Two years in a row now WOMAD New Zealand has had to make a decision about whether to cancel the festival at the last minute or not, and two years in a row they have decided to push on and create a joyous environment of quality international music. With the escalation of COVID-19’s spread around New Zealand over the weekend, there’s no doubt that WOMAD squeezed in at the last date it could have gone ahead on, and will probably be the last event of its size in Aotearoa for a while. This most international of music festivals featured, as always, performers from all across the world, many of whom made the sacrifice of uncertainty to travel here, a few not knowing when they would be able to return home. Despite the heightened sense of precaution among some, the situation only made the reality of multiculturalism stronger.
Most importantly, the musical performances this year were once again of a very high calibre. Though headlining drawcard Ziggy Marley and Korean drummer Kim So Ra both had to pull out ahead of time, and their closer-to-home replacements Shapeshifter and Odette were less than exciting, the lineup was still packed full of promise, and that promise was delivered upon many times across the three days. Throw in the stunning summer sun that persisted for the entire event, the beautiful setting in New Plymouth’s Brooklands park, a great food selection and overall good event organisation, and you have a wonderful overall experience.
My festival began on Friday evening with Australian soul-jazz band Hiatus Kaiyote, who played their only set of the festival to the crowd across the water down on the main Bowl Stage. This was my second time seeing them, and I enjoyed it much more than when they opened for Fat Freddy’s Drop a few years ago. Though frontwoman Nai Palm’s neo-soul vocals seemed strained and off-key for the first half of the set, the band’s playing easily won me over. They were jazzier and more musically eccentric than I remember them being before, and I walked back up the grassy bowl impressed.
Aotearoa’s own Shapeshifter were up next on the main stage, taking what would have been Ziggy Marley’s slot, closing the first night of the festival. From my perch at the top of the bowl the light show looked fantastic beaming out on the large crowd, and the band certainly had the catchiness and stadium-sized atmosphere to fit comfortably to the size of the venue. However, I found their songs bland and mostly generic, their mix of drum-and-bass beats with smooth pop vocals failing to move beyond the well-worn tropes of either element. I much preferred the snippet I caught of fellow Kiwi Troy Kingi’s set on the smaller Gables Stage at the same time, his down-to-earth reggae delivered wonderfully by his band, which included a duo of great backing vocalists that added some vintage flair.
Saturday, the festival’s first full day, began bang on midday with London’s Ezra Collective on the Bowl Stage. The afrobeat jazz group got the early crowd grooving from the get go with their high-energy danceable rhythms and impressive playing from all members. Drummer Femi Koleoso came out from behind the kit a few times with the mic in hand to do some talking about the importance of positive music in troubled times, but mostly, without vocals, they let the grooves do all the talking. It was a nice set, though they’d top it with their second performance the next day.
The next act I saw was perhaps the one I had been looking forward to the most. Being tagged as the “most popular world music act of the decade” sets high expectations with an audience, but Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita easily fulfilled them, putting on a mesmerising performance that was easily my highlight of the festival. Finch, a Welsh harpist, and Keita, a Senegalese kora player, share an incredible musical chemistry, weaving the two similar string instruments from different musical cultures together in a heavenly tapestry of fluttering notes, their huge ability on each of their instruments allowing for a dense interplay of melodies. Halfway through the hour-long block, I dragged myself away out of a sense of duty to see Reb Fountain on the main bowl stage, having missed her the previous day. She was clearly putting on a fantastic show, striking a dramatic gothic figure behind her dark hair as she sung pointedly at the audience over her solid backing band, but after a few songs I couldn’t resist returning to the Gables Stage to continue watching Finch and Keita, so enthralled was I by their celestial sound.
Next up I finally made it down to the small idyllic Dell Stage, nestled amongst trees by the pond. I did so to see Trio Da Kali, a group from Mali who play traditional griot music. Consisting of a balafon (an ancestor of the xylophone), a ngoni (a single-stringed instrument) and a vocalist, the group were another delight to watch, and were lapped up by the crowd. That is one thing that is consistent across almost every WOMAD performance I have seen - the enthusiasm and respect ofthe crowd towards every performer. It makes being an audience member an uplifting role.
