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WOMADelaide 2012, March 9-12

Tinariwen and Lo'jo. WOMADelaide Stage 1, Sat 10 Mar 2012. Photo by Garry Havrillay.
Nano Stern with Shane Howard. WOMADelaide Stage 2, Sun 11 Mar 2012. Photo by Garry Havrillay.
Cambodian Space Project w/ Lucky Oceans. WOMADelaide Stage 2, Fri 9 Mar 2012. Photo by Garry Havrillay.

Adelaide's World of Music Arts & Dance festival started 20 years ago. We are told that this year over 4 days 87,000 attended in perfect weather to see many artists we've seen before. I couldn't help wondering why it seemed like there were fewer people. Would a significant contingent of returning artists affect numbers? Did a better balance in the schedule spread the crowd more evenly over the whole event?

My familiar circle of friends now meet annually under the trees near Stage 1, and we frequently chew on the merits of programming and other decisions that the festival organizers make. We continually review what we've seen, share the musical magic while trying to absorb the intense experience of seeing as many as 8 or 9 one hour concerts in a single day. For me, this was the most enjoyable WOMAD for many years. Having been to all but one, you quickly learn that the most memorable shows are unexpected. It's important to take a chance on artists you've never heard before. If you find that the music is not to your taste, you consult your phone app or programme and move on. With 7 stages and 3 or 4 active at any one time there's always something else to explore, and this global music event can rightly be proud of selecting those who put on high quality performances.

The ability to produce a slick studio album has little to do with what we see and hear, but apparently it is a relevant selection criterion. Many artists too are seen in the crowd, listening, networking, pondering collaboration. It was great to see members of France's Lo'jo fill the gaps in the depleted Tinariwen (due to dangerous civil unrest in Mali), and the music was just as brilliant as always, especially as Lo'jo are comfortable with the music of North Africa. Lucky Oceans popped up in few places too, and moved straight from the behind the pedal steel to the MC microphone at the end of Cambodian Space Project. Shane Howard joined Chile's Nano Stern on stage after great praise about his songwriting.

This festival seems to bring out the spirit of collaboration, but the annual All-Star Jam was surprisingly absent this year. Personally I've never been convinced about the merits of trying to make disparate musical traditions and ideas fuse with little or no rehearsal, but it had become something of a constant at WOMADelaide and magic did happen. A few other artists deserve special mention; Finland's Kimmo Pohjonen created a fantastic surround-sound aural landscape with his voice, accordion, pedals, loops, samples and FX; for sheer virtuosity Le Trio Joubran are unbelievable on the oud, and Frigg almost set their fiddles on fire at the end of their show; the whimsical Japanese ensemble Pascals were seriously cute; The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain were the most fun and The Pigram Brothers showed off their marvellous songcraft and storytelling with ease.

Out of the 37 performances I saw over the 4 days, there were only 2 that made me scratch my head about their inclusion; The Dirty Three, and Chic with Nile Rodgers. Strange how a daily newspaper praised these two as particular highlights. I must inhabit a different world.

Well away from Stage 2, there were two 50 minute performances of the celebrated Canto Ostinato by Simeon Ten Holt. I was completely baffled by the rude decision not to amplify the two pianos. How can you compete with so much noise and distraction at a huge festival without it? I wonder how Caroline and Elizabeth coped. A crowd member leapt to hold pages of the score blowing over in the wind; all rather bizarre.

As for the crowds, there are the occasional tussles over shade and territory, but the vibe was peace as always, as we seem to glow collectively with the musical infusion. Claiming to be a "zero-waste" event (how does that work?), the concept of sorting rubbish seemed beyond most and so the intent is somewhat lost. Educating the crowd about this is a major project in itself.

Thanks again WOMADelaide. This remains a great annual experience despite the $1200 price tag for the entire 5 days interstate, along with the competition for accommodation between car racing, book festivals and far too many other things going on Adelaide all within days.