of the great Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar performed on the Bowl stage to a mellow and relaxed afternoon of listeners.  Given her heritage I was expecting a mainly classical set. However, a quick Google will show you that it was Anoushka has broken the mold working with EDM producers to create a very modern sound.  Today, she gave us a selection of material that could be likened to Enigma or even Thievery Corporation.  The most memorable music came from her new album Land of Gold, which she explained was her personal response to the humanitarian trauma of displaced people fleeing conflict and poverty.  It was made with percussionist Manu Delago, who along with an upright bassist and a chennai player, was on stage today.  Delago mixed up tradditional tamblas with Latin rhythms totally transforming the sound.  Borders and the title track both painted very startling and poignant images about refugees caught in the crossfire of modern political turmoil like Trump’s wall to keep out Mexicans.

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My Bubba – Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

I had a brief glimpse at Swedish/Icelandic duo My Bubba, who well surrounded by a distinctly folky mob at the Dell Stage.  Most of their hunny sweet duets seemed songs seemed to be reinterpretations of Jo Nesbo stories about loneliness, noir forests scenes and other sinister things – all told with bone dry humour.

For me, my favourite act of the day was jazz-funk sax maestro Kamasi Washington.  Being a Wellingtonian I’d not yet had a chance to see him play on his last tours, which only included Auckland.  So this was a special treat.

Washington had brought his regular band down, fresh from his Powerstation gig the night before. (You can read the review at www.13thfloor.co.nz).  What struck me immediately was how damn tight this unit was, especially drummers Ronald Bruner, Jr (Thundercat’s big bro) and Robert Miller who both shared the risers behind separate kits, creating this massive storm of fusion beats.

They were joined by Brandon “Hot Sauce” Coleman, and bassist Josh Crumbly and their newest member, trombonist Ryan Porter.  He gave his band leader some real competition, letting loose all over the shop.  Washington’s best tune was a bit of a surprise: a tune he introduced as ‘Anisha and Elroy’ or ‘Charlie Brown goes to Inglewood’.  The track was led by Coleman, who’d rearranged the famous cartoon show theme into a whole rainbow of different funky cosmic colours.

They belted out another couple of genre-bending tunes with plenty of elaborate work on the sax and trombone.  Washington has an inclusive policy about leading, everyone gets a turn.

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Kamashi Washington captured on Tim Gruar’s S7

Standing at one side of Washington was singer Patrice Quinn. Except in some of the vocal parts of Truth, which are more like choral interludes, she seemed content to sway about in her own little bubble of bliss. That was until the ultra funky keytones of Coleman’s Moog kicked on The Rhythm Changes. The intro starts off like Stevie Wonder’s Superstition but with Quinn in behind it was heightened beyond anything you can imagine.  Add to that the hyperdrive of this super crew and I, for one, was in ecstasy.  So were the rest of the people at the Brooklands Stage.

Saturday night finished on a high with Aussie Jake Savona’s project: Havana meets Kingston.  This was a collective of Cuban and Jamaican artists including members of the Buena Social Club and legendary dub rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie. Also on stage was a horn section, percussion and Buena Vista’s very classy keyboardist, Rolando Luna, who transitioned between dub tunings and flambouyant Latin piano with remarkable ease.  Mista Savona, himself sat mid-stage behind a bank on key boards conducting, directing and announcing the tracks.

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Brenda Navarette  Photo: Tim Gruar

The set started with Cuban singer Brenda Navarette’s solo voice welcoming us all.  The song started slow bit built up as more musicians jpined the stage until everybody was on and pumping out an infectious blend of hip sweating Salsa.

It was wonderful to see Buena Vista’s most famous laud player, and his most famous moustache, Barbarito Torres on stage tonight. He gave us two or three killer solos.  Also impressing was English-Jamaicam Randy Valentine on trumpet litterally blowing the house down on Vibracion Positive and Candela.

