WOMADelaide 2016, March 11-14

Submitted by Garry on Sun, 20 Mar 2016 - 17:23

Now in retirement, it's not difficult to put my life on hold for four days, which is what this huge festival demands. Friday is just an evening out, but for the next three days it's seven hours sleep, twelve hours of festival and five hours for travel and the remainder.

In case you haven't discovered it yet, let me quote from the womad.org website.

"WOMAD stands for the World of Music, Arts and Dance, and gives its name to the internationally established WOMAD Festival that brings together artists from all over the globe. As well as presenting and celebrating the huge array of art forms the planet has to offer, a central aim of WOMAD’s many festivals is to promote cross-cultural awareness and tolerance."

I've only missed two years since it kicked off in Adelaide in 1992. Every year there are small changes, and most for the better. e.g. while professing to be a 'zero waste' event, there was never enough clear labeling of rubbish bins so that there was absolutely no doubt about what could be composted and what could not; now there is. The international food vans are now spread throughout Botanic Park, decentralizing a crush of hungry people.

The available space in the park is much better utilized than ever before. It's such a gorgeous place when the dust is minimal. The trees are majestic and cooling, with respite from the sun being vital to survive a full 12 hour day at the event. There's a lot of walking involved, particularly when you plan ahead being determined to see as much as possible. With seven stages, three are always active while the others are changing over and sound-checking the next show.

If you wanted a complete schedule you couldn't get one in print. This surprised many and I heard a few grumbles. There were no full programs for purchase, just a small magazine with artist info. You had to come prepared with a printout from home, read and memorize the schedule signs at each of the stages, or install the excellent Apple or Android mobile app with the ability to flag performances of your choice and get reminded 15 minutes before they start.

As I've explain to people who come for the first time, it's well curated and artists are mostly chosen for artistic merit and the quality of live performance over commercial success. That's a recipe I heartily approve of. The smaller more intimate shows can often be among the best. You can buy a CD after you've seen a group on stage and be disappointed with a recording, simply because great performers feed off the energy of an enthusiastic crowd, something that's impossible to replicate in a studio. I still get asked about the most moving shows I've ever experienced at WOMADelaide; the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Drummers of Burundi are among them for sheer inate musical brilliance, energy and spectacle. I always encourage taking a chance on someone you know little about. I still muse on sitting down to hear John Butler years back before he became famous, and was gobsmacked by the quality of his show and how few people were at Stage 3 to see it.

The last time I reviewed this event was four years ago. Many of the things I said then are still true, about how artists network and collaborate while we do the same in the audience, sharing our experience and comparing notes. I had occasion this year to ponder whether the audience largely drives change in the WOMAD ethic, by demanding better and better of the festival organizers. With such a large gathering of people, you might expect tempers to fray, but there's a lot of harmony, tolerance and trust. Everyone simply wants to relax and absorb the whole experience with music as the primary draw card. The nature of the festival itself seems to attract like-minded people.

For the Planet Talks, extending a video screen and PA sound uphill to the nearby stage was an excellent idea. Previously you could struggle to get close enough to hear if the crowd was really large and chatty. The seating was welcome, and volunteers to hand around mics for questions were appreciated.

To list performances of note is largely expressing personal taste, but for someone who listens very widely I can't resist making a few notes ...

  • the Indian silde-guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya knocked my sandals off. His daughter didn't need to be shy about her talent either
  • Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat were truly sublime and I love the unexpected addition of double-bass to the Persian classical style
  • Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico are a truly accomplished collective
  • Edmar Castañeda impressed with his jazz-inspired trio and dexterity on the harp
  • Asha Bosle was disappointing. Her voice is now frail.
  • Orange Blossom delivered a powerful and intriguing mix of Arabic exotica and electronic crossover
  • Ainslie Wills gave a fantastic world-class performance. Chase up her work!
  • St. Germain gave a memorable show with mostly African musicians improvising around his foundation elements

Quality of sound plays a big part at any music festival ...

You can spend a large amount of money hiring the best quality PA, and make no mistake I think that's essential, but there's obvious disappointment when a sound technician clearly has little or no experience with traditional music played on acoustic instruments. It's pretty basic, but giving most elements equal weight in the FOH mix usually works. We've enjoyed many years where the sound was good overall, mostly because the larger acts bring their own crew who are familiar with their repertoire and sound. It makes a huge difference.

All Our Exes Live in Texas gave a delightful show of stories, clever songcraft and lovely harmonies, but the accordion was too dominant, and I struggled to hear the most important aspect of their show, the lyrics. The voices were simply not loud enough or well balanced.

The compelling Mongolian duo Telegur had the main voice mic panned extreme left. If you were sitting right of the Zoo stage, you struggled to hear the amazing throat singing over the guitar. Glaring errors like that should not take four songs to fix.

Unfortunately this year, I heard several second-hand reports from musicians frustrated by the inexperience of sound techs. Frustration translates to less than comfortable performance. For one of the smaller shows I went to, the singer didn't have a foldback wedge pointed at her. No wonder there were problems with pitch. You can't expect artists to perform at their best if their foldback mix sucks. Sometimes the artists themselves aren't helping. I laughed a lot at the endearing humour of The Spooky Men's Chorale, but if the guys worked closer to their mics, their sound would have been a whole lot more present and engaging.

I'm tempted to recommend to the organizers that they should encourage touring managers or trusted ears to stand next to the FOH sound desk and make tactful suggestions to get the best mix for the audience. I realise this will irritate some sound techs who may find this downright insulting, but hey, get over it. Festival management could wise-up the Techs that this may be encouraged – take it or leave it. A festival of this scale demands better than recent audio school graduates, and WOMADelaide should look interstate for the best people if they are expecting to maintain the status of being one of the biggest and best culture and music festivals held in this country.

For me there were three occasions where the volume was ridiculously high; Husky, Orange Blossom and Asian Dub Foundation. In every case I was far away, well back behind the mixing position. In the latter case I had to leave. At a time when legislation demands accountability with OH&S, I want this festival to exercise a duty of care to avoid hearing damage. It's no longer acceptable to have no limits on this aspect of public safety. A simple decibel meter at the mixing position and guidelines are all that is required. Furthermore on safety, why is an umbrella considered a possible 'weapon' any more than the metal leg of a chair or a wine bottle (which you can obtain for just $10 deposit)? I'd accept this stupid over-zealous security policy if this were a political rally and not a community music festival.

Regarding food and alcohol, for several years in succession there was an unreasonable amount of 'festival tax' where prices went well beyond reasonable value for money. I still think $40-$50 for a bottle of wine is at the absolute upper limit. Overall, this year the price gouging seems to have tapered off a little with food prices stabilizing.

The range of international food is truly wonderful. There's very little junk. You can even bring your own food if you leave the metal cutlery and glass at home.

I wonder if the youngest were as satisfied this year. There was no grand parade for them. The enormous bouncy Stonehenge replica with its long queue seemed a poor substitute for the cardboard box creations and other guided collective activities of years past. Maybe I overlooked something. Bring back Linsey Pollak.

NO selfie-sticks. Yay!! (BTW - I want everyone to embrace the term "narcissticks")

Clearly I wouldn't keep coming back if I didn't think this was an amazing event. Given that a single venue concert can cost $50-$150, the entirety of the experience with the ability to sample music and culture from the world over is what still makes it good value. Yes, WOMADelaide is not-for-profit. Bravo.