If there was one act that challenged some members of this accepting audience, it was the next group I saw on the main bowl stage, Ifriqiyya Electrique. The Tunisian group mix the ritualistic Saharan music of Banga with industrial metal, creating an intense result. They were heavier and darker than the average older WOMAD-goer was used to, and there were plenty of blank faces politely watching for a bit before wandering off. Dressed in black and lined up in a row across the stage, the four members all struck militant poses with their electric guitar, bass, and two sets of hand-held traditional percussion. Their songs, in the Banga tradition, were long, droning repetitive mantra-like chants delivered in raucous metal screams over a backing track supplying a punishing industrial-style drum machine. While I enjoyed the intensity of both their music and their striking stage presence, the mix struggled to balance the backing track with the live instruments and three vocalists, resulting in a muddy wall of harsh noise - this could have been due also to how different the band were sonically to anything else the WOMAD sound crew had to deal with.
Soon I was back to the tranquility of the Dell Stage, this time with Aotearoa orchestral string group The Black Quartet. Mixing classical string music with swing rhythms and folk melodies, they created a beautiful and easy sound to lap up under the trees. Up on the Gables Stage, young Australian pop-soul singer Odette was here to fill in for lineup dropout Kim So Ra. Though her vocals were immaculate, her brand of smooth piano pop didn’t do anything for me, and her spoken-word passages were a little too heartbroken-teenagery, so I took the opportunity to grab some food before Laura Marling was due to play on the Brooklands Stage.
This turned out to be good timing, because in hindsight I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of Marling’s brilliant set. The English singer-songwriter was much more stripped down than the other evening sets around her, performing with just her acoustic guitar and voice, her small figure standing unmoving in the centre of the stage. Instead of bursting with the energy and openness emanating from most stages, she played a moody and at times confrontational set of bare-bones singer-songwriter folk, rarely talking between tracks. She opened with a continuous four-song suite from her acclaimed 2013 album Once I Was An Eagle - when she sung “Damn all those hippies that stomp empty footed/Upon all that’s good”, there were a few self-aware titters of conversation around me. Her songs are well-written analyses of relationships, and were well-sung too, the usually upbeat crowd held transfixed and focused.
With darkness now properly fallen, it was time for the festival’s oldest act, the Blind Boys Of Alabama, to take to the Bowl Stage. Formed in 1939, the gospel vocal group are legends within their genre. The five blind members were led on and off stage to their chairs by their assistant, before ripping into a crowd-pleasing set of covers, originals, and spiritual standards, usually introduced by an endearingly rambling anecdote. Highlights included versions of Curtis Mayfield’s classic People Get Ready and Tom Waits’ grooving Way Down In The Hole. Their voices wore their age to great effect, especially when combined in chorus harmonies, and it provoked a cheer from the huge audience every time a member, possessed by the music, would stand up from their seat while singing. The backing band was at times a little too slick and sweet for my taste, but it did nothing to detract from their charm.
Second-to-last was Minyo Crusaders, a Japanese ten-piece band that mixed the traditional Minyo folk music of Japan with psychedelic reggae and afrobeat. They were a wondrous sight to watch spread out across the stage in a burst of different colours, and looked openly delighted to be playing. The music was tight and infectiously enjoyable, centred on layers of percussion and grooving basslines, with decorations of brass and guitar and catchy traditional vocal refrains.
Saturday night finally came to a close with a festival outlier - New Zealand club DJ MONTELL2099. The Gables stage suddenly seemed like it belonged to a different festival entirely, as a young highschool-aged crowd who I hadn’t noticed anywhere else suddenly materialised into a packed audience, chanting in anticipation of the currently popular DJ. The set was a great send-off to the day, offering an hour of straight-up dance beats, complete with remixed pop choruses and some glitchy gut-punch drops. A fun way to end a great day.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Alexander Hallag of The Music is Talking for all images in this review.