Amongst the songs was Chan Chan, which appeared on the original Buena Vista Social Club album, only this one was ‘souped up’ with extra deep bass and a dub-step courtesay of our Jamaican heroes.  Both were looking older but their was no denying they still had it, keeping up like it was second nature.  Watching Dunbar play, in his work overalls and construction hard hat, was like watching an alchemist at work and I had the privilege to see him at making magic from the sidelines.  His movements were short and deft but there was so much more going on under the drumskins.  Mr Shakespeare also got a spot late in the set to show off his own skills.  He gave a great stripped back solo sending explosions of deep bass notes reverberating around the whole Brooklands Bowl.

I’d been looking forward to seeing this project since I first saw it on the programme.  The real question I had in my mind was would it work?  However, given Cubans come from a mixed heritage that includes Spanish and African, it’s not a huge stretch to go to dub and reggae.  Most of the tracks tonight tended to follow one genre or the other, rather than fully blending both together.  Either way, it all created fabulous party music which got everybody dancing for the rest of the night – all the way back to the campsite.

 

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TINARIWEN  Photo by McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

WOMAD 2018 – Day 3

(Words only – originally published at https://www.13thfloor.co.nz/womad-2018-day-3/)

Predictably, Sunday is always the ‘chill out day’ at this festival.  Time for yoga, sleep-ins and ZUMBA – at the Dell Stage!  By 11.00 O’clock the line to the in-gate went all the way up to the Racecourse, about half a mile.  Their were over 15,500 on site, according to TAFT CEO Suzanne Porter.  Not bad for a festival now in it’s 14th year.  Today was all about culture and expanding the mind with some 70’s Afro Funk, Chilean pop, Poetry slams, culinary adventures and Desert Blues.

At the Te Paepae stage I caught a bit of a beat-boxing workshop and at The Nova Taste The World Stage they were doing the TSB Community Trust Cook Off.  On the Gables Stage, which is conveniently right next to the media area, I caught the set of Iraqian Oud player Rahim Alhaj.  I found it refreshing to hear his very strict ‘parlour’ music, accompanied by an Iranian santour (a zither) and an Arabic percussionist.  Their beats are very different in construct – quite mesmerising but also remarkably soulful.

One of today’s heavy weights might be unknown to many Kiwis – until now.  Pat Thomas is one of Ghana’s all time greatest vocalists, playing for over 50 years.  He started in the bar scene before moving to Canada for a while due to civil war in the 1970’s, hooking up with exiles over there.  His legacy includes working with Ebo Taylor and Tony Allen.  That experience came out with him performing with his five piece Kwashibu Area Band – a collection of Ghanian players from all over the world.  Their particular type of Afro Funk differs from Fela Kuti and other African musicians because they only use one guitarist, so the groove is dirtier but the funk is still ultra-good for dancing.  His set covered a number of differing styles from his career including Hi-Life, reggae and big band Astro-jazz, complete with a stonking brass section.  I’m not an expert but I recognised a couple of classics such as Ma Huno and Yamona.

WOMAD has always been about an experience winder than just music.  Today, there were workshops by poets and novelists, like Paul Cleave.  He writes mysteries, with his latest book, A Killer Harvest, he told us, being about the very creepy concept of genetic memory.

If you mention poetry to some people you might as well have told them they’d stepped in something horrible but Penny Ashton knows how to make a party out of a few well chosen words.  She gave us a couple of her own, including a hilarious and slightly naughty ode to her hubby, Yorkshire poet Matt Harvey.  He came on after to do some very funny absurdist poetry – lists of things that go together – like ‘arseholes and BMW’s’.  The hour was rounded off with more humour from Samoan poet Tusiata Avia and last year’s Poetry Slam winner.

I noticed that the talking bookshelf (people who share their life experiences) was considerable under stocked this year.  Although, there was a rather fine gentleman dressed in full Centurion armour on hand to share his rather quirky genealogy.

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Face painting  Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

Children were well catered for again this year.  As always, there’s a dedicated space for them, with crafts, entertainers and plenty of things to climb on.  There was also a children’s parade on at 6PM, a tradition at WOMAD where all kids on site get to dress up and participate.  And if that wasn’t enough a they could join in A Curious Game, a pop up activity run by actors dressed as elaborate cartoon chess pieces, who were organising kids into various crazy formations on a huge black and white checkerboard.

Down on the Dell Stage, Mahuia Bridgeman- Cooper’s collective , The Black Quartet (dressed all in white) were performing a set of modern tunes, including Springsteen’s Fire.  They’ve jammed with people like Kayne West, MJD and Ladyhawke, so they had plenty of material to draw on.  They have a traditional set up of cello and violins and I know what they are capable of but, sadly, they chose to stay away from anything really challenging or truly inspirational in their set.  Being a festival it was no surprise when they were joined on stage by Hopetoun Brown to finish with Aha’s Take On Me.  It was a warm late summer afternoon, so the perfect time to get away with something like that.

If a higher, more classical experience was what you were after, then that could be found with Victoria Hanna’s workshop.  Raised in Jerusalem in an ultra-orthodox household she gave a compelling talk about her music and her discovery of the secular world.  She explained how singing and rapping in Aramaic had helped her overcome her life-debilitating stutter.  Her warmth and humour during her workshop was quite surprising after seeing her performance the night before and everyone was mesmerised by this exceptionally brave woman.

The night party started with the obligatory gypsy music, provided by Chico Trujillo from Chile .  There’s not a great deal I can say about this nine piece except that their version of lounge music is more akin to a bar brawl than a quiet cocktail on the porch.  It’s raucous, brash and brassy.

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Nano Stern cooks the World Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

By comparison, their compatriot Nano Stern did his second set of keen pop tunes and then went off to cook everyone Ceviche and chillied prawns in the food tent with Jax Hamilton – plus a couple of acoustic folk songs.  I tried his food. Delicious.  And his singing’s not bad either.

The Miltones came on the Gables Stage at 4PM, just in time for beer-o’clock. Milly Taybak was in fine voice today, enjoying the sunshine and showing off her bright pink satin kimono dress.  The band mostly go for the rockier 70’s rock things, so for any leftover Dragon fans they were most likely to have been down the front hard at it on the floor.  They even chucked in Neil Young’s Down By The River, alongside their own Pursed LipsWildfire and Gypsy Queen plus a stack more of barnstormers.  Halfway they toned it down for down for a version of Glory that will put goosebumps on an elephant.  Guy Harrison’s solo on keyboards in that one those particularly memorable moments from their hour on stage.

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TINARIWEN Photo: McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

Towards the end of the day, I caught another headliner Tinariwen, the renowned Tuareg collective from Northern Mali who play a unique version of desert blues.  On stage they cut a striking image, playing in full head gear and robes.  Their sound is raw and powerful, yet bone dry like the sand.  When they first appeared on the World Music scene a few years back they were a surprising act, almost a novelty.  Now days, there are many bands that sound similar.  Their new album, Elwan, recorded in Morocco provided most of the material.  I recognised Sastanàqqàm but having not heard the new album or had any help from the stage it was hard to be able to tell you what else they played, save for one of their big hits Cler Achel.  That didn’t stop everyone getting the gypsy groove on in preparation for Flamenco-metal act Rodrigo Y Gabriela.  Alas, travel plans meant I missed them and was left wanting.

Overall, the weather, the food and the music made Sunday at WOMAD another memorable day out for all the family.  This festival knows its strengths and always plays to them.  That’s why I’ll keep coming back.  My only grumble – once again, there very little ‘dance’ in the program.  It would have been nice to see that.  Next time, perhaps.  Big thanks to all the volunteers, as well.  They really made it special.

For more see www.13thfloor.co.nz

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Photo by McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